Would You Walk Into a Room With Millions of Bees?

Cross-cultural explorer and National Geographic grantee Chris Bashinelli visited Uganda to discover how fair trade benefits local farmers. He met 76-year-old Kibwana Paulo in the Ruwenzori Mountains. Bashinelli explained, “Kibwana started selling fair-trade vanilla and as a result made enough money to start his own beekeeping business. And now that provides supplemental income, which allows him to pay off school fees for his family. He even rebuilt his home so he has a stronger roof so that the rain doesn’t come in every time it rains.”

Bashinelli seeks out cultural experiences that he wouldn’t be able to have in his hometown of Brooklyn, New York. He said, “It’s crucial for me to throw myself in uncomfortable situations, to walk in other people’s shoes around the world. Because I find the best way to understand another culture, another person, another way of life is to have a direct experience of what they’re going through.”

Chris Bashinelli puts on a beekeeper's suit. Photograph by Eric Kutner
Chris Bashinelli puts on a beekeeper’s suit. Photograph by Eric Kutner

In Uganda, Bashinelli tried working with vanilla beans and goats, and then he had the chance to go into an apiary. He has been afraid of bees since he was stung at about the age of six. He decided going into the apiary with Paulo was a good chance to face his fear.

“When I was a little kid I remember getting stung inside of my pants … and that feeling stayed with me for the rest of my life. I thought the only way to actually overcome this fear is to walk into a beehive with millions of bees and come out alive.”

Bashinelli and his crew joined Paulo and put on beekeeper suits. He explained, “The process for getting ready to go into the bee apiary, first of all, involves not having a heart attack. Once you’ve passed that first step, it involves very simply putting on this protective bee suit to dive in full force.”

Taking a breather in the bee suits. Photograph by Eric Kutner
Taking a breather in the bee suits. Photograph by Eric Kutner

Paulo then showed them how to blow smoke from burning leaves. The smoke interrupts the bees’ defensive response and creates an opportunity for the beekeeper to open the beehive and remove the honeycombs. The honey can then be collected and taken to market.

The beekeeper’s suit wasn’t exactly a perfect solution. Bashinelli explained what it was like to be in a suit: “It’s extremely hot and difficult to move.” It protects you from being stung—everywhere except on your face. If a bee comes close enough to land on a part of the net that is touching your face, it can sting you.

Unfortunately, Bashinelli’s cameraman, Eric Kutner, and producer, Rob Tate, got stung. Bashinelli said, “Eric is six five, and the beekeeper’s suit wasn’t big enough to cover his ankles. But he wasn’t going to say no. The second the bees came out of the apiary, they surrounded his ankles and they started stinging him. I think we counted 37 bites. He was vomiting for hours and it was really scary. I didn’t get stung. If I had gotten stung, I would probably be telling you a very different story right now, which would have involved me flying back home to New York.”

After they finished their work in the apiary and had some recovery time, Bashinelli had a conversation with Paulo. Bashinelli remembered, “He said, ‘The meaning of life is to work hard. If you work hard, if you help others, you will be happy.’”

Kibwana Paulo and his family. Photograph by Rob Tate
Kibwana Paulo and his family. Photograph by Rob Tate

Paulo was definitely a success story in terms of using income from fair-trade markets to create a better life for his family. But it is also no small feat for him to be working every day at almost 80 years old in an area where the average life expectancy is 50 years old. Bashinelli said, “Working with Kibwana, who by almost any standard lives in poverty, if not extreme poverty, [I noticed how] he’s happy because his mind’s not focused on himself. He’s focused on his family. He’s focused on others. That’s what enables him to work hard every day, without fail.”

Despite all the screaming and craziness that happened, Paulo acknowledged Bashinelli’s work in the apiary. He laughed and said with a smile, “The reason I said you did good work is because you risked. You took a risk but you managed to do it.”

Bashinelli was quite happy that his risk worked out. “It felt amazing. It felt like this weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Now I can finally come face-to-face with a bee without running the other way.”

Read more about how Chris Bashinelli got started as a cross-cultural explorer.

Find lots more inspiration from National Geographic Young Explorers.

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Carolyn Barnwell has been a producer on the Science and Exploration Media team at National Geographic for over five years. She creates content to support the non-profit National Geographic Society including impact initiatives and the important work of explorers and grantees around the globe. She wrote, produced and edited for Nat Geo’s first-ever web series focused on explorers in the field: Expedition Raw and Best Job Ever. She loves yin yoga, wildlife encounters, and eating baked goods while they are still warm from the oven.