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Gardens of the Cross Timbers: Honeyland

Becky Emerson Carlberg

Being a movie fan, the Academy Awards played my house last Sunday night. For 3.5 hours we were entertained with movie selections, music and an array of conservative to totally weird formal wear worn by the performers. An immense amount of talent filled the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles, California. Many were in competition for the coveted Oscar, an 8.5-pound gold-plated bronze statuette.

One movie I plan to see is “Honeyland”, one of the contenders in the documentary. The 1.5-hour documentary is about a North Macedonian beekeeper living in the remote mountainous village of Bekirlija. The woman and her mother share a small stone hut with no electricity, running water or roads to them.

Hitidze Muratova uses ancient beekeeping techniques passed down through the generations. She is one of the few remaining wild beekeepers who knows the caves, rocks and trees where her bees live. Wild bee hives tend to be high above the ground (20 feet or more). The colonies are less dense with smaller cells for food storage and incubation of eggs, larvae and pupae. The vibrations honeybees make to show nectar locations easily carry through the natural components. Depending on their location, wild hives tend to be composed of thick vertical sheets of wax made of six sided tubes.

Modern beekeepers keep captive bees in wood box hives much closer to the ground. The cells are larger for more honey production. Often plastic is used in some of the interior construction which may interfere with honeybee vibrations. Honeybees are farmed for their honey much like chickens are for their eggs.

Hitidze lives by the philosophy of “half for me and half for the bees.” Her purpose for life is to share with the bees and with nature. She communicates and tames the honeybees through patience and wisdom. The beekeeper works bare handed and has never been stung.

Hitidze’s entire life has been with the bees who are her family and children. During the filming of “Honeyland”, her mother told her all suitors and offers of marriage had been refused by her father. Hitidze was the youngest child. In the isolated region, it is an unwritten rule the last-born female child is expected to care for the parents until they die. Her father had already died. Hiditze continues to care for her octogenarian mom.

The bee honey, Hitidze’s only source of income, is taken to be sold in Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia. The area is often jarred by earthquakes. Skopje was decimated by a 6.9 earthquake in 1963 which hit at 5:17 am. Eighty per cent of the city was destroyed, over 1,000 people killed and over 100,000 were left homeless. Not the first time. Skopje was completely destroyed by an earthquake in 518 CE. In case you’re wondering, there are 17 ways to pronounce Skopje, but Skop-yay or Skop-ya top the list.

There are 20,000 species of bees in all sorts of shapes, colors and sizes across the world. One species of Australian bee is barely there, but another in Indonesia is 10 inches long. The European honeybee is known for producing abundant honey, but 6 other types of honeybees in South Asia are groomed as well for their sweet ambrosia. All honey makers have their own “waggle dance” to indicate the distance and direction of the good stuff (pollen and nectar). Only female bees can sting, but most prefer not to; uses too much energy. The relationship of bee with flower goes back millions of years. All bees pollinate flowers, an extremely important gift, especially for nature and us. Bees need flowers. We need bees.

The easy-to-work-with imported Italian honeybee (Apis mellifera ligustica) is most popular in the US. This bee starts early, is very laid back, does not actively defend its hive (why small hive beetles can become problematic), stays indoors on cloudy cool days and is the standard for honey production. The second most popular honey bee is the Carniolan bee (Apis mellifera carnica) from central Europe. “Carnies” are slower to start up, will aggressively defend their hive but are actually quite docile, fly on cool overcast days, and swarm in the first year. Many beekeepers have both subspecies.

Point of Interest: The fierce African bee is often called the killer bee. The poor misunderstood bee is not even from Africa but a lab hybrid created in Brazil. Designed for pest and parasite resistance, 26 swarms escaped quarantine and claimed all of South America. The bully bees do produce more honey, maintain smaller colonies, and experienced bee keepers can work with them. These bees are not for beginners.

Which takes us back to “Honeyland” and the bees Hitidze loves. They are probably Macedonian honeybees (Apis mellifera macedonica). The untouched forests and pristine lands of the mountains from Eastern Albania to Bulgaria nurture these bees and other wildlife. The Macedonian honeybee has a shorter body and wings, but longer legs. It does not feel the need to swarm, has a calm disposition and can tolerate extremely high and low temperatures. Macedonian bee honey is of excellent quality. Hitidze roams the woods to commune with her bees and harvest honey. Other traditional primitive beekeepers in the area use the trmki, small hives shaped like cones made of mud, straw and rushes. Honeybees kept in trmki have higher resistance to pathogens such as varroa mites.

But this is changing. The Macedonian honeybee is facing extinction. Carniolan and Italian bees with their stronger queens have been introduced. Modern hives are replacing the old ways of beekeeping. The number of Macedonian honeybee colonies is decreasing.

During the three years of making “Honeyland” the directors noted Hitidze’s mother never left her home. They saw similarities between daughter, the worker bee, and mother, the queen bee! The story line of the film was the interaction between Hitidze and the nomadic Sam family with seven kids who moved into Berkilija. The vociferous group was welcomed and even taught how to harvest wild honey. The father, in his quest to make more money by selling additional honey, set up several hives. His bees attacked and destroyed Hitidze’s bees. The conflicts intensified between the people and the bees. In the end, everyone had to work things out just to survive harsh conditions. The message: Give back to the environment, nurture it and take care of it. Start where you live.

The proceeds from “Honeyland” allowed the film makers to purchase a house for Hitidze in her brother’s village. When bee season comes, she continues to go back home to be with her bees.

Did you see the full moon last Sunday night? It was the “Snow Moon” because February typically has the most snow. The Cherokee call it the “Bone Moon” since there could be so little food people gnawed on bones or ate bone marrow soup. The Chinook in Oregon call it “Shoulder-to-Shoulder around the Fire Moon.” Almost cozy.

Calling all bee lovers. Come, see and hear experienced beekeeper Dr. Kim. Wednesday. February 19th. 10:30 am. Pott. Co. Extension Center.

Becky Emerson Carlberg, graduate of Oklahoma State (Plant Pathology) is a teacher, artist, writer as well as certified Oklahoma Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at