The Guadalquivir river valley in Andalucia is not for everyone, it is to put it mildly, a place to avoid in mid summer. The reason is simple, it is the frying pan of Spain, with temperatures hitting 50 degrees plus, and for those that live and work there, the passing of September is a time of great releif when ones daily routine does not feel as if it has been carried out in the confines of a sauna. It was mid July when this was written and I was in desperate need of a day off from my daily quest of seeking out and attempting to film the worlds rareset cat, the Iberian Lynx. If I am honest I was close to exploding. One could be forgiven for thinking it was the combination of the searing heat and the daily grind of lugging my camera gear around, that caused me to put the breaks on and divert my activities for a day or two before my head exploded with frustration.
However it was none of this that put a dampner on my spirits, what caused me to curse, fall to my knees and admit to crying a river of tears in frustration was the endless barbed wire fencing that thwarts ones every bloody move in the region of the Andujar National Park. The whole area is a web of private hunting reserves, and the owners of these large deer hunting Fincas, are deeply in love with barbed wire, and my shreded trouser collection and large patches of skin on my backside and legs are a vivid and painful testamony to this fact. Attempting to film this rare species is extremely difficult at the best of times, but the fence problem is a major setback, and one I hope to be able to address in the future, with a little help from the owners of the hunting estates.
Since childhood I have been fascinated by Bees and it would be an understatement of epic proportions to say I liked the sticky gold they produce, so a chance meeting with a bee keeper in the carpark of my local coffee hangout was simply to good an opportunity to pass up, and I saw it as a perfect opportunity to vent the steam building from the fence problem. I was resting in the shade of huge Eucalyptus tree, devouring my breakfast toast, which of course in Andalucia comes drowned in extra virgin oil, chopped garlic and crushed tomatoes, when a battered Toyota Hilux rattled into the dusty carpark and ground to a halt in front of me. I could not help but notice a couple of bee hives resting in the back, and this was all the opportunity I needed to strike up a converststion with the owner.
Jose turned out to be a local from Andujar, who managed just over 1000 hives, scattered over quite a large area on several different properties in the region, and after seeing his face light up with enthusasm, when an obivious foreigner was taking a probing interest in his life, he was over the moon when I asked him if I could accompany him one day to observe and film him as he went about tending his precious daughters , as he fondly referred to his bees. So a few days later I was picked up from my campsite, and we starterd the day in the best possible way by heading to one of his favourite cafes, and ordering large portions of crusty bread, toasted and of course bathing in the olive oil this region is so famous for. Fuelled with black coffee, a door wedge of local bread and enough of the peppery oil to grease the slipway of the Queen Mary, we set off in the direction of Bailen, accompanied by his delightful wife Maria, who spent the whole one hour journey extolling the virtues of the regions oil,and honey, of which their's was undoubtedly one of the finest, and beleive me it was. We finally left the main motorway and headed deeper into rural Jaen, local road to smaller local road and eventually a gate on a track, with a sign informing us we were on a private estate, and to be aware there were some very large Spanish fighting bulls knocking around, so dont leave any gates open or try to start a career as a Matador because it wont last long, I was only here for the honey, so the hopefully the worst that would befall me was a few stings.
Maria explained the ranch was owned by a family of wealthy lawyers from Corboba, and all I can say is they must be very good at law. A sprawling landscape of dehesa, wildflower meadows, lakes and stands of trees wiith the occasional finca or farmhouse perfectly situated for it's occupant to keep an eye on the livestock that grazed. We trundled down miles of track, Jose pausing atprime elevated spots on the track in order for me to soak up the stunning views, including the remnants of snow that still covered the distant summits of Pico de Valeta and Mulhacen, in the province of Granada off to the east.
I could see the owners were very much fans of Equus, as some of the finest examples of pure bred Spanish horses were to be seen in small herds everywhere, and Jose confirmed this as he explained how the extended family all pop down saddle up and trot off to survey their very own slice of paradise on a regular basis, if this place ever came on the market, only those with bank accounts the size of Paul McCartney need apply. We cross a few streams and head into a shallow valley where I get my first glimpse of about 35 of his prized hives. We suit up a safe distance away, I in a suit somewhat too small for my 6'2" frame, which leaves plenty of on the spot fixes for Maria to work on with a roll of silver duck tape, the end result is I look like something out of an episode of a cheap sci-fi movie or a character from Dr Who when the budget has been drastically cut, but at least there is no way in for the bees. My testacles are in serious trouble and there is nothing I, or Maria for that matter, can do about it. My shoulders are bursting out of the fabric, forcing the material to ride up my backside, on the legs, the material of the suit stopped so far above my ankle, I feared I would be suffering from sunburnt calf muscles by midday, or stung a few dozen times in the first 5 mins when filming, and all this before 10am, when the temperature was already at 30 C.
Ready or not off we went, Jose had already fired up the bee smoker, but I was warned that my black camera might attract a little attention, as bees do not like black, and he was not wrong. Within 60 secs my camera was covered with angry bees and a fair old smattering of pollen and honey mix, and it would be more than once that I had to attempt to wipe the lens clean, not easy wearing a pair of rubber washing up gloves which, yes you have guessed it were, 2 sizes too small and severely restricted my finger movement, so I found myself wondering off to the car to have a quick wipe down and then return to the hives and try again.
We repeated this process at several different sites and the result was always the same, but watching these amazing insects and a man so totally dedicated to their welfare, was truly amazing. He popped up panel after panel, pointing out the new queens still in the larvae stage, wrapped safely in the hectagonal chamber, explaing how the whole process works, the problems that Bee keepers all over the world are facing, as ever more colonies are dying off. This insect has played such a vital roll in the development of the human race, it deserves our utmost attention in attempting to save it from this dangerous decline it is in, and if anyone alive doubts our future is not linked in a big way to theirs, they should be recieving electric shock therapy at a clinic in Switzerland, and being offered a job working for the Trump administration. I like most are aware that, unlike wasps, bees die after stinging, and I was wondering how many times I might be on the recieving end of a sting this particular day, and where they might administer them ? My weak spot was to be the face, as I had to push my eye right up into the viewfinder of the camera, thereby bringing my face close to the protective mesh, it did not take them long to find my weak spot !!
By the time I had visited the last batch of hives I had been stung twice on the nose and once on the chin, not bad, considering just how much time I had them swarming around my head. At the last hive, Jose whipped out a knife and carved out a chunk of the honeycomb and thrust it in my hand, if the truth be known, I had been waiting for this moment all day, and it did not disappoint, as I moved off to a safe distance frantically tearing off my head gear as I walked, and finally biting into the most delicious chunk of food I have ever tasted, fresh warm wildflower honey, straight from the hive and straight down my throat, I was in heaven. Jose and Maria sealed up the last box and came over to where I stood, my chin dripping with honey and a smile on my face like never before, they knew a happy boy when they saw one....... It was time to go home, I had to clean up the camera, charge the batteries, and have an early night, as the following morning before sunrise, I would set off into the hills of Andujar to resume looking for the Lynx, the holiday was over. As we said our goodbyes and I thanked them for their kindness and generosity, Jose thrust a large container of his award winning honey in my hand and simply said, enjoy, the grin on my face said it all... enjoy it I would.