It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Roadside 'bee farm outside Guilin
As we passed one ‘bee farm’ after another on the highway outside Guilin in China, it occurred to me that this would be a great opportunity to do a spot of international networking.
The bee farms in question appeared to be little more than a row or two of hives lined up at the roadside, with a little table from which the ‘farmer’ sold his or her produce. On our two-hour drive to the rice terraces outside Guilin, we passed at least half a dozen.
I made a mental note to ask our guide to stop off at one on the way back so that I could do my bit for international cooperation on beekeeping. I’d ask how long the season was: even though it was autumn it was still 32°. I’d ask about pests and diseases: I’d read somewhere about the gross misuse of treatments by large-scale producers. Was it the same with these small operators?
And, of course, I’d offer ongoing contact in the hope that it may be of some value to us both.
With that in mind, we continued on up into the mountains and spent our morning admiring the scenery. After lunch we started on our way back and I lodged my request with our guide. There was only myself and my partner, our guide and a driver in our little party, so it was easily accommodated.
Or so I thought.
We approached our first bee farm – and drove straight past. And then the second – and, again, straight past. By the time we’d passed the third I’d given up hoping that the driver was simply looking out for the best one of the bunch, so I reminded them again.
Then the next one came into sight and our driver pulled swiftly off the road – and parked right across the front of the farmer’s stall.
As the farmer blinked in amazement at this sudden intrusion, our guide jumped out of the van, slid back the door of our vehicle and ushered out one very perplexed Westerner – me.
It was all done with such intimidating drama that the poor farmer could only have imagined the worst. A surprise inspection perhaps? The Chinese Mafia? And what about this foreign bloke, around whom this all seemed to be focused? Whatever it was, the arrival of this strange entourage did not bode well.
And so it was that, having scared the man into shocked silence, my guide looked to me to begin the interrogation.
Typical hive in bee farm
It’s really hard to create an atmosphere that’s conducive to relaxed banter in those circumstances! Nor is it helped by the fact that you don’t know what your interpreter is actually saying to the other party: it all came across as quite demanding.
I asked the guide to explain that I was a mere amateur beekeeper, who just wanted to compare notes on beekeeping in our respective countries. The farmer just looked at me; he obviously wasn’t well prepped for a bit of a chat.
So I tried to think of some of the questions I had formulated earlier in the day. They were proving incredibly difficult to retrieve. Meanwhile, the farmer anxiously watched my partner Patrick as he walked towards the hives with our camera. Finally, he spoke – in Mandarin, of course.
Some of the occupants of the bee farm
“He’s worried that Patrick will get stung,” translated our guide.
Neither Patrick nor I were that much closer to a hive than any intending customer would get but I did my best to allay his anxieties. I explained again that we were beekeepers, that we were comfortable around bees and, in any case, if we did get stung we’d fully accept that it was our fault.
Then I blurted out something about the length of our productive season in the UK and asked him how long it was in China.
“He’s still worried that Patrick will get stung,” translated our guide again.
And so I asked Patrick to move away from the hives, which he did – meaning that there were now four of us standing around the man seated at his table. You don’t need to be an expert on body language to work out just how intimidating the situation now was!
With the mood sinking faster than the Titanic, I asked Patrick and the driver to get back in the vehicle. Then I asked the guide to apologise to the man for any inconvenience and reassure him that we were leaving.
“He says the bees don’t produce honey from December to March because there are no flowers around then,” replied the guide.
The man still looked incredibly anxious and I wasn’t at all confident about the interrogative style of our interpreter. Under those circumstances I decided it would be unwise to move the conversation on to the management of pests and diseases. So, I apologised again and got back into the vehicle.
The farmer gave an uneasy smile and a wave as we drove off.
“He said they tried using English bees in China once but they killed the Chinese bees,” said our guide.
Brilliant! Now that we were actually speeding away from the bee farm the conversation seemed to be taking off!
I let the matter drop. If we had gone back the poor man would probably have had heart failure. And it would, of course, have involved turning our vehicle around. Given the insane manner in which the Chinese drive, I think I would have had heart failure too.
And so it was a bit of a lost opportunity – for me, at least. I would have liked to have exchanged notes with this man – if only to find out more about the pests and diseases they face and how they manage it. I obviously didn’t get that far.
One thing I did learn, however, is that they obviously take a different approach to quality control to us. The honey on sale at every stall that we went past was offered in a variety of recycled containers from plastic soft drink bottles to jam jars. Good for the environment but possibly not so good for the health! Maybe that’s why he didn’t want to talk to us!