In 2005, Andrew Coté found himself in northern Iraq, walking hand-in-hand with a Kurdish beekeeper. This was not some Bush-era publicity stunt to put a gloss of false friendship over the country’s violent reality. Coté and Khorsheed Ahmed, his new friend, shared rich common ground: They both practice the noble but endangered craft of beekeeping. Coté was on Ahmed’s territory to work with the Kurds to improve their operations and enrich their livelihoods.
For more than 10 years, Coté and his nonprofit, Bees Without Borders, have traveled the developing world, finding ways for beekeepers from Nigeria to Moldova to Fiji to increase their profits by making simple changes. For instance, Ahmed and his fellow beekeepers had too many colonies crowded in one area without adequate sources of nectar or water to support them all, leading to weak hives and poor crops. Or, said Coté, “Most beekeepers discard valuable byproducts such as wax and propolis from their hives. These represent a great cache of value-added products,” and can be a key supplement to income from honey and pollination services, especially for families living close to the edge.
Coté and his fellow volunteers sleep and eat in locals’ homes on their trips, and they’ve learned that far-flung regions’ interpretations of the nuances of beekeeping overlap and divulge in interesting ways. For example, the Kurdish beekeepers experimented with lavender inside their hives as a method to kill varroa, a destructive pest devastating to bee colonies, in a way very similar to Japanese beekeepers Coté had met. But the Kurds took issue with Coté’s understanding that a hive’s queen bee typically mates 15 to 20 times in a short period; they refused to accept that she would be so promiscuous. “Is she a whore?!” one of them demanded. “I suppose his notion of the queen is too closely tied with that of his mother,” Coté speculated.
Family does tend to be important to many of the beekeepers the Bees Without Borders volunteers encounter. Coté says he learned from his father, an experienced beekeeper, who “holds more information about bees in one hair of his mustache than I will ever know.” The Kurds, many of whom learned from their fathers, too, understood that emotional connection, absent from, say, novice enthusiasm for the craft inspired by its association with the trendy urban farming movement in the U.S. (Coté also supports urban beekeeping efforts in New York City.)
Coté estimates that Bees Without Borders has reached thousands of people in at least 20 countries. Like the Peace Corps, the group waits to be invited, and navigates a maze of NGOs, government agencies, and nonprofits to find funding. Bees Without Borders prefers to partner with people who already have some sort of beekeeping tradition established, however rudimentary, but they’ve also worked with newbies when necessary. “The best thing to do is find out the manner in which local people keep bees — find out local folkways and mores and try to be culturally sensitive through them,” Coté said. (That’s why he didn’t take issue with Ahmed holding his hand — apparently, for the Kurds, it’s a culturally appropriate expression of casual acquaintance between two men.)
Beekeeping faces problems in other parts of the world, too. As the link between colony collapse disorder and pesticides like neonicotinoids only grows stronger, it’s especially concerning that the developing world takes a more lax approach to regulating chemicals and pesticides. For example, products like Check-Mite and DDT, both banned in the U.S. because of the serious health threats they pose to humans and bee colonies, are legal in many nations the group visits. Bees Without Borders alone can’t save worldwide beekeeping — but Coté is pleased with its impact so far. “I’m very happy with Bees Without Borders being a smaller, nonprofit entity,” he said. “[It] combines the four things that are important to me: philanthropy, education, beekeeping, and travel.”
And it shows how shared dedication to a delicate and vital practice can, on a personal level, transcend a bloody conflict between two nations.