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The Bee Hunters

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Wild honey tastes great! Photo by Tony Gerard

Wild honey tastes great! Photo by Tony Gerard

About a year ago, I had the pleasure of traveling to Ifugao Province, a short drive to our north.  I was traveling into the Cordillera Mountains in the company of some American and Filipino naturalists and ecologists.  Our number included Paulo, an entomologist, Zeb, an American herpetologist, Wally, an all-around naturalist with specialties in orchids and herpetology, his wife Carol, Tony, an American field biologist and his wife Berna, Berna’s brother Adrian, who is on the faculty at Ifugao State University, Tinoc, our driver Mark, and me.  I was tagging along as an interested onlooker. In spite of our number and the associated baggage, there was room enough to be comfortable in the van.  All are experienced backpackers with a penchant for traveling light.

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We drove up the winding road past Lamut and Lagawe, into the forested area around Asipulo.  Our destination was the home of Berna and Adrian’s Uncle Miguel.  Late in the afternoon, we parked the van at a house perched beside the concrete highway.  Our route from there was a newly cut, but badly eroded roadway, impassable by 4 wheeled vehicles.  We shouldered our packs and set out for Uncle Miguel’s house.  The route was a few kilometers long, but the pace was easy.  We often stopped at one or more members of the group investigated some greenery or a pool of water for interesting plants and creatures.  Adrian provided a running commentary on the changing agricultural practices of the Kalunguya and Ifugao people who live there.

Our group was there to observe and catalog some of the biodiversity of the area.  But the main event our hosts had planned for us was an expedition into the forest to collect wild honey.  Preparations began as soon as we arrived.  Smoke bundles needed for the bee hunt had to be assembled.  Sapwood from pine trees was gathered and split.  This is the resin laden inner trunk of the pine tree, variously called fatwood or lighter wood in the U.S.  The chips and splinters from this operation provided entertainment for the children.  They lit them from the cook fire and played with them.

The next morning, we followed the bee hunters up the mountain.  This part of the hike was easy, we were still on the newly cut roadway following the shoulder of the slope.  A couple kilometers later, we turned off on to a steep path that led directly up the mountain.  The path eventually leveled off into a little clearing.  Here we stopped while the smoke bundles were completed.

The geezer of the group. Photo by Tony Gerard

The geezer of the group. Photo by Tony Gerard

Green leafy branches were cut from trees that Adrian told me were a type of oak.  These were tied around the core of sapwood with vines.  They were finished off into nearly spherical bundles by lacing with the inner stalk of a fern.  Notches were cut onto the ends of poles, and the bundles were hung on them by loops made from the fern lacing.  While this was being accomplished, Adrian took the time to show me the fern that was used, and the method of stripping it down to usable cordage.

The beehive was downhill from us.  “Not far”, as our hosts described it.  “Not far” was 150 -200 meters down a winding, narrow, precipitous, and slippery footpath on the forested mountainside.  We all wanted to see and photograph the operation, but there were about eight of us and as many bee hunters.  It wasn’t difficult to imagine the potential mayhem on that steep mountain trail should the bees become aggressive.  The hunters waited for us to go down for a look from a safe distance.  I peered through the dense foliage at the hive.  Unlike European and North American bees, this comb was exposed.  It hung from the branch of a tree and was covered with hornet sized black and white bees.

One of our group remained by the hive to shoot video.  The rest of us retreated up the mountain to safer observation posts. I was the eldest and slowest.  I decided to wait, out of the way, in the clearing at the top.  The men with the smoke bundles moved in with their companions close behind.  Quickly and efficiently, they drove the bees away and sliced the honey-laden comb from the tree, catching it in large plastic bags.  Much more casually than I expected, they all came back to the clearing carrying the harvest.  Our hosts suggested that we make our way back to the main road before the bees reorganized and came looking for us.  We agreed to the wisdom of that.  Back on the road, everyone was treated to a generous chunk of dripping honeycomb.  The bee hunters laughed and recounted their adventure.  It turned out that the only casualty was our guy, the videographer.  He was stung square on the forehead.  He said it wasn’t terribly painful.  It also did not welt up like other bee stings I’ve seen, so I guess he’s none the worse for it.

The honey was divided amongst the bee hunters, and we all made our way back to Uncle Miguel’s house.  Our meal that evening included a special treat, bee larvae boiled in honey.  Surprisingly, it is not sweet tasting.  There is also no “bug like” flavor to it.  Tony, the leader of our group, described it as similar to quinoa.  I liken it to soft, overcooked barley.  The next morning, right after breakfast and long Filipino style goodbyes, we had to hike back up to the highway and head back to lower elevations and points south.

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Pete McKee

Pete McKee grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. After a 20 year career in the US Army, he worked as a museum professional, and in the transportation industry. Marlyn, his wife of 29 years, was raised on a rice farm in Nueva Vizcaya. She has worked in Europe and the US in hotel and restaurant management, and as an IT professional. Their dream of retiring to a small farm in the mountains is coming true in the foothills of the Cordillera Mountains of central Luzon.

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Jay
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Jay

Hi Pete,

I enjoyed reading your article and looking at the pictures! Thanks for sharing your experience.

Peace

Jay

Paul Thompson
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Paul Thompson

Good morning Pete:
The main difference between Army and Navy is that Navy knows Honey is the main ingredient in a type of beer called Mead.
But it did seem like an adventure, and that is why we moved here.

Cordillera Cowboy
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Cordillera Cowboy

Good evening Paul,

I’ve had mead. It’s pretty good. But you’re right, I didn’t learn about it in the Army. I learned of it while working as an historian.

The trip was an adventure. Looking forward to many more!

Take care,
Pete

Cordillera Cowboy
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Cordillera Cowboy

Thanks Jay! Glad you liked it!

Take care,
Pete

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