Young Traveler Silver Winner: Crashing Weddings and Beehives in Turkey’s Wild Northeast

by Catherine Jaffee

We open the hive and at least 100 bees hit my face like bullets. Around me, I hear sounds like hail pounding a rooftop. But it’s just the noise of bees attacking my suit. I look at Mehmet Bey, he is unfazed but knows that we need to end our work here fast. We close the hives and leave the colonies to regroup.

Approximately two minutes ago, an errant bee stung my arm and Mehmet Bey lightly suggested that I wear a white bee coat. If I hadn’t taken his advice, my face would now be pulp. The bees dart for my exposed hands. I curl in my fingers and I can feel my flesh swell beneath the crunch and hum of stingers and bee-wings. The new target, my camera, bears their wrath.

We are in Ardahan, the bucolic forgotten sister region of Kars, Turkey. Ardahan is the farthest corner of Turkey’s Northeast, nudged against Georgia and Armenia. It lies in a fertile moraine ringed by higher mountain ridges and Asiatic hilltops. Thin dirt roads loop around the edges of the moraine, and wind up the mountainsides to the yaylalar (the mountain meadow villages). From far away, the roads that connect the villages and their shiny mosque tops look like strands of erratic pearls.

I had arrived earlier by dolmuş (minibus) without a clear plan. Although I look like I could be Turkish, I am distinctly foreign: my haircut, the way I walk, my gray running shoes, my sunglasses. The details are seemingly obsolete, but everyone notices my strangeness and they turn their heads to watch. With all eyes following me, I reflect on the similarities between humans and bees. Both social creatures, they define the bounds of their communities based on “foreign” and “familiar.” For bees, “familiar” means the smell of their queen, their larvae, their hive and their worker bees; “foreign” is everything else. Success with bees relies on remaining calm, and letting them get used to your smell and your presence. Small town communities can be the same way. You have to make a smooth entrance; allowing people to get a good look at you. Then you must act predictably, slowly easing your way into the flow of local life, into familiarity.

I order tea at a restaurant, and I enter the streets to do my work: finding the bees, beekeepers, and honey of Ardahan. One storefront is very old, exclusively featuring beekeeping supplies in the windows. A hand written sign advertising “queen bees for sale” tells me much more; this shop is owned by bee people. Peeking my head inside, I awkwardly introduce myself. “Hello, I am a visitor from America. I quit my job in May to move to Kars to study bees and honey. I work part-time at a birding station. I am here to learn more about beekeeping in Ardahan.” There’s a pause. For one long second, the shopkeeper and I, the familiar and the foreign, study each other. Then he smiles and uncrosses his arms, “lucky for you,” he replies motioning to an old man behind the counter. “My father, the expert, is right here.”

The man behind the counter, Aga bey is easily in his 70’s. He wears a Turkish flat cap, which was the replacement of the Osmanli fez 87 years ago when Turkey was founded. He has owned his shop since the 1960’s and has kept bees with his family, his neighbors, and his village his entire life. His Turkish is thick with Russian words, customary of this region. I understand little of what he says, but I can tell that vast stores of history and knowledge lie in this shop. He shows me his old wax-making machine, which is now retired, and we talk about legends around pure Kafkas bees. My brain is swept in a haze of fatigue from grasping how much I still need to learn about bees, honey, people, Turkish, and life.

I buy a jar of honey and move towards the door, thanking Aga bey and his son Gokhan. “Wait,” Gokhan stops me. “Would you like to visit some of Ardahan’s hives? You are my guest.” These words spell danger. Danger of seeing corners of Anatolia that I never imagined could exist, beautiful, remote, and almost impossible to return to. Danger of seeing Turkish hospitality, the kind that is boundless and humbling. And finally, danger of encountering the side of Turkey that is so easy to love: the people, the food, and the incredible natural environment. These are dangers, because they make me feel like I can never leave. I take a deep breath, accept these risks, and leave with Gokhan Bey to visit the bees.

Gokhan Bey introduces me to Mehmet Bey, and soon we are walking through maze after maze of families’ beehives. Some hives hum with docile acceptance, others communicate their anger in a sharp series of “thut,” “thut,” “thut,” “thut.” I look down at my white bee suit covered in splotches of golden pulp – bee guts. My clothing has become a memorial of their martyrdom.

Across the meadows, we not only hear the noises of bees, but also of Halay – the dance and music customary of Turkish weddings. Whoever associated the birds and the bees with relationships must have visited Turkey’s Northeast in the summer time. The wedding sounds of celebration kundum drums, wavering tanbur lutes, and honking horns echo throughout the villages and roads (this ritual has become rather familiar as it wakes me up daily in Kars).

In between visits to bee boxes, we must stop at all of the families’ weddings. While our arrival is unexpected and unannounced, each time people treat us as if they have been waiting for us for days. We come empty-handed, but our presence as “guests” is valued as a gift. In this respect, Turkish villages are quite different from a beehive. While some bee colonies may tolerate a foreigner, only humanity can embrace the guest. We sit on nomadic kilims, we eat 10 varieties of cheese. I am uncertain at what moment my quest for bees and honey became a sequel of the wedding crashers, but here we are, dancing and celebrating with the local Muhtar (village mayor). I curl my swollen fingers around the hands of the village dancers, and I can feel warm acceptance reciprocated in squeezes.

Spinning in a ring of hands and stomping feet, we become a part of the thick social fabric of family and friends. However our dancing is interrupted when my team of beekeepers gets a call. A relative sees a swarm. We load into the car and zip across the meadows, the sounds of buzzing and weddings waver in and out of the windows – the Anadolu Doppler effect of summertime in Turkey’s Northeastern Mountains.

Raised on a farm in the Colorado Rockies, Cat grew up loving animals, dirt, and altitude.

Her dedication and passion for crawly creatures, agriculture, and women leaders has launched her across the world, from working with women farmers on an organic farm in Ecuador at age 15, to receiving a Luce scholarship to train rural leaders at the Asian Rural Institute in Japan. Cat graduated from Wellesley College in 2008 focusing on the politics of agriculture and migration with a dual B.A. in Political Science and Religion. Following graduation, Cat was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to Turkey to study with Bogazici University on rural women’s migration experiences and how it effects women’s employment opportunities and voting behavior. While conducting her research, Cat fell in love with Northeastern Turkey, its 9,000 species of flowers, its incredible people, its rolling yaylalar full of beehives, and its overwhelmingly delicious honey. Upon completing her research, Cat returned to the United States and began working for Ashoka: Innovators for the Public as the regional liaison for the Arab World and the Global Director of the Awards Program. However after working with social innovators during Egypt’s Arab Spring, in 2011, Cat was inspired to return to Turkey to follow her passion and start BALYOLU, a social business that trains and works with women beekeepers to sustain, grow, and launch small scale rural enterprises.

Leave a Reply