One of the endemic trees is Southern Andalucia is the cork oak (quercus suber). Of the vast cork oak forests of South West Spain, Portugal and Northern Morrocco today you can find them mostly in the natural park and biosphere reserve of Los Alcornocales.
Traditional beekeepers in South West Spain kept their bees in Cork hives up until around forty years ago. They were cylindrical pieces of the tree’s bark within which cross-sticks were used for the bees to hang their combs on. The lid and floor were also made of cork.
In the area of Vejer de la Frontera, many local small holders had these hives and passed them on from one generation to the next. With the advent of modern beekeeping practices where framed combs were introduced to help with hive management cork hives were largely abandoned.
Cutting the cork is a specialised job that men must learn over two years before they are allowed to begin the work, using an array of specialised cork knives. They know how high to cut the bark to avoid harming the tree and they follow a nine year cycle for each tree, allowing enough time for the cork to grow again before cutting it again. They work in teams and progress into the forest by foot, using mules to carry the pieces they harvest.
This last weekend, in the area of Alcala de los Gazules, while looking for a piece of round cork to make a hive in the woods, I met a man who does this job. Nicely surprised by my enquiry to use this traditional hive material, he immediately went to a corner of his workshop and brought me a piece he had collected a year ago. ‘You can use this one!’ – he said. Then he told me that the season for harvesting is strictly between June and August, and that if I wanted to, I could go with him and his team and collect some pieces of cork, because they need to be cut off the tree in a special way if we want to use it for a hive.
Very happy with my encounter with him, we said goodbye and till June when we could go collecting together some new hives. This means that we will be able to prepare these hives and have them ready for next year’s swarms. Thus, we will be able to re-introduce this traditional ‘log’ hives to our local huertas.