Bee very surprised

Posted by Darrel Bristow-Bovey on 15 October 2018

You’d never guess what’s around the next hairpin, writes Darrel Bristow-Bovey.

Photograph by Calin Stan.

The best, craziest, most fantastical road in the world is the Transfagarasan Highway that loops like a fly-fishing line through the Carpathian Mountains in Romania, from the forests of Wallachia to the woods of Transylvania. When you look down the mountainside from Negoiu Peak at the unspooling road below, it’s like someone threw a plate of overcooked spaghetti at the slope. You can take a hairpin bend and drive through S-curves and switchbacks and 15 minutes later find yourself doubling back to a hairpin two metres from the original one.

I’d been travelling for weeks, driving through Turkey and Bulgaria and Hungary and Romania, and I was tired and jaded. No matter how great the adventure and how beautiful the world, there comes a time when you aren’t up to the job of fully appreciating it. I was drooping behind the wheel, feeling sorry for myself.

I came twisting down the mountainside and turned a corner between two outcrops of rock, and there beside the road was a modified gypsy caravan. The sides of the caravan had been unclipped and detached to reveal a sort of mobile beehive. Boxes of bees were stacked high and wide, making two long walls of bees. A handsome
white-haired man in a cowboy hat sat on a deckchair beside a small table piled with jars of honey. He was holding hands with someone wearing a white beekeeper’s outfit with full mask and gloves, looking like a skinny astronaut.

It turned out that the astronaut was his wife, and she didn’t need the suit to protect her from bees – it was just a cunning marketing ploy. Nicolae and Ana live inside the bee-wagon, in narrow beds between the walls of hives, and they drive around Romania, following the seasons, from woodland to lakeside plains to alpine meadows. At each location, they open up the bee-wagon, make camp and let the bees get to work making fresh loads of honey.

He told me that he’d been a maths professor at the university in Sibiu, but 30 years ago when Ceausescu was still in power he said the wrong thing to the wrong person and was fired. He fell into a depression. Life felt like too much effort. His wife tried to reach him, but he wasn’t reachable. He was on a park bench one afternoon in despair when he noticed a bee buzzing about a clump of bright yellow ragwort. He found himself staring at the bee, noticing everything about it: the tiny hairs, the striping of its coat, how dedicated it was to doing the next thing it had to do, to simply being alive, and as he watched he felt ashamed of his despair.

There are different kinds of bees, he told me. Italian bees are very gentle and pleasant to work with, but they are soft and weak and they can’t survive harsh climates or sudden changes. Romanian bees are difficult, and maybe their honey is not as sweet, but they endure. They can survive the icy winters when the Transfagarasan is closed by banks of snow, and a wind made of ice and stone comes through the frozen pine trees and drowns out the hungry howling of the wolves. They don’t expect life to be easy.

As I drove away with jars of honey clinking on the back seat, I watched in the rear-view mirror as the professor returned to his deckchair and took the hand of his wife the astronaut. Something buzzed in the car and bumped against the closed window. It was one of his bees. I stopped the car and wound down the window but it didn’t want to go. I wound the window back up. I was honoured by the company.