In my sojourns as an expat in foreign countries I’ve learned facts and information about subjects I’d never thought I’d know a thing about. Like, say, leather tanning, or shea nut processing or mopane worms consumption, to name but a few. I know, you’re fascinated already. But really it gets better (I think). Here’s the story of what I learned one sunny day in Armenia. You know, that country tucked away in the Caucasus Mountains.
Photo by Chantal Foster / CC
Buzzing noises emerge from a padded envelope resting amid the beer bottles on the table in front of me. Buzz buzz buzz – something’s alive in that envelope.
It’s a beautiful fall day and I’m sitting on the Armenia Hotel terrace overlooking Independence Square with my spouse and a couple of short-term American consultants who just arrived last night.
They are planning their activities for the next few days and I’m just here for decoration since it’s Saturday and this way my man can pretend he’s not actually working, just hanging out with the wife having a beer and talking to the guys. I actually like sitting here on the terrace, eaves dropping on their conversation.
My husband’s project assists a variety of enterprises – leather tanning, stone quarrying, cheese making, slaughterhouses, fresh-water fish farming and suchlike – and experts are called in for specialized assistance when necessary.
After the working day is over we sometimes go out to dinner with them, or they’ll come to our house for a home-cooked meal and a reprieve from the hotel scene. I listen in on the conversations and learn the most mind-boggling things. You should hear some of the stuff that goes on in the world of leather tanning! You think I should get a life? This is my life.
Right now I am intrigued by the buzzing contents of the padded envelope. When was the last time you came across a buzzing envelope?
“What’s in here?” I ask when there’s a lull in the discussion about cars and drivers and translators necessary for an excursion into the Armenian hinterlands this week.
“Queen bees,” Jack, one of the consultants, tells me. He reaches for the envelope and slides out a little ventilated box to show me.
Apparently this is not a problem for the queens. In the US they’re shipped like that all over by the postal services.
The day is young and I’ve already learned something new.
I don’t inquire if local Armenian customs at the airport allow the importing of something alive and growing into the country. I’ve asked that question before of consultants and experts in various foreign countries arriving with strange objects in their luggage. I know the answer: “We didn’t ask.”
Jack looks at us, hand on the buzzing envelope. “I wonder if you could babysit them while we’re out of town,” he says.
Babysitting queen bees? I have no idea if we have the expertise required. But not to worry, not much is needed, we’re told. The queens stay right there in the box and food is in there already. Give them just one drop of water per day. Keep them out of direct sunlight. You do not have to stay home to guard them.
Okay, I think we can manage that. Babysitting queen bees. Another new experience.
Months have passed, and the honey guys are back in Armenia for another beekeeping tour. Honey is sacred in Armenia, a cure for all that ails you. Beehives are found all over the countryside and although the honey is often of excellent quality, there are problems. The guys are here to help increase the low productivity of the hives and deal with bee health issues.
Tony and Jack are sitting in our living room drinking beer and comparing notes. They’ve brought more queen bees. Apparently the ones they sneaked in last year have ruled their Armenian hive-empires well and the beekeepers are happy. I’m cooking dinner and I’m in and out of the kitchen, in and out of the conversation.
“. . . ran into that problem in Uzbekistan.”
“. . . found sheep dip in the beehives . . . wrong formulation. They are desperate…”
” . . . told him about the China honey. He went home and shot himself.”
Apparently, not all is sweet about honey. I settle myself on the sofa with a glass of wine and listen to the stories as I wait for my oven timer to go off.
We eat, we talk. I learn things. Did you know they can artificially inseminate queen bees? It’s not a pretty process and let me just say I am glad I’m not a queen bee. Or a drone, for that matter.
I go back into the kitchen and fetch the dessert. Lemon mousse, always a success. I come back into the room.
“. . . not a good thing, bringing in bad queens,” somebody is saying.
“Bad queens?” I ask, handing out dishes of lemon mousse. “What did I miss?”
Apparently the (self-appointed) head of the inactive Armenian Bee Society is not happy with what is going on with these foreign guys in sneakers tromping around in his perceived territory. Armenian honey is the best in the world! Everybody knows that! Who are they to come here snooping around?
For as far as my mate can tell, the Armenian beekeepers detest the man. The bee society is not functional in any meaningful sense, although the beekeepers do come together at times. The big man is mad and has accused the Americans of bringing in bad queens. They were not certified! he told the beekeepers in righteous outrage.
“Certified by whom?” my man asked the big honcho next chance he got.
“The Armenian Bee Society.”
“But you don’t have a certification standard.”
“But if we had one – ”
“Well, you don’t have one,” my spouse said reasonably. “And in America
we do, and these are certified queen bees by American standards.”
I’m wondering what the man thinks he’s accomplishing by making enemies. The Armenian beekeepers are very happy with the American queens, and by all accounts they are not similarly disposed toward this self-appointed king.
“You’d think,” I say, “that since you’ve got the money and the goodies, he’d be cozying up to you guys.”
“Oh, he does that too, on alternate days.”
And so it goes.
NOTE: A more viable beekeeping society was later established with the help of the project and is now active around the country.
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Do you know more than you ever expected to know about a subject or issue that entered your life somehow? Have you accidentally learned something odd or fun? Fess up!