Up in Smoke with Beekeepers in Tanzania

“Do you want some?” Dula asks, reassuring me that I won’t feel the effects from a small hit. I politely decline, not wanting to risk anything deep in the Tanzanian bush. Besides, haven’t we taken enough from the bees already?

The fifth-generation beekeeper pulls a plastic bag out of his satchel. It contains a muffin-like fungus the colour of dried cow’s dung: puffball mushrooms, which the Maasai people of Tanzania and Kenya have used for centuries to tame bees, smoking the little buzzers out of their hives and knocking them senseless. (The Anishinaabe of southern Quebec use the technique, too.) Let’s say it takes the sting out of honey harvesting.

That is why, standing behind Dula’s Tengeru home about 35 km from Arusha in northern Tanzania, I’m the only one slipping into a full bee suit. (Just in case, you know?) Dula, dispensing with any kind of protective gear, takes a puff and shakes his head vigorously in reaction to the smoke. I follow him across a field, beyond a large, tangled cactus formation. A few log hives hang from acacia trees.

Septembre 25, 2019
Illustration of a sleeping bee on a yellow background

Freshly picked puffballs are cream-coloured, like white button mushrooms, but the dried stuff turns dusty. I watch quietly as Dula stuffs burning chunks of it into a log hive’s small openings, sweating in my bee suit as the buzzing noise intensifies, momentarily, before abruptly dying down. A few bees escape; many more fall to the ground, dazed. Dula unhooks the log from the acacia tree. He cracks it open and the bees pour onto the ground in a puddle, stunned by the puffball smoke. I grab a handful, and they slip through my gloved fingers like some kind of honeybee pudding. Dula must sense some unease on my part, even through the canvas getup. "They will wake up within two hours,” he assures me.

But that’s not it. Back at his house, I step out of the unnecessary bee suit, feeling a little silly for not believing in the power of puffballs. On the drive back to Arusha, with the sun setting on Mount Meru in the distance, I scold myself for being a wimp. But now I know: When life throws you a puffball, smoke it.

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