Bees

A Look at Traditional Asian Beekeeping Methods

Exploring the potential of ecological restoration and farmer livelihood improvement with the Asiatic honeybee

The Asiatic honeybee, Apis cerena, is one of the native bee species in Thailand that is found throughout much of Asia. While it is a wild species, there is a tradition of over 2000 years of raising these bees by the peoples of this region.

As we experienced in the highland villages of the watershed of Chiang Rai, Thailand, where we recently attended a course run by He Guoqing and Katrina Flett of Elevated Honey Co, the traditional way of raising these bees involves almost no management at all. Apis cerena is called in Thai “Pheung Prong”, which means “the bee of the hollows”.

It is a cavity dwelling bee species, requiring a nest in a dark hollow space of the right size. In the forest they may occupy hollows in logs or trees. At the agroforestry learning centre near my home, a hive occupied the bottom part of an old cabinet. A participant and extension staff for the organic forest coffee project, Air, has a colony in an old speaker that has been there a number of years.

The simple intervention that continues in the traditional way today, both in these communities in Thailand and Guoqing and Katrina’s village near Shangri La, China, is to make a hive for the bees to occupy. The basic and most ancient form is a hollowed out log with a cap or lid on one side. Here in Chiang Rai, a native palm species (Livistona speciosa), also used for traditional thatching, is the preferred material.

Mr Srinuan, an organic forest coffee farmer and cerena beekeeper in the village of Huay Krai, was preparing new log hives at the time of our visit. Cut to appropriate lengths, he then hollowed the logs out and then burnt the inside. Katrina explained that the burning both prevents pests and removes wood smells that the bees may not like. She explained that, generally, Apis cerena is quite sensitive to smells and therefore cerena hives are never painted with paint, however they can be treated with a blend using the bees’ own wax to increase their longevity.

Where to put the door?

The next step is just to make a hole, as a door for the bees. Most of the hives we saw had holes of about 2cm in diameter. One village elder said that, traditionally, the hole should be made in direct alignment with one’s own navel when sitting in the lotus position. As, cosmologically the navel is considered the entry point for the spirit, this would then be reflected in the hive.

However talking with other villager beekeepers, I discovered they did not use this practice. One just put the hole a third of the way up. Others just used their sense of what is best. While the hollow logs may be the oldest form, we saw many simple wooden boxes, one elder with a hive woven with bamboo then covered with a plaster of wood ash, cow manure and tree resins, and even one farmer who had innovated punching a hole in an old cookie tin of a good size which he said had a bee colony occupy it before.

After one has made these simple hives, they are placed in different locations and when the bees start to swarm as the flowers and nectar supply in the area increased, many will be occupied. In Ban Huay Khun Phra, a village with a number of cerena beekeepers, most of the hives are set directly in their forest gardens, normally attached at a certain height to a large native tree. Katrina showed photos of hives set in forest areas in their part of China as well.

Many of the beekeepers we visited also had hives directly around their home, normally raised off the ground and protected by the roof eaves.

While with luck and a good swarming season the bees may just enter and occupy any such hive, the traditional way to help lure them a bit more is to apply some cerena beeswax to the inside of the hive. This will give an attractive and familiar smell. Hives that have been occupied before and have such wax residues are already attractive.

In these villages in Chiang Rai, occupied hives are left alone until people either see signs that the hive is full, such as bees congregating at the entrance, or they reach the end of the “nectar flow”, the period where there are many flowers in bloom and copious supplies of nectar and pollen.

In mountainous Chiang Rai the end of the nectar flow is sometime in May and most “honey pulling” is done this month. By the end of May or June, the rainy season will come and there will be few flowers as all of the plants and trees switch to vegetative growth.

With these traditional log hives, one cannot easily open the hives to check them. Also the combs will mostly have a mix of honey and “brood” (developing bee larvae). While an elder said that with a log hive placed horizontally (sleeping log) it is possible to sometimes remove some combs and leave others, and he may pull half of the combs and leave the rest, much of the time all of the combs would need to be pulled or broken off. Such is the way the honey is harvested. For those who know it, the combs with young brood are a delicious milky protein food as well.

In Chiang Rai, a few such hives may be occupied year-round, however most of the bees leave after the honey harvest and don’t return again until the swarming season from mid-February to mid-April.

The bees in these hives are still wild bees, with a good resistance to pests and diseases. As they are unmanaged, the bees can swarm and develop new colonies when they are ready, repopulating the forest or any place and space they find to occupy. So while these hives can provide honey for the farmers who raise them, they also help to strengthen the overall population of bees in the area.

The dependence of our planet on pollinators

As Katrina shared, while some people consider beekeeping a cute profession, the dependence of our planet on pollinators is huge. At the same time, much of the pollinator population is in a dire situation.

Katrina explained that in the modern food system which has converted vast areas to monoculture, places devoid of the diversity and habitat needed to support pollinators year-round, only with the transport of huge numbers of beehives around and between countries can we produce the food that we have. She said that research shows that a third of our food supply is dependent on these migrating pollinators. Some crops, such as all tree nuts, would completely vanish without pollinator support.

At the same time, Katrina, who grew up in a beekeeping family in the USA which continues their trade today, shared that it is common for beekeepers there to lose up to 45% of their colonies each year. It’s clear that our world and food system are on a precipice.

While she identified a number of causes for the dearth of pollinators, including pesticides, fungicides, shift of large areas to monoculture, poor quality and diversity of bee fodder, stress on bees from being transported, parasites and diseases, in particular varroa mites, she saw two critical interventions to help restore the health of the pollinator population and food system. Firstly to stop the use of systemic pesticides like neonicatinoids, which are applied to seeds and soil, making the crops and their pollen toxic and, as they also flow with water into the larger ecosystem, can even make weeds and trees in nearby natural buffer areas toxic as well.

She explained how canola (mustard seed for oil) once was a very important bee fodder crop but now, as it is generally treated with systemics, is toxic and dangerous to bees. The second key needed intervention is to restore diversity and pollinator-friendly crops and habitat in and around agriculture areas, peri-urban areas, and even in cities.

With consolidation of agricultural lands and monoculture practices, vast areas have become effectively deserts for pollinators lacking food and habitat. Once there are again buffer areas of biodiversity and pollinator-friendly plants, then native pollinator populations can recover and bees may be kept in an area year-round. As it is, it’s only during the limited flowering season that there is any fodder for bees, meaning crops requiring pollination need to have bees shipped in to do this task, with the resultant stress and transfer of parasites and disease that accompany these journeys.

Returning to the very different context of the forests of upland Chiang Rai and the communities visited which are part of the Organic Forest Coffee Project of MiVana, there is a very high biodiversity and ecological health.

An increase in beekeeping leads to an increase in crops

Apis cerena has a stable host/parasite relationship with varroa mites which do not pose this bee species any threat. The village of Huay Khun Phra has a number of Apis cerena beekeepers, all using traditional logs or simple boxes. Since their community took on this beekeeping in a larger way over the last six or seven years, they have seen much better fruit set with their coffee and tree fruit crops. They also produce quite a bit of honey which they sell collectively. In a honey tasting session, the participants all gave a high ranking to this local honey with its depth of flavour.

While this community has about 20 active beekeepers averaging about 20 hives each, Katrina said that in their situation, as with the other communities visited, every villager could have 50 hives or more and still there would be more than sufficient fodder for the bee colonies. While these villages are set in the middle of healthy forest, it is clear that we have a real decline in pollinators and by creating habitat and providing dwellings (hives) we can help restore this and improve ecological health.

While the ancient and basic form of beekeeping practised here with hollowed out logs or simple boxes is easy and already has many benefits, Katrina and Guoqing taught us about raising Asiatic honeybees in boxes with movable frames. These boxes have many similarities to the boxes that are used in much of the world to raise Apis mellifera, but they are smaller and not painted.

A great variation in ecotypes

While Apis cerena is one species, we learned that there is great variation in its ecotypes. The bees that Guoqing works with at around 2800 metres are quite a bit bigger than the bees found at 1000 metres in Chiang Rai. This variation would reflect a wide genetic stock, which should mean a good capacity to adapt and adjust to different conditions. For Apis mellifera as raised in Europe and North America, the genetic stock is much narrower and the bees in general much more similar. This is likely to be one more weakness in terms of adaptation capacity to changes and new forms of stress.

We worked with boxes purchased from Pr. Orawan of the Bee Park in Ratchaburi, and Guoqing also designed a box. Guoqing’s feeling from years of experience for the ideal size for the bees we worked with in Chiang Rai was a space of 25cm x 25cm x 43cm. This would be large enough for a healthy colony, but not have much extra unused space that could harbour pests.

The key advantages of working with such boxes are that you can open the boxes easily without damaging the comb and inspect the colony and,secondly, the frames which were 2cm in width and the length of the box, can be pulled out individually to be moved or harvested.

When we are able to inspect the colony, we can see if the colony is doing well or if there are any problems and then work to manage them. With frames we can move, we can harvest frames of mostly or entirely honey while leaving the frames with a young, developing brood. The door hole(s) for these boxes are also sized to be just wide enough for the bees to easily get in and out but narrow enough to prevent some pests from entry.

Giant hornets are one of the biggest threats, and if they manage to get into a hive they can force the whole colony out. With these smaller sized holes this should be prevented. An additional possibility with the boxes as seen with Guoqing’s design is to add extra smaller boxes on top called “supers” with a “queen excluder” in between. As the queen bee is significantly larger than the worker bees, a queen excluder is a sort of lattice wide enough to allow workers but too constrained for the queen.

When the workers build new comb in the “super” above, the queen cannot enter and lay eggs. Thus these combs will be free of any brood and normally 100% honey. These pure honey combs when harvested yield a very clean, clear honey. They also can be cut and sold as combs with honey in them, a popular higher value product. Guoqing and Katrina normally leave the lower box with its brood, pollen, and honey for the bees and only harvest from these upper “supers”. In this way, the colony has ample resources to get through the winter in their area when there will be little in terms of nectar and pollen to find.

Post-harvest management of honey

We also learned a bit about good post-harvest management of honey to produce a quality product. While with pure honey combs this is easier, a first point was not to mix combs of honey with other combs, but to cut and separate them out from the start.

Then we learned the biggest threat to honey is moisture. If the moisture content of the honey is too high, it will begin to ferment and gradually go sour. A common mistake is to mix nectar with honey. Bees collect nectar and put it into their combs and then use their wings to evaporate out moisture, converting the nectar to honey. When the comb is full and transformed into honey, the bees apply a white capping of wax over it. Only this capped comb is “honey”.

There will be other combs filled with nectar but not yet capped. This nectar will normally have a significantly higher moisture content. We learned the magic number is 18%. If the honey has 18% moisture content or less, it will keep for many years, but if it is greater, it can start to ferment.

Katrina explained that, particularly in humid tropical environments, honey can easily draw in more moisture when exposed to the air. So the best practice is to keep the honey in sealed containers right away. They use a hot room (which reaches about 60 degrees C) to help evaporate out some moisture. This seems helpful but of only limited potential. To check honey moisture content a specialised tool called a “refractometer” may be used, and such measures are needed for higher value honey markets.

Transferring colonies from log hives to boxes

Our main hands-on practise was transferring colonies from log hives to boxes with movable frames. With three chances to observe and practise this we were able to develop a good understanding and some confidence. After we had prepared the necessary equipment — mainly wearing hats with veils, having a smoker going, and then having the boxes, frames, wire and tools ready — the first step was to puff a little smoke (not too much) into the door of the hive. The second step was to carefully and slowly remove the lid (on which the combs were attached), someone giving a bit more smoke, and then setting the lid ideally so the combs do not break off. (If the combs are running straight up and down they are less likely to break). Then, using two smooth boards to assist, combs are cut or broken off and fit flush to the top of a frame and fixed in place with bamboo strips and wire.

Once a comb (or two if they are small) is well-fixed into the frame, the frame is put into the box. This process continues until most of the combs with brood, pollen, and/or honey are transferred to the frames and put into the box.

The point of greatest concern is the queen. As Katrina explained, if the queen lives, the colony will live but if she dies, it will likely die. The queen gives off a strong pheromone that attracts the workers to group around her and care for her. So when doing this, any grouping of bees may have the queen within. The main care is to go slowly and gently to avoid accidentally crushing bees — which could mean the queen.

Once a frame or two is in the new box, we can also start scooping bees. This was the most amazing experience for me. While one can use a glove, Katrina and Guoqing recommend to use one’s bare hand as, with a glove, we cannot sense well and can crush bees. The bees are warm and a full of life. I did not get stung at all when doing this and was surprised how friendly the bees were.

This process continues until the queen is successfully in the new box. Once she is in, her presence will attract the other bees. So with the frames and queen in, we can more aggressively shake bees in or flush them out with a bee brush (horse hair brush) or a bit of smoke. In the new box, we need to encourage the bees to group on the frames with their combs (pushing them lightly with a stick) and then we move a solid board in the same shape as the frame close to the last frame in the box to make a tighter darker, space as they prefer.

If one has a small queen excluder this can be placed in front of the door to prevent the queen from getting out until the colony has settled into their new home. A last step is to put the box in position. Its door should be in the same direction and as close to the same place as the door in the old hive as bees orient to this position and will go back to this place. The hives should have some protection from rain which can be just a piece of roofing to cover them.

A couple days later when we observe worker bees foraging and returning to the hive we can remove the queen excluder at the entrance. A week or more after the transfer we can open the box and remove the bamboo strips and wire from the comb which will then be well secured by the bees. After such a transfer the old log hive can be used again, set up somewhere else. According to Katrina and Guoqing, log hives are normally more attractive to swarming bee colonies than the modern boxes.

For Katrina and Guoqing, their social enterprise both seeks to deepen the relationship of local farmers with their ecology through their bees, which need and benefit from biodiversity and which are harmed by agrochemicals, and to provide them with a sustainable livelihood that can stop and reverse the trend of urban migration that is having its toll on rural communities around the world.

Restoring health and abundance to our planet

From these five days on this journey of exploration, I felt more in touch with and more touched by all of the life that shares this planet with us. Being in organic forest gardens surrounded by watershed forest and connecting directly with the Asiatic honeybees which seemed so kind and almost welcoming our presence, I feel once again that while our world may be in dire straits, it is in our deep human nature to be stewards and gardeners of this Earth, increasing its abundance and habitat rather than destroying it.

With Apis cerena, it seems easy. It’s a local, wild, well-adapted species only lacking in space. We can easily convert logs and boards into good habitat for these bees, which go on to do great work for us and the wild, pollinating fruit and crops and producing the wonderful magical substance that is honey.

While we learned of the crisis situation for pollinators and our industrial food system, we also learned and experienced that we can restore our ecologies and help provide habitat, restoring health and abundance to our planet. I thank Katrina, Guoqing, Spencer Leung of Go Organics, our village farmer hosts, MiVana, and all of the course participants for their part to make this such a rich and inspiring learning journey together.

*A shorter policy-focused related article “Pollinators in Peril, Our Food System in Crisis, and the Potential for Restoration” was first published with Heinrich Böll Foundation https://th.boell.org/en/2019/05/03/pollinators-peril-our-food-system-crisis-and-potential-restoration

Photo credits

NRCT, Research University Network Thailand, Haze Free Thailand

For more information

To learn more about Katrina and Guoxing’s excellent work and social enterprise visit https://elevatedhoneyco.com/

To learn more about the Organic Forest Coffee Project and MiVana visit http://www.mivana.co.th/en/about/

To connect with Go Organic and for future courses visit

http://www.goorganics.org/

Or connect with me directly michael@greennet.or.th

Michael Commons

Michael B. Commons works to build the capacity of farmers organizations, NGOs, and social entrepreneurs from South and Southeast Asia in regenerative value chain development while practicing "Wanakaset-" organic agro-forestry + self-reliance with his family in Chachoengsao, Thailand, and he is an active member of the Thai Permaculture network and the Agricultural Biodiversity Community.

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