The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


July 16, 2010

Beeline to Africa: Joplin beekeeper trains Ugandans

JOPLIN, Mo. — What hurts more, the sting by an American or an African honeybee?

Joplin’s honeybee guru Gene Foley, on a voluntary honey-making trip to Uganda this month, couldn’t answer the question but knew a simple way to find out.

Excusing himself from the group, the 74-year-old president of the Joplin Area Beekeepers Association stepped out beneath the African sun and pinched a single drone bee from a nearby beehive. Back in front of the group, he allowed the insect to sting him on top of the left forearm.

He sat there for a second or two before he had his answer.

“The American bee,” he told the group of Ugandans, who stared at him with a mixture of surprise and fascination.

“They didn’t know that I would sting myself just to prove a point,” Foley said. “They found that quite fascinating.”

Making honey

Foley spent early July half the world away teaching a group of prospective African beekeepers about the detailed workings of the insect and its honey-harvesting hives.  

“What I did was to teach them about the inside of a bee hive,” Foley said, who lives a few miles south of Joplin. “They didn’t know about the queen, eggs, larvae, how the hive was set up, those types of things.”

Foley was recruited by Liberty Development Foundation (LIDEFO) to improve the local Uganda beehives into producing larger quantities of honey. Currently, about 2.5 tons of honey is harvested; by the end of 2012, Foley and LIDEFO hope to see that number eclipse the 5-ton mark. The U.S. produces roughly 72,000 tons of honey each year.

The African nation’s economy was devastated by former dictator Idi Amin, who slaughtered tens of thousands during the 1970s. Today, a typical Uganda family lives on roughly $4 a day, Foley said.

“I didn’t intend ever to change their methods or ways,” Foley said. “I just wanted to correct (and enhance) on some of the things they were doing.”

Foley, who paid all expenses out of his own pocket, left the U.S. on June 26 and flew into Entebbe airport two days later. From there, Foley took a one-hour cab ride to the capital city of Kampala, which was rocked by twin Al-Qaida bombings back on July 11 -- two days after Foley had left Uganda.  

From Kampala, he weathered a seven-hour ride inside a bus to the town of Kasese, which would serve as his home away from home. But he would spend a good majority of his days 4,000 feet above Kasese, high up in the mountain, where his beekeeping students waited his arrival each day.

At the crack of dawn, Foley would jump atop a “boda-boda” (motorcycle) and make his way up the side of the mountain, a 10-mile trek there and back again.

“There were no roads, just trails, and it was a very hard way to travel,” he said. “And there were only two ways up that mountain -- walking or riding a boda.”

Like every first-time visitor to the continent, Foley was stunned by the beauty surrounding him, particularly how the mountain shadowing tiny Kasese was “alive with food and people.”

Even more eye-opening than that, he said, was the friendliness and the willingness to learn displayed by his temporary hosts.

A “beautiful people,” he called them. The Uganda people “were extremely kind, extremely educated and very thankful ... and always welcoming with open arms.”

They were also eager students.

“They were very interested in what I had to teach, and they asked all kinds of questions,” Foley said.

Most of those questions were technical in nature: how to maximize honey production, for example, or how to produce more pollen-collecting drones. One question, though, had him vigorously shaking his head no.

“One (person) asked me if they could eat the queen bee,” Foley said with a chuckle. “I said no.”

Because they knew Foley was there solely to help them, they treated him with unparalleled respect. Part of it, he said, had to do with his age, and part of it had to do with his very American, cowboy-style mustache.

“They were amazed at my 74 years of age,” Foley said. “Their lifespan is much shorter, usually 40-something. I only saw three people that were gray-haired, and (the oldest) was 57. They respected me because of my age (and wisdom).”

Out of Africa

Foley “left as much with them as I could for the two weeks I was there” and said he would have stayed an entire year in Uganda if allowed the opportunity.

“In a year’s time I would have walked them through to the end process so they know what to do at the start, the middle and the end.”

And if the need is still there in the future?

“I’ll go back,” Foley said. “I love talking about honeybees.”

Humans have been harvesting this all-important insect for thousands of years because of its honey, its wax and the fact that it pollinates a number of food-producing crops.

For example, honeybees help pollinate plants and seeds that include alfalfa, almond nuts, blueberries, raspberries, watermelons, cucumbers and cantaloupes, to name just a few. They also pollinate orchards that produce, among others, cherries, apples, peaches and plums.

Foley follows the old Biblical proverb: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

“I always felt in my life that I’ve been blessed and now I want to give back,” the longtime Joplin resident said. “I owe something to society. And the world.”

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