First comes a distant hum, rising in volume until I hear it coming straight at me like Niki Lauda behind the wheel of his Ferrari. The blue sky darkens. I duck as swarming bees zoom overhead, trailing their queen. They are gone again in a second, coiling off in a shadowy murmuration across the veldt. After the rains, several swarms hurtle over us daily looking for homes, criss-crossing in the air.
When bees nest in our farmstead walls we leave them be. Anybody who has had bees live under the eaves will know how cosy it is to lie in bed at night, listening to the soporific thrum of countless beating wings. When bees swarm in the kitchen or chimney, burning two or three large turds of desiccated elephant dung produces a cloud of smoke with the aroma of incense, Montecristo and pachyderm bowel — and the insects swiftly vacate.
Laikipia is honey country. Honey from grass blossom is clear as water, honey from forest flowers reaches almost black, but the finest is honey from jasmine-scented wait-a-bit thorn, which blossoms in the driest weeks before the rains, making the landscape resemble a peach orchard in spring, or a forest after snowfall. For years I have bought honey from our neighbour Gilfrid Powys. He tended hundreds of beehives on his ranch and on Christmas Eve he kindly gave me a present of two large pots of his best honey. Three days later an elephant killed Gilfrid and this signals the passing of an era. He was a giant figure in Kenya, a great Boran cattle rancher, aviator, conservationist, aficionado of camels and rare aloes. Among his many attributes that his neighbours will miss, he was a beekeeper.
It was Gilfrid who inspired me to keep bees and more than a year ago we started several dozen brood hives on the farm. A young beekeeper, Charlie, came to help me set these up and through him I began to learn the basics. Sweating in my heavy bee suit, I was fascinated to watch Charlie and Leshomo, one of our Samburu stockmen, work without gloves or any protection as they opened the hives to check on brood combs. Their skin crawled with bees yet they were hardly stung. In the past year I have been stung multiple times, until I felt I was building a resistance like my friends who are entirely comfortable with bees. Walking with a Samburu elder one day, we found a cobweb across our path in which a bee was trapped alive. As I waited, the man spoke softly to the creature and used the point of his spear to gently cut it out of its silk prison — and only when it had been liberated were we allowed to proceed.
Our hives will shortly begin to produce hundreds of kilos of honey and my plan is to supply raw honey, propolis (a natural remedy that supposedly boosts your immunity and a substance used to varnish Stradivarius violins) and bee venom to the organic honey business run by Charlie’s father, my friend Andrew Wright. To discuss business, this week I visited Andrew’s honey and kombucha shop in the old coastal town of Malindi, tucked away behind the fish market, near the old pillar erected by Vasco da Gama. It was time for my January detox, so no booze — and to clean out my system I drank one of Andrew’s papaya-leaf kombuchas and purchased a pot of prickly-pear honey. Andrew provides bee-venom therapy for the afflicted and declaring that this was just the thing for my detox, I asked him to sting me. ‘Raise your shirt,’ Andrew said and with tweezers he applied beestings in two spots on my back. This, I sensed as the pain spread, was making me feel better already. An hour later at home I had developed hives all over my body, my ears had swelled shut and I was fire-engine red. I felt there was no point driving back to see a doctor because I would be too late. ‘Andrew,’ I said on the phone, ‘I think I have anaphylaxis.’ ‘Drink two big tots of vodka,’ he said. ‘Whisky?’ ‘That will do.’ It was half-a-litre of Jameson’s and a bottle of blush before the hives passed.
My New Year’s detox was over, but I toasted Gilfrid embarking on his great camel trek across the constellations — and all the bees of Laikipia.
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