National Geographic Society Newsroom

Mike Fay’s Pitcairn Journal: School Field Trip & Meeting the Bees

By Mike Fay, NG Explorer-in-Residence 5 April 2012 Part I: An Explorer Goes Back to School Earlier in the week Bren had asked me if I would appear at the school. It hadn’t come up again but today I offered and off we went to the Pulau School. The teacher Paul from New Zealand runs...

By Mike Fay, NG Explorer-in-Residence

5 April 2012

Part I: An Explorer Goes Back to School

Earlier in the week Bren had asked me if I would appear at the school. It hadn’t come up again but today I offered and off we went to the Pulau School.

The teacher Paul from New Zealand runs a pretty posh school for the kids of two families. The total is about 9 students ranging in age from 3 to 15.  The two older boys had their own lessons to do, I got the middle age group, and then there were the little ones that Brenda teaches.  Our assignment today was to go on a transect, learn about GPS tools, navigation, waypoints, tracks, and Google Earth.

Of course what the kids were interested in was a romp in the woods (if you are truthful about it, no different from me for the past 50 years).   Most people seem to start out life loving this stuff, but then lose the interest as adults.  I guess the trick is just getting them to keep walking in the first place.

We did our classroom penance learning about where we were and how the GPS works.  The kids were already clued into the fact that the receiver talks to the satellites. They were less clear on triangulation but that didn’t seem to matter.  What mattered was getting outside, and when I gave them the choice of “Where to?” they opted to go up Pulau Creek to the “waterfall,” which at this point is little more than a muddy drainage ditch.  Of course you have to remember that this is a place that was in a drought for a year and a half (which for many of these kids is a quarter of their lifetime), so the hours where you can enjoy rain and especially mud are precious commodities not to be wasted on the frivolities of navigation.


Into the Wilds of Pitcairn

Off we went down the hill. One kid was the data recorder, another the waypoint recorder, and a third the photographer.  The first landmark we recorded on the GPS as a waypoint was the bridge, which is a culvert with concrete stuffed around it to keep it in place.  The creek was just like Brown Water water, with deep layers of sediment and a channel cut into the middle of it—the kind of creek you want to have at to make it healthy again.  The kids didn’t see it that way though. For them this was a raging river, a deep valley leading to a giant cascade, a universe to be explored. The kids bombed up the creek in all directions.  It was great to see a group of kids that weren’t pining away for their iPhones and texting, totally at home scrambling and getting filthy.

We reached the waterfall and marked it as waypoint two.  Kids were going way too far, fearless.  Paul reined them back in and we deviated to the eastern slope. The steep slopes were a pure stand of rose apple trees with that slick mix of exposed roots and wet red clay that you could ski down if you wanted.  The only objective the kids had was to go forward as fast as you could and see more stuff.  There were mangos they ate: waypoint three, a “sparrow’s” nest: four, and a big rock: five.  We hit a low-hung powerline that our young photographer grabbed as she mimed getting electrocuted.  She was also handling the camera like a pro.


Watch Out for the Wildlife

The kid alarm went off: Emily spotted a nest of hornets.  These are the nasty paper wasps that attack without a lot of provocation. The kids seemed to know them well and understand how to react, but were drawn to play with fire.  The first group was peering in while another group went running by, already committed to a close pass.  The wasps were last seen following those guys down the steep slope at a fast clip.

Nobody got stung.  We followed the powerline down.  Someone surmised that if it went downhill it must cross the road at some point.  In fact we never got further than 200 yards from the road.  On the way was another, much bigger hornets’ nest.  This one was not messed with but calmly passed by, all knowing if this one went we were in trouble.


Cooped Up Once More

The road was discovered but we were still about 15 feet above on a sheer bank covered in lantana and Johnson grass.  Paul suggested we pass to the side and find a good place to descend.  One kid decided that the best way down was to slide over the precipice and hold on until you hit the bottom.  Six more followed and I wasn’t far behind.  Now we were back on the road and condemned back to the classroom.

I booted up Google Earth and to my surprise the kids had never seen Pitcairn before in such graphic detail.  They immediately wanted to do what everyone does: find their house.  I started to go through the process of showing our route and putting the photos up, but I was eating into the next activity, which was to get back to the creek for the mud bath.  I decided to cut the instruction short and we all went down and got thoroughly covered in that greasy red slop.


Part II: Sweet Success of Pitcairn Honey

Second thing on the schedule today was bees.  Mike Christian has a following of over 1000 people all over the world that mail-order honey from him for a premium price.  He has over 40 hives.  In fact the islanders have a pulled together into the Pitcairn Island Producers CoOperative (PIPCO ) and honey has taken over as the number one private money maker on the island.

So what makes Pitcairn honey so rare and special? The bees are completely disease-free and they live in one of the purest environments on Earth with no pesticides, herbicides, or industrial pollutants.  The “organic” designation seems completely trivial here.  I’ve been voraciously consuming the product since I arrived and the combination of rose apple, mango, lantana, and citrus make this one of the most luscious things I’ve ever put in my mouth.


Bringing Back Bee-Filled Memories

We arrived at Mike’s biggest site with about 20 hives, mostly with three levels each.  We suited up in the white jumpers and veils; it was my first time wearing this kind of protection. I was kind of looking forward to not having to worry about a single sting. I hadn’t “done” bees since I used to rob hives in Central Africa with my Pygmy buddies over 10 years ago.  Way back, I worked for a bee research laboratory and even took a course in college called “The Hive and the Honeybee,” so I have a long history with my friend the honey bee.

These were Italian bees first brought to the island only in 1991 to help with pollination.  There was a second importation some time after that and since then these bees have multiplied on the island free of all the calamities that have beset their sisterhood worldwide. (Read about bee keeping at National Geographic headquarters.)


Inside the Hive

Mike pried open the first hive revealing the area where he can add a bit of sugar syrup once in a while when the bees are starving.  We went down to the second layer where the surplus of honey is stored.  Mike said this box was for him.  We looked at the comb.  It was perfectly formed and quite a bit of it was capped already.  Then I remembered just how gentle these Italian bees are. Not a single one rose from the comb, they just went about their business as if they know that this is just the keeper taking a look after them.

We went down to the third level.  This level Mike said is for the bees; he never takes honey here even if it is full.  The first frame we pulled had lots of uncapped larvae all curled and white in their little cells bathed in nectar and pollen.  There were capped brood with pupae and drones intermingled with the nursery bees, just mulling around waiting for a chance to mate with a new queen.  We went for the center frame and there Mike pointed out the queen.  She is not like a termite queen, she is only about twice as big as the workers and has the same coloration and actually mingles with her subjects.

All looked good in the hives.  Mike says he used to mess with them a lot more but he has realized that there are so few problems in the hive that leaving them alone to get on with honey making is the best for them and for him.


Booming Cottage Industry

Later on that afternoon Mike was down at the town meeting-place having a packing session with his fellow PIPCO members boxing up bundles of 2, 4, and 6 tidy 250 gram bottles with a nice label attesting to the purity and taste of this special product.  There were also bottles of tincture made from the propolis (a resin-based glue made by the bees) mixed with rum that is a natural remedy, and soap made from the honey and other local ingredients.  There were addresses from every which way: Germany, France, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Romania, Canada, and the USA.

I thought about how much more elegant this cottage industry is than industrial fishing as a way to make money for the island.  Not only do you not mine a precious resource and degrade, if not ruin, some of the most pristine seas left on the planet but you enhance pollination, you provide food for the reed warblers and school kids, and you develop a reputation as one of those few places on Earth where people are building toward a sustainable future.

(Updated 5/7/12)


More From Pitcairn Islands Expedition

Read All Mike Fay’s Journal Entries

Read All Pitcairn Islands Expedition Blogs

Mike Fay Bio and Other Features

About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

J. Michael Fay
Mike Fay has spent his life as a naturalist—from the Sierra Nevadas and the Maine woods as a boy, to Alaska and Central America in college, to North Africa and the depths of the central African forest and savannas for the last 25 years. He has worked for the Wildlife Conservation Society of the Bronx since 1991. In 1996, Fay flew over the forests of Congo and Gabon and realized there was a vast, intact forest corridor spanning the two countries from the Oubangui to the Atlantic Ocean. In 1997, he walked the entire corridor, over 2,000 miles, surveying trees, wildlife, and human impacts on 12 uninhabited forest blocks. Called Megatransect, this work led to a historic initiative by the Gabonese government to create a system of 13 national parks, making up some 11,000 square miles (28,500 square kilometers). In 2004, he completed the Megaflyover, an eight-month aerial survey of the entire African continent. He logged 800 hours and took 116,000 vertical images of human impact and associated ecosystems, many of which are now visible on Google Earth. In 2008 Fay completed the Redwood Transect, a new project to learn more about the redwood forest. He walked the entire range of the redwood tree, over 700 miles. Since then he has participated in the 2011 BioBlitz at Saguaro National Park, and is a regular team member of fellow NG Explorer Enric Sala's Pristine Seas Expeditions, recording the life and land above the waves.