Sad Sweetness

Sad, to break down the tree, to chop open the nest, to raid the larvae and the honey that the stingless little black bees had so carefully nurtured for so long; thereby destroy their home, probably their swarm.

But, the honey and the propolis, with bee larvae mixed in are sweet and nourishing and it contains a lot of moisture and so there is a blunt survival logic to it. It is the story of the African wilderness; a story of the weaker having to innovate ways to survive against the onslaught of the stronger, the swifter, the cleverer. It is without sentiment, without compassion, without reason other than survival. To try to bring any other considerations into it is to ultimately be in logical contradiction to Nature and therefore on a futile quest, doomed, in the long run, to be disastrous.

Aah, but the sweet scourge of the little black bees. The African wilderness houses many perils – animals, snakes, insects, the elements, the very bush itself. But if one knows the wilderness and is vigilant and careful, one can usually avoid them. What one cannot avoid are the irritants. At the top of my irritant list is probably the stingless little black bees. Tsetse are an irritant of note too, but they don’t like coming into the sun, so unless you are spending time under a shady tree where the surface is a bit sandy, there wouldn’t be as many of them.

The little bees, however, seem to be omnipresent – in force. They are usually moisture-starved and constantly, I mean con-stant-ly, swarm around your head and crawl into you eyes and nose and mouth and ears to lap up whatever wetness they can from you. They will even gather moisture from carcases. The only relief is at night, when they pass on the irritant-job to the mosquitos.

They build their nest in hollow trees or other cavities that are difficult to access for raiders (like us). The nest is typically small like in the picture and incredibly well concealed. Its entrance is a tiny tube, thinner than a pencil, almost invisible among the bark folds. The only giveaway is the movement of the bees as they arrive and leave, but they are tiny, only about three millimetres, and you have to be damn good to spot them. Your best chance is in the late afternoon when the sun is low and the light gets reflected off the higher concentration of them around the nest, like dust in a shaft of sunlight.

The nests are a great boon to find in the bush if food is running low. The mixture of honey and propolis and bee larvae is highly nutritious and deliciously flavourful – sweet, but not too sweet, and with subtle other flavours. It is believed by the locals to have medicinal properties too – anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory. I have found that eating more than a few mouths can upset one’s tummy – but then, the nest being so small, that’s usually all there is.

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