Angkor Wat, the region’s iconic temple complex reminds us of the sophistication of a society that was. From roughly 800 to 1400 A.D., the region thrived (before a devastating invasion by Thai warriors) and residents of this ancient metropolis relied on honey from the forest. “In 2007, satellite photographs of the area showed that it may have been the largest pre-industrial city in the world. It had an elaborate infrastructure system connecting an urban sprawl of 1,000+ kilometers, and a complicated water management network. It is estimated that it could have supported up to a million people.” - reported by honeyarchives.com
Unlike many other species that seek out protected cavities to form a hive, these bees create otherworldly curtains of wax that droop attractively high on canopy limbs. Containing 50,000-100,000 bees and weighing up to 115 pounds, these oversized blades of buzzing cooperation appear like giant droplets of golden honey oozing with anticipation, clinging atop airy titans of the rainforest.
Apis dorsata are a good choice to harvest and cultivate as they’re not overly aggressive or reactive and can safely be approached within a few meters. These bees build homes high in the canopy to avoid honey-scavenging attackers and monitor the mild tropical breezes for any hint of blooming nectar. Since these bees cling to the hive’s exterior, they famously utilize a mesmerizing proactive defense technique known as“The Wave”, shown here by David Attenborough.
Honey Hunters: “Early in the season honey hunters search the forest for bee colonies and mark occupied trees, so that other honey collectors can see that the colony is already ‘taken’. Later they return to harvest the honey. The harvesting season varies across the country. For example, on the Tonle Sap Great Lake honey is harvested during the rainy season when the floodwaters allow access to the flooded forests. Honey hunters are adept at climbing and can reach even the seemingly most inaccessible colonies high up in the outer branches of tall trees.” - as described by the Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity, ACCB
For millennia (no one knows how long) Cambodians intrepidly discovered, then bravely scaled up to 15 stories from the forest floor to win a sweet harvest. Either free-climbing barefoot or with only plant-fiber cords, they ascended with a bundled tuft of grass to smoke the honey bees into a less angry swarm. Marvel at this must-see clip of the courage and fortitude this requires.
Rafter Beekeepers: The bravery of tree-climbing foragers evolved into the practice of rafter beekeeping, basically clever placement of poles that mimic the diameter and angle (roughly 30 degrees upward) of high tree limbs. Beekeepers carry familial knowledge about locating their rafters carefully for habitation by a swarming colony. Adjacency to water and good nectar forage are clearly important, but read these more subtle details that guide rafter placement. “The absence of weaver ants is of paramount importance when determining the location for rafters…. Rafters are usually well-protected by the surrounding vegetation on all but one side. The resulting opening at the upper end of the rafter serves as flight path for the bees. Once a swarm settles on a rafter, this rafter tends to get occupied year after year. Therefore, the rafters are not removed at the end of harvest season, but simply replaced every three years.” - ACCB
We’re social creatures that tend to and improve conditions for our beloved. Since our emergence from Ice Age wilderness, ancestral family, clan and tribal bonds bolstered our ability to survive in groups. Our survival and progress has always depended on this.
Yet, what truly unlocked the growth for human societies was the extension of care to other species. For humanity to thrive, we cared for crops in cultivation and creatures in our stables. In exchange, a consistent source of grain, vitamins, furs, milk, meat and power was available for us. Due to love and care for other species; by setting the stage for them to thrive, we radically augmented our ability to survive.
In Cambodia, the status of the Giant Asian Honeybee and its home forest is in question. Once, when humans were fewer, simply scraping off the bounty of the forest by harvesting the whole hive was feasible. But, as human population and forest clearing for cultivation swelled, the wild swarms that would’ve re-stocked any patch of habitat have dwindled.
As the dominant species on earth, we must continually adapt our techniques of care to steward all species. Adaptation is underway in the Angkor Wat region: Humans Grow Kinder to Honeybees.
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