People thought I was saying “Honey Guy” when I was working on the Honey Guide story about Mark Farah. It’s quite fitting actually. Mark is The Honey Guy. He loves what he does. It glows in his eyes when he speaks.
Chatting about his bees and the honey they make for him, Mark brings his mountain apiaries into the trading hall of the Neighbourgoods Market. In doing this, he typifies what the market does so elegantly, drawing the city and it’s surrounds together into a feast for the senses. You can’t necessarily see the hives - or trout dams, pastures, olive groves, ovens, stone mills of the vendors -but they are there in spirit.
I wanted to see that spirit world made flesh, and asked if I could spend some time creating a little photo essay with Mark at one of his mountain sites. On the day, we were joined near Constantia Nek by market manager Ben Cox. Ben gets pollen from Honeyguide every Saturday, and just as curious as I about the provenance of Mark’s fabulous raw honey, jumped at the chance to see the man at work.
Preparing his equipment in the clearing below the hives, Mark is unhurried but meticulous, patient and attentive. He readies everything for our walk up to the bees where we are transported into his world of buzzing alchemy.
Mark gently scoops up a handful of bees as he prises the lid off a hive. They flow down his arm before he flicks them to the ground. There the mass evanesces and resolves into a roiling, humming cloud.
A bee hatches as we watch. A perfect, delicate creature wriggles its way out of an alveolus, slightly shaky at first. She takes her first few hesitant steps, then she’s being fussed over by nearby bees. Soon she is indistinguishable from her countless peers. Not to Honey Guy. He points out the old bees, the hungry ones and the angry ones. ‘That guy’s just checking you out, he’s investigating’, he reassures me as my nose becomes a point of orbit.
Bees have personalities, and colonies have moods. Mark knows his bees, and he senses subtle fluctuations. ‘Hear that?’, he asks as the buzzing near a hive crescendos. ‘They’re getting a little worried’.
It doesn’t seem right to call Mark’s processes ‘simple’, although when he explains what he does it just makes sense. To understand colonies, work with hives, ensure that your bees are healthy, and collect honey without upsetting a natural balance is no small feat.
Ethical farming isn’t straightforward when it comes to bees, and bad practice isn’t as obvious as with large mammals. This is mostly because we don’t understand bees. Mark seems to, though. Bees get manipulated, taken advantage of, and produce honey of an inferior quality, all in the name of lowering costs and increasing yield. Ersatz honey, the stuff we find on supermarket shelves, is made by bees who forage from Eucalyptus or fruit orchards, and whose foraging is engineered and controlled. The bees are manipulated, and the resulting honey is one-dimensional.
The honey, propolis and pollen that Mark collects from his indigenous bees is completely different. His management techniques are eco-sensitive, and his bees forage in uncontaminated environments around the Cape. Mark produces and sells raw, unprocessed honey, beeswax, propolis and pollen under his Honeyguide label. It is one of few brands that sells pollen, which is a little-recognised, complete superfood.
There’s a wonderful tale by Roald Dahl called Royal Jelly, a whimsical warning to parents, where a baby is fed too much propolis and begins morphing into a bee-creature. I don’t reckon that Ben will sprout wings anytime soon, but deep down, I wouldn’t be surprised if Roald Dahl was onto something, and the Honey Guy knows it. There’s real magic in bees.