FORWARD OPERATING BASE MESCAL, Afghanistan - When the Mescal Detachment of Agricultural Development Team 4 from Mississippi arrived in Afghanistan, they didn't know they were inheriting beehives from the outgoing Agricultural Development Team (ADT) but they found out pretty quickly and they were just in time.
Arriving in September to FOB Mescal, a Romanian-run forward operating post in southern Afghanistan, the Mississippi team took over the effort of bringing improved agricultural practices and animal husbandry to the farming people of Tarnek-wa-Jaldek in Zabul province.
Beekeeping for the purpose of crop pollination was among the improved practices their predecessors tried to introduce. Bees have been proven to significantly increase crop yields for flowering crops such as almonds and pomegranates, both specialties for the area.
The previous ADT introduced nine hives of Asian bees to various farms in the surrounding area.
When the Mississippi ADT arrived, the hives were under attack.
The local Afghans call the attackers "bee wolves." At nearly 2 inches in length, the large hornet-type of insects attacked the beehives with military-style precision. They were an enemy the ADT, who are mostly infantrymen, hadn't trained for.
"Nothing we had would kill them that wouldn't also kill the bees, said Sgt. Paul Marshall, an agricultural specialist with the ADT Mescal detachment.
The hornets, five times the size of the bees, are able to decapitate their prey mid-flight and can decimate a hive in just a few days.
The Mississippi ADT acted as rapidly as they could, but they were at a disadvantage in knowledge and expertise to deal with the scope of the problem.
Fortunately, they found help with a Romanian soldier who just happened to be stationed at FOB Mescal.
Plutonier Eugen Arsene, a soldier with the Romanian 21st Mountain Battalion, was raised around hundreds of beehives and was taught by his father to be a beekeeper.
With Arsene's help, ADT4 gave its attention to the remaining hives.
The first task was retrofitting the hives with smaller entrances. The modifications made the entrances too small for the hulking wasps to squeeze into and easier for the bees to defend.
Despite the modifications, however, the bees were still in trouble.
Some of the trouble that remained was almost to be expected in a project of this type. The goal of the project was, after all, to teach Afghans the benefits of beekeeping as an improved agricultural method.
But, as portrayed in the 2007 DreamWorks animated feature, “Bee Movie,” most people think of one thing when they think of bees, and Afghans, it seems, are no exception.
"When you ask people about bees, they think of honey." said Marshall. "Most people don't realize the service they provide."
According to recent estimates, as much as one third of all plants and plant products eaten by humans are either directly or indirectly dependent on pollination by bees.
While honey bees are not the only type of insect to perform the service of pollination, they are for many reasons, one of the most effective at the job. The bees' hairy bodies trap pollen as they move from blossom to blossom making them excellent crop pollinators. Without pollination, few seeds, berries or fruits will develop.
On inspecting the hives in the Afghan orchards, Arsene and Marshall found that some hives had squares of honeycomb missing. It was obvious to the team that the honey was being cut out of the hives.
The misconception about the usefulness of bees in pollination rather than simply as makers of honey is well documented. A recent United Nations report titled "The Value of Bees for Crop Pollination" indicated that many farmers all over the world do not recognize the need for bee pollination.
The same UN report stated that the value of bee pollination for crops in regions where agriculture remains challenging is estimated to be 100 times greater, depending on the crop, than the value of the honey harvest.
The important role that the bees can play in significantly improving harvests is a lesson that the Mississippi ADT4 definitely want to teach the Afghan farmers. To do this however, the bees had to survive.
Based on Arsene's recommendation, ADT4 decided to transport the faltering hives back to FOB Mescal for rehabilitation.
What ensued was beekeeping intensive, with Arsene, the master teacher, and Marshall, the primary apprentice.
Only three hives had survived the wasp attacks and honey thefts.
"We improvised," Arsene said. "We invented practically, many activities."
Marshall had much praise for Arsene.
"He has addressed more problems in six months here than he would have had to handle in ten years at home," Marshall said.
Over the next few months Arsene, Marshall and the ADT4 combated everything from fungal infections to a food shortage in trying to care for the bees.
As the hives' health improved the team continued to make modifications to the hive boxes to help combat the extremes of desert temperature and weather conditions.
Next the ADT4 plans to build a shelter over the hives to protect them during the harsh Afghan winter, one that Arsene won't be around to help with as he will soon be headed home to Romania with the rest of his unit.
"Everything [Arsene] has done has been right," Marshall said. "I had to get answers and Arsene had the answer every time."
Arsene however, is confident in Marshall's ability to care for the bees after he leaves.
Marshall and the ADT4 have plans to start more hives in the spring to revitalize the Afghan bee project.
The bees can make a big impact on the agricultural production in the area Marshall explained. The project just has to teach the Afghans that the bees are not for honey, at least not yet.