In the past year, Observant accompanied three UM employees while exercising their special hobby in nature: Myrtle Brongers is a beekeeper, Cécile Luijten is a hunter and Eric Bleize is a photographer
The queen is missing
The beekeepers are in a mild state of panic: they can’t find the queen. “She’s supposed to be in there”, says Myrtle Brongers, office manager at UM and part of the Bee Collective, a group of urban beekeepers in Maastricht. “We found open brood – in other words, recently laid eggs.”
It’s Tuesday evening. We are gathered at the Bee Collective’s seven-metre-tall Sky Hive in Lage Frontenpark, behind the Q-Park car park. An electronic system is used to lower the two beehives sitting on top of the pole. “There are two different colonies in the hives”, explains Brongers. “We’re checking to see if there is enough brood, enough food and enough honey.” The beekeepers take the frames containing the honey to the Centre for Nature and Environmental Education in Jekerdal to put them in an extractor, “a device used to spin the honey out.”
The first thing the beekeepers do after lowering the beehives is take off the protective cover, revealing the multi-storey hives. “They don’t like this”, says Brongers. “It’s like someone pulling the covers off you when you’re lying in bed.” Pierre, the most experienced beekeeper at the Bee Collective, blows some smoke into the beehives. “It calms them down”, the beekeepers tell me. Pierre is the only one working without protective equipment; everyone else is wearing bee suits.
“We don’t all have to be here every time we do this”, says Brongers. “Pierre is the only one who is always present. It’s all quite accessible. At the Bee Collective, you don’t have to take a course first; it’s learning by doing. What I like about beekeeping is that you can become completely absorbed in it. The buzzing of the bees drowns out all other sounds and thoughts. And you end up with honey!”
They don’t manage to find the missing queen. After spending more than thirty minutes looking for her, the group decides to call it quits for the evening. “The temperature isn’t great”, says Brongers. It’s about sixteen degrees Celsius, but there is a cold wind. It’s too cold to continue the search. They’ll take it up again tomorrow.
“It’s not killing animals for fun”
I was given specific instructions beforehand: wear sturdy walking shoes, warm and quiet clothes, and absolutely no deodorant, aftershave or fragrance. “The animals would smell it and stay away”, says Cécile Luijten (51), administrative secretary at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences – and a hunter.
It’s six in the morning, early November. We’re sitting at the top of a small lookout tower in a field just outside Maastricht. The two of us only just fit on the wooden bench. It’s cold and we have to be quiet, or else the animals might hear us. The only background noise is the leaves rustling in the wind. Every so often, we use an infrared viewer to check the field for animals, but we don’t see any. We’ll have to wait until sunrise, when they are most likely to show up.
We’re looking for wild boar, roe deer and foxes. Those are the animals that can be hunted in the Netherlands in early November, explains Luijten. Hundreds of geese are sitting in a nearby field. “I don’t have a permit to hunt in that area and I’m not allowed to shoot geese at this time of year.” They’re sitting there like they know it. By now, it’s eight a.m. and the geese are the only animals we have seen. “I might come back tonight. I prefer sitting here for two hours to sitting at home watching TV for two hours.”
We head for a one-man lookout tower against a tree on the other side of the field. Luijten, about 1.65m tall, is carrying her sniper rifle on her back and holding a shotgun in her hands. She is wearing high, warm boots. Her long hair is pulled back in a ponytail under her cap. All in all, she doesn’t look like a stereotypical hunter.
There are many misconceptions about hunting. Luijten repeatedly emphasises that she doesn’t kill animals just for fun. “We hunt to protect crops and for wildlife management purposes. For example, we kill foxes to increase the pheasant population. Foxes also eat roe deer fawns.”
Luijten got her hunting licence a year ago, she tells me over a cup of coffee at her house. It all started with her dog, who didn’t go with us today. “Puppy training classes were too boring for him. After sitting on command three times, he just seemed to think, ‘Well, I did it, didn’t I?’ I went looking for more. He’s a hunting dog, so our trainer recommended we try hunting dog training. He did well, so we went again, and again.”
Luijten and her dog initially worked as drivers, driving the game towards the hunters. After two years of hesitation, Luijten enrolled in a course to get her hunting licence. She puts a pile of folders and papers on the table, next to our coffee cups. “This is all the theory I had to know. I attended classes two evenings a week for three months.” Respect was a key concept in the course. “It’s about respecting wildlife, respecting nature and ethical hunting. For example, you can’t shoot geese unless they’re flying. And if you shoot an animal, you have to try to kill it with one shot. If you fail to do so, you have to follow the wounded animal and look for it until you’ve found it.
“After passing your theory exam and your practical exam, you still don’t have your hunting licence. It involves a lot of paperwork: a certificate of conduct (VOG), insurance, background checks on your family members, and various gun safe inspections. Even my own husband isn’t allowed to know where I keep the key. And once you have obtained your licence, there are strict rules you must follow. I have to renew my permits annually and I have to let the police know every time I go hunting.”
“It feels like the sun rises just for me”
“I assume we’re still on for tomorrow morning, despite the coronavirus situation?” asks Eric Bleize, schedule planner and online learning environment administrator at the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, on Wednesday 18 March. The university has only just closed its doors and asked its staff to work from home as much as possible. Yet to realise the gravity of the coronavirus situation, we decide that yes, we’re still on for tomorrow morning. We’re heading out to photograph frogs.
It’s 6:30 a.m., just after sunrise. We’re in Meertensgroeve, a former sand and gravel quarry near Vilt. Over time, pools of water have formed here. There is dew on the grass and morning mist hanging over the water. As frogs are cold-blooded, they’re more likely to stay put and allow themselves to be photographed early in the morning, when they haven’t had much sun yet.
Bleize puts his tripod and his backpack with camera equipment in the grass in the middle of the quarry. “Many different animals live here. I often come here in the summer to photograph dragonflies and other insects. I even saw a deer once, but I was too late to take a picture of it. I’d only just got here and my camera was still in my bag.
“I always just wait and see what happens. If we can’t find any frogs, we’ll probably find a nice patch of moss or a mushroom to photograph. It’s the combination of photography and nature that I love. I’m always the only one here in the morning. It feels like the sun rises just for me.”
Bleize walks slowly around the pools, focused on the water’s edge. “They like to sit here and warm up in the morning sun.” There are clumps of frogspawn everywhere, but we don’t see any frogs.
In various places, winged insects are perched on the tops of the grass growing between the pools. They aren’t moving. Are they dead? No; they’re covered with dew (see photo). When the sunlight reaches them, they start flapping their wings to shake off the water. Soon after, they fly away. “I’ve never seen this before. I see something new every time. I’ll look into it when I get home.”
Walking around the pool of water that is the farthest from the entrance to the quarry, Bleize discovers a dark, slimy creature sitting on a reed stalk. Is it a frog? “It’s a fire belly newt”, he says with firm conviction. He lies down on his stomach: a photographer can’t be afraid to get dirty.
Nature photography isn’t the only type of photography Bleize likes. He goes to art school in Maasmechelen, Belgium, where he learns about all kinds of types and styles of photography, up to and including Japanese street photography (characterised by grainy and blurry shots), he explains while we are on our way back home. He also goes to concerts and festivals as a photographer for an online music magazine. “For example, I’ve been to a Miss Montreal concert and to Reggae Geel, a festival. The people there are very relaxed. They like to be photographed. It’s different out on the streets.”