The irrelevant handicap
Beekeeping proves a flexible livelihood
Ludza, Latvia – Vilis Matulis eases himself into the driver's seat of his car, leaving his wheelchair behind. When he gets to the supermarket to do the week's shopping he'll navigate the aisles using a lightweight wheechair he keeps in his trunk. Everywhere he goes in this provincial town people he has known all his life hail him. More often than not, they ask about the activity that has made him famous in the district: beekeeping.
Despite his disability – he hasn't walked since a motorcycle accident when he was 19 – Mr Matulis has built up a thriving business not only selling over a tonne of honey every year, but also the all important queen bees. Other beekeepers buy the queens for their own hives.
"Beekeeping is traditional in this area and I have good demand for queen bees in season," he says. "I grow hundreds of them."
Agricultural activities such as beekeeping and keeping poultry have long been available as livelihoods for those who are wheelchair bound.
Mr Matulis has lived in his own house since he was 29 and can easily wheel around his workshop, where he builds wooden racks for his hives, out the front door and around to more than 50 hives on his two-hectare property. He wears gloves and protective headgear to avoid getting stung. His customers come to him.
"I used to live with my mother, who is just down the road, but now I am independent. I receive a state pension of 60 lati (US$120) a month, but mostly I earn my income from those guys flying around outside, meaning my bees," he adds.
He expanded his business last year with the help of TeleFood, an FAO programme supported by public donations that finances small development projects. TeleFood paid for a group of 11 people around Ludza to start or expand beekeeping. In Mr Matulis' case, it paid for extra barrels to hold the honey, honeycombs and seeds to grow the plants for pollen for the bees to gather.
"I would like to expand but then I would have to move. The neighbours don't like when the bees sting their cows and dogs," he says. "My dog hides from the bees in the basement but their dog has to run into the lake."
The beekeeper of Ludza not only drives himself around using a hand control for the gas and brakes, but got married last year for the first time to a local woman he met through an ad he placed in the newspaper. An avid gardener, his wife Sarmite grows vegetables in a greenhouse on the property.
Could anyone become a beekeeper?
Anyone with a place in the country can try keeping hives, but of the 11 people who signed up for the TeleFood project, only four were still active after a couple of years. It seems that it takes something special to be a successful beekeeper.
"Sometimes, people lose half their bees in the winter, maybe to a type of virus," he says. "I don't lose any of my bees. You have to have a rapport with the bees. It has to come from your heart."
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