Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Ben's Bees

Ben Ofori with his son, Ben Juniour, checking an abandoned hive at Ben's bee farm in Aburi.

LIKE HIS OLDER BROTHER Alex, Ben Ofori is an educator and a farmer. They both followed the path of their father Godfried, who was the former headmaster of the middle school in Aburi where Ben now teaches.  Godfried was also a farmer, and over the years cultivated pineapple, oranges and oil palm on the family's 9-acre farm up the road.

Ben was a boy of 9 when I first met him. His brother Alex was my student, and I had been talking to their father Godfried about beekeeping. It was one of the sustainable agriculture projects Peace Corps volunteers were encouraged to introduce into the community, and Godfried was interested. 

African honey bees, at Ben's bee farm in Aburi. Like their sting, their honey packs a powerful punch--if you can get them to cooperate.

In those days, farmers harvested honey by setting fire to the hive and killing all the bees, making it a rare and pricey commodity, and a financial windfall for the farmer. But farmers didn't like killing bees. They regarded them as partners--who else would pollinate their crops? But African bees are hard to "domesticate"; they'd rather live in trees than houses. And when you're hungry, as people were in those days, it was every bee for itself.

Godfried had a lot of wild ones making their nests in the trees at his farm. If only he could keep them producing, like good employees. He also felt a certain calling: a religious man, he had documented more than 50 references to honey in the Bible. Having so many bees on his farm was a blessing. And there could be good money in honey. 

I didn't know much about bees. But I did learn about a new type of bee box that seemed to appeal to the African bee's aesthetic. The Peace Corps offered these bee boxes free to any farmer, and threw in a scholarship to a weekend training session at the university to learn the basics of beekeeping. 

Godfried jumped at the chance. He took the class, and within a few weeks I was helping him and his sons set up a half-dozen hives on his farm.
For the next 20 years, Godfried's farm, GAO (his initials), produced and sold its own honey -- GAO Farm Honey -- and Godfried became known in town as the Bee Man of Aburi.

His second-born son Ben loved the bees, and learned at his father's side. Ben went on to the University of Cape Coast, where he studied science education and wrote his thesis on bees. Passed from father to son, beekeeping became an official Ofori family tradition. 

Now a husband and father of 3 young children, Ben is planning to rejuvenate his bee farm, which has in recent years been depleted by abnormally wet weather and an aged stock of bee boxes. He is commissioning a woodworker to build 25 new boxes that he hopes will be occupied by summer, and with any luck, producing sometime in 2013. 

He promises me the first harvest.

An abandoned hive, scavenged by ants. The cross bars once served as rafters for the honeycombs. Ben will soon replace the old hives and populate the farm with 25 new hives.
Ben Juniour at the Ant House.The bees' natural enemy and rival architects.

Third-generation beekeeper.

Entryway to a populated hive, on Ben's bee farm in Aburi.

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