We open the hive and at least 100 bees hit my face like bullets. As the bees dart for my exposed hands, I curl my fingers, feeling flesh swell against the crunch and hum of stingers and bee-wings. My white bee suit is covered in splotches of golden pulp – a memorial of martyrdom. Gokhan is unfazed but knows we need to end our work here fast. We close the hives and leave the colonies to regroup.
We are in Ardahan, a mountainous bucolic corner of Turkey’s. I arrived earlier by dolmuş (minibus) to be met with curious and suspicious stares. Although I could be Turkish, I am distinctly foreign: my haircut, my gray running shoes, my sunglasses. The details are seemingly obsolete, but everyone turns their heads to watch my strangeness.
In this case, humans are like 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, and their hive; “foreign” is everything else. A successful encounter requires letting bees grow accustomed to your smell and your presence. Small town communities can feel the same. You must act predictably, slowly easing into the flow of local life, into familiarity.
I order tea at a restaurant, and enter the streets to do my work: finding the bees, beekeepers, and honey of Ardahan. I pass a storefront advertising queen bees for sale. Peeking my head inside, I awkwardly introduce myself to the shopkeeper. “Hello, I am a visitor from America. I am here to learn about beekeeping.”
Pause. For one long second the familiar and the foreign study each other. Uncrossing his arms, the shopkeeper replies “Welcome! I am Gokhan. 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 and impossible to return to; danger of seeing Turkish hospitality, boundless and humbling; and most of all, danger of never wanting to leave. I accept these risks and depart with Gokhan.
By car and foot, we follow thin animal paths connecting villages, shiny mosques, and curling mazes of bee boxes. The landscape is like confused strands of erratic pearls. In our presence, some hives hum with docile acceptance, others vibrate with anger. The meadows are pulsing with sound.
In addition to buzzing, there are celebration kundum drums, wavering tanbur lutes, and honking horns – the celebration wedding music of Halay. We leapfrog between bee boxes and neighbor’s weddings, and in both, our arrival is unexpected and unannounced. Although we come empty-handed, at weddings our presence is valued as a gift. While at hives, colonies tolerate the foreigner; only humanity can fully embrace a guest.
Gokan and I must leave abruptly when we receive an urgent call. A relative sees a swarm. We load into the car and zip through the sounds of buzzing and weddings, the wavering Anadolu Doppler effect of Turkey’s wild northeast.