There’s Gold in Those Walls!
Bee-ing There with Khaled Almaghafi
Jack Williams, who manages the Oregon Park Senior Apartments on the Berkeley/Oakland border, has a problem. Tenants have noticed a steady stream of bees entering the building through a small hole near an outside faucet. “I don’t mind the bees myself. But you get some people who are afraid of them,” he says with a sigh. Many managers would reach for the Raid, but Williams reached for the phone. Who ya gonna call? Khaled Almaghafi, that’s who.
Arriving at the scene of the hive, Khaled thanks Williams for saving the bees. “Some managers would just spray,” he says. “He’s been calling me for a month, but I’ve been too busy to get here.” Khaled specializes in bee removal. His fascination with bees began at the age of 5, working beside his beekeeping father back home in Yemen, where honey is a prized commodity. When he emigrated to the United States in 1986, Khaled made a beeline to agriculture-rich California, where he knew his skills would be in demand.
It’s a gorgeous spring day, and even a human can pick up the scent of nectar in the air. A cloud of bees circles the hole as if waiting for permission to land from the bee traffic controller. Khaled dons a white jumpsuit (handy tip: bees are bored by white) but leaves the bee helmet off for now. “I only wear it when they are really angry,” he says. “Now they are only medium angry.”
The plan is to suck up the bees using a “bee vacuum” and relocate the hive. Khaled peers into the hole, and then puts his ear to the wall. Williams says he doesn’t know how far the gap behind the wall extends, but the number of bees hanging around indicates a rather large hive. “They could be all up in here,” Khaled says, tracing a 6-foot circle with his arms.
Khaled picks a spot about 4 feet above the bee hole and plunges his Sawzall into stucco. Out pop a few dazed bees, and it’s safe to say they are more than medium angry. The first step in working around bees is calming them down, and this is accomplished with smoke. Khaled brandishes his antique smoker: a leather bellows attached to a tin fire chamber. He unwraps some grassy balls that look like the droppings of a medium-sized mammal, which in fact they are. “It’s manure. I mix it with wax and eucalyptus leaves. It’s from the earth, no chemicals,” he says, while reverently lighting a ball and placing it in the smoker. After sending a few puffs into the hole, he places the smoker on the ground where it continues to waft a fragrant plume.
A few more trial holes reveal no comb. “It must be over here.” The next thrust hits hive. Bees pour out and circle Khaled, landing all over his head and arms. “This one is stinging me,” he says calmly, showing me a worker depositing a stinger in his forearm. Khaled welcomes the stings, believing that the venom keeps him healthy. In fact, his exposed skin is covered with tiny black dots, evidence of a lifetime of bee encounters.
Khaled’s cell phone rings constantly while he is working; it’s usually another incoming bee job. “That was a woman in Piedmont,” he says, hanging up a very sticky phone. “I removed the bees and 400 pounds of honeycomb from her house last year. Now they are back!” He often shows up to find that the caller has yellow jackets. “I tell them: ‘I don’t want to insult your intelligence, but this is not a bee.’ ”
A half-hour later there is a 5-foot square hole in the stucco, revealing the backside of a shower stall festooned with long sheets of golden comb, about 50 pounds. Khaled extracts a section and hands me a dripping chunk. When one is first offered Shower Stall Honey there may be a brief moment of hesitation. This may be overcome by vague knowledge of the amazing antibacterial properties of honey, tales of 4,000-year-old vessels of edible honey discovered in pharaohs’ tombs, etc. After one taste, I am wishing for more containers with which to hoard the precious liquid. Khaled detects eucalyptus in the blend, which also benefits from other blossoms in a nearby community garden.
Most apartment residents are steering clear of the area, now abuzz with a mini-blitzkrieg of bees. But those brave enough to stop by are treated to large jars of ultra-local honey. The bees that Khaled captures will join one of the many hives he maintains in Santa Clara. Though impressed by the wide variety of honey one can find in the United States, he is nostalgic for the respect that honey gets back home. Some Yemeni honey sells for as much as $100 a pound. “You can give it as a gift to a powerful man who has everything,” says Khaled, who is still bewildered by the American reaction to bees. “Here they pay you to remove the bees. In Yemen, people go to court to fight over ownership of a hive!”
Khaled Almaghafi sells his Queen of Sheba brand honey products at the Bee Healthy Honey Shop at 3622 Telegraph Ave., and at the Temescal Farmers Market on Sundays. E-mail Matt Dibble at firstname.lastname@example.org.