BONGI BEES: THE B-ALL OF BEE KEEPING, HONEY AND HEALTH
The world over, bees are a controversial subject – are they endangered, could the obliteration of these special insects endanger agriculture and does honey have the health benefits that are claimed? We spoke to one of our favourite bee keepers.
WORDS: SHIRLEY LE GUERN
Lulu Letlape, owner of Bongi Bees, may not have all the scientific evidence to underscore her personal experience with bees. What she does know, however, is that honey itself and the experience of bee keeping, have changed her life and are likely to change the lives of many others.
Lulu is best described as both a survivor and an entrepreneur. Her career, which included teaching, corporate communications and hospitality, was put on hold just over five years ago when she was diagnosed with a debilitating autoimmune disease, mainly due to stress.
“I stopped hearing. I stopped walking. Without any understanding of what the disease was, I was stuck in bed,” she says, recounting how she was put on powerful steroids which helped her to heal.
But she knew the dangers of continued use and so needed a natural solution.
“I started looking at what I could do to help myself and that’s when I discovered positive thinking and healthy living – and part of that discovery was the bees. It was not only the replacement of sugar but also the health component of being around bees. It was a wonderful opportunity to change my life completely,” she remembers.
At the time, she was running a hospitality business and started out keeping bees as a hobby. But, she says, she “got hooked”, and, on realising that she was selling all her honey after harvest, she realised that she could turn this into a business.
HONEY FOR HEALTH
When it came to the impact on her health, Lulu describes it as “a match made in heaven.”
The anti-inflammatory properties of honey helped her to begin to get well and she continues to rely on honey to keep her well.
“I believe that I need to have a dosage of honey every day. I actually don’t even take honey that is extracted into a bottle. I do the raw combs because I feel I am getting the exact liberating and healthy components that the bees live by,” she explains.
Lulu has stopped her medication and, despite coming into contact with many people through her business during the Covid pandemic, she has never looked back despite her compromised immune system. Living on her farm in Rayton, Pretoria, has also helped.
“What I put into my body is healthier in every way. When you’re in the city, you have to contend with negative air, fumes and all that. So, I’m protected in this environment because I get fresher air, I eat fruit and vegetables that are healthily pollinated. What I eat is fresher than anywhere else – and then there’s the honey itself.”
Ironically, the reason why Lulu probably doesn’t have all the scientific data to hand is because, despite the fact that people have been benefiting from honey for thousands of years, very little research has been done.
Many food scientists view honey as little more than a tasty form of fructose with very little evidence of the impact of the anti-oxidants and flavonoids that are believed to help with a number of health conditions. Whilst the food industry sees the value of irradiating or pasteurising honey to improve its appearance and shelf life, those who uphold the medicinal value of honey, believe that human intervention removes all the goodness from the raw product.
Lulu’s own story, together with many testimonies from her customers – including the many truck drivers who buy her honey from the roadside shop at her farm – suggest that honey is far more than a sweet treat, she believes.
“I’m hoping a scientist is going to make this real. Somebody has to. It’s got to be raw, raw, nothing added, nothing. Our honey is as pure as the bees make it. It is not irradiated and is not mixed with anything. We do not heat, add water, homogenise, flavour or use any filters to process our honey. This is pure honey as nature intended it to be,” she says.
For Lulu, that also means not adding any oils or other so-called healthy ingredients. Any benefits that come from the likes of lavender or even cannabis need to be added by the bees themselves through the pollination process or whilst actually making the honey. The best she can do is to actually plant the necessary healthy herbs and plants nearby for bees to forage.
LIFE LESSONS FROM KEEPING BEES
The name for Lulu’s bee business says it all. Bongi is derived from the Zulu word Bonga which means to be thankful and, she says, this is a way of showing appreciation for the bees and their gift of honey as well as an acknowledgement of the value of the environment and the importance of ensuring the sustainability of the bee community and ensuring food security.
Although Lulu has a number of boxes – or apiaries – on her own property, she has also placed hives on others’ properties, enabling them to benefit from the growth of her business.
The boxes are maintained weekly.
“We check each box for the health of the bees, to see whether they have enough food and water, that they are not cluttered and that the boxes in which they stay are not dirty. In the environment surrounding them, we plant the right flowers to keep them healthy. It’s like being a taxi driver. You keep your car clean and healthy with petrol. So, we make sure that we operate exactly like that,” she explains.
She says they also monitor when the honey will be ready for harvest – usually at three monthly intervals.
“We monitor the process so that we know when they are ready to give us honey. When it is ready, we plan a harvest. We remove some of the frames and put them in a place for extraction. We manually squeeze the honey from the frames. It is very hands on,” she continues.
The honey is then sifted and placed in a bucket.
It is then sifted a third time before going into a settling tank. After being sifted twice more, it goes straight into a bottle. Lulu likens the sifting process to sifting the flour and other dry ingredients whilst baking a cake. Nothing is added to the honey at any stage, she emphasises.
She does her own labelling.
She says that she has also learnt a lot from the whole process of keeping bees.
“You are sort of led by them. Their temperament directs you as you work with them. When you approach them, you must be calm and not disturb them too much. They will sometimes indicate that visitors are not welcome. When they are aggressive, we normally just leave and let them cool down.”
When bees are seen sitting outside their hives, this is usually a warning that they are unhappy and even preparing to leave.
“Normally, if you see them sitting outside the box, you know it’s probably either hot or dirty inside or they’re just not happy. There could be too many of them which means you need to add another box to give them space. So, they do communicate through their behaviour.
“When a person goes and monitors them, they’ll be able to come back and say ‘look I think they’re going to abscond. I’ve seen the behaviour’. Then you need to go and check why are they preparing to leave. Have they got enough food? Maybe the area doesn’t have flowers anymore so there’s no pollen for them or there’s no water around for them. You need to correct that immediately or you are going to lose them,” she continues.
Lulu says that the education to be had from bees goes beyond that which is probably why her business has grown from beyond bee keeping to training and educating people about bees.
“They talk to you I believe and I have even started talking to them. At first, I thought I was crazy. I didn’t know that it was normal. So I am discovering all sorts of things but I think they make you do that,” Lulu admits.
She says that each hive has its own queen and a clearly defined division of labour.
“Éven if they are close to each other, they can’t go to another box. They have their own queen. So when you move to somebody else’s box they are going to say ‘you don’t smell like us, go back’. They are very territorial.
“Each household has got its own division of labour too. So, there’s somebody whose job is security and is sitting at the doors checking that no outsider comes in. There’s a group that wakes up in the morning and just goes looking for food. There’s a group that remains behind and does the cleaning or takes care of the queen if it’s hot. It’s a kind of air conditioning, and they blow air with their wings. If it’s cold, they sit around her and warm her up. So everybody has a job. It’s so stunning to see.”
She uses this when giving talks at schools. “I talk about individual responsibility and communal responsibility and being accountable for what you do and tell them not to worry about what the other person does. If your job is taking care of the gate, you do that the best you can. That’s all you going to do your whole life. Because if you don’t guard, then you mess up the hive.”
Lulu also encourages customers to join her whilst working with the bees. They watch while her team extracts the honey and can even take that honey away with them. Many times, those who watch bring their children along and she says it is magical to see children’s faces light up when they truly understand exactly where honey comes from.
One of the most rewarding things is that she sees children go from fearing bees to actively wanting to protect them.
“I started out as a teacher, so I know that it’s about education, about getting people to live with bees a little bit more easily than they did before. I also grew up killing bees because I thought they were an enemy. But now, each time, I get a sting, I say thank you because I know that because of these bees, I’m getting something good in my body,” she says.
A B-LINE TO THE FUTURE
Right now, Lulu employs a team of six to maintain and process her honey. But, she admits, she is selling out every time she harvests and knows that she has an opportunity to grow her business. The market is already not waiting for three months between harvests.
“I insource when I have sold out from neighbouring beekeepers. Right now, I am the only one with a live stall, so my product goes quickly. So, I’ve got partners who supply me with their honey. But that’s not enough. I intend to grow from 100 to 200 boxes and, at the moment, I am looking for additional land on which to put the next 100.”
She has an important message that’s not only about health but also good news for entrepreneurship, job creation and for the bees themselves.