Stories Eat

What do Bees and Lobsters have in common?

Harriet Stigner

The answer has nothing to do with stings and pinchers.

It’s lobster season in Fort Dauphin and I have a great deal to learn from Steve Long, the Small Scale Fisheries Expert. Steve joinined Azafady in 2014 to work on Project Oratsimba.

The project seeks to safeguard the lobster fishing industry in St Luce, a stretch of coastline that ten of our beekeepers live on where lobsters contribute to over 80% of household incomes. Steve and the team are taking steady steps to counteract the threats to the industry that are brought on by illegal practices and unpredictable weather. They’ve successfully established a periodic No Take Zone, a ban on landing berried females and a minimum landing size to help to protect this precious commodity.

St Luce’s No Take Zone is in remission at the moment and we are free to indulge in the local delicacy, but the challenge of enforcing such restrictions in a region where over 80% of inhabitants live below the poverty line raises cultural dilemmas that I’m struggling with in the bee project – how do you ask people who are struggling to feed their families not to harvest what’s immediately available to them, when to do so threatens the long term security of that harvest, whether in the ocean or the hive?

Azafady have given fifty villagers the facilities and training to build two beehives that are copies of the western Langstroth hive, made from sustainably sourced materials. The main benefit of any modern hives is that they contain removable frames. There’s a strong bee foraging tradition in Madagascar – for as long as there have been humans on the island there have been honey gatherers who harvest honey comb from hollowed out tree trunks. But it’s challenging to extract this comb from naturally occurring and traditional hives without destroying the brood inside.

A Langstroth Hive
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It’s going to require patience, which is ironic, as it’s so much easier demand this virtue from others than to exercise it myself.

The biggest challenge we’re facing is that the beneficiaries have been treating the bees as they would in a traditional log hive, harvesting honey as soon as it’s available. In the height of nectar flow when the colony population should be at its peak with bees foraging for nectar to stock up on honey for the rainy season, I arrived to find hives with depleted numbers and no food reserves. This has left the bees defenceless against infestations from enemies like Madagascar’s prolific wax moth, with colonies dying out, swarming or too busy rebuilding the hive to stock up on honey. It is not only the bees that are suffering, but the beekeeper’s long-tern harvest takes a direct hit.

My challenge is to prove to beneficiaries who already live below the poverty line that if they can think long term and allow the bees to create more honey than they need, they could be generating not one but ten litres of honey a year. The beekeeper can house the same colony for three years at a time, when the bee forager will drive the bees out of their home and have to wait for the next wild swarm.

Once we can secure reliable harvests, we’ll be able to find a route to market where a single litre would sell for three times the 2,000 apiary that our beekeepers make locally. We’ll be able to teach them how to build up strong colonies by moving frames of brood between hives, splitting hives and protecting them from diseases.

It’s a long ball game and whilst the apiarist’s details might be particular, the overarching challenges are far from unique. Like Steve, we have to change behaviours to prove that a short-term gain can cause long-term detriment. Steve and his team have established a community-elected Sea Committee, enforcing community-recognized laws called ‘dinah’s’ to protect the lobster industry. Three months in and we’re still exploring ways to encourage our beneficiaries to think of themselves as beekeepers rather than honey foragers. 

The longer I live here the more aware I feel that it’s not enough for a vahaza (foreigner) to sweep in and tell our beneficiaries what to do when they face challenges that I could never imagine. I’ve managed to secure some demonstration hives where I hope, in time, that we’ll be able to show the benefits of leaving the bees with a surplus of honey. It’s going to require patience, which is ironic, as it’s so much easier demand this virtue from others than to exercise it myself.

The Wax Moth

Lest this blog should imply that it’s been all hard work since I last wrote, I will share the story of the first lobster I’ve tasted in Madagascar. On a three-week holiday, myself and five companions travelled North up the East coat in various taxi-brousse, trucks of all shapes and sizes that innumerable passengers are able to hitch a ride with (the words ‘sardines’, ‘tin can’ and ‘beggars belief’ spring to mind). Stopping at some sensational beauty spots on route, the highlights of my trip are all associated with seafood, and nowhere more so than on an island off an island off the island called Île aux Nattes. After travelling from the historical pirate isle, Ile Sainte-Marie, by pirogue (a hollowed out boat carved from a single tree trunk) we stayed on a sandy beach hut where we watched hundreds of crabs scuttling out at night, leaving holes big enough to trip you over. We ate fresh fish curried in coconut milk and swam in shallow waters, protected from sharks by a long stretch of beautiful coral reef. Watching fully clothed women trail through the water with large nets to catch prawns each afternoon, sea and sky bleeding together in the sunset, captured the tranquility of our little patch of paradise.

Back on Ile Sainte Marie we hired mopeds to explore the unspoiled beaches. After stopping by an unexpected waterfall for an impromptu swim, we were only on the road for another twenty minutes before one of the mopeds broke down for the second time. Fortuitously, it had delivered us at the top of a steep hill, which rolled down to a nameless beachside restaurant.

Hoping for nothing more adventurous than an omelet and chips, I was delighted to see Salade Fruits de Mer on the chalkboard menu, a catch-all name for whatever’s fresh that day. Served with freshly baked bread rolls and pressed lychee juice was a fresh lobster and a little French dressing. The meat was so delicate that I was quickly reminded that lobster is prized above its crabby cousin for more than just the size of its claws.

I can’t provide a url or phone number for our beachside shack, but in the spirit of the 17th century pirate island, here’s a treasure map instead.

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