Blog

Cambodia's Honey Harvest Traditions...in Action November 18 2016

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Photo courtesy of thousandwonders.net

The epicenter for honeybees in Cambodia overlaps with its historical center.  

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

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Photo courtesy of livescience.com

Photo courtesy of uniprot.org

The native honeybees of SE Asian jungles are the Giant Asian Honeybee, or Apis dorsata.  

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.

Photos courtesy of zoochat.com & indnaturewatch.com

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-harvesting traditions in Cambodia are twofold:

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

 

Photos courtesy of lakadpilipinas.com & iaszoology.com

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

 

Photo courtesy of beekeepingstuff.com

As human beings we are hard-wired to care for whom we love and what we need.  

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.

Apis Dorsata, Giant Asian Honeybee

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.

A window flower box, a backyard wildflower patch, a few Seedles and some water... it's all care.  And your care matters.

 Courtesy of Graham Owen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Humans Grow Kinder to Honeybeees - Traditions Transform in Cambodia November 18 2016

Traditional honey harvesting techniques evolved to meet the preferences of the Giant Asian honeybee and the desires of humans.

Dani Jump, founder of Bees Unlimited, believes that human desire goes too far and shares this story to illustrate:

 "I was out in a village one day with a friend when I heard the villagers explaining, in Khmer, what sounded like ‘rafter beekeeping’; a tradition, they said, that was being practiced in a community some distance away. I was privileged one day to join a team of community foresters working for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in this very village, where residents manage a community forest. One of them just happened to be the most respected honey-hunter/rafter beekeeper in the region. He showed me some of his Apis dorsata colonies, and how he harvested them.  I was shocked! He was cutting away the entire comb. That’s when I realized the rafter beekeepers here needed help.  Cutting off the hand that fed him—and his family—made no sense to me at all. This one-cut-take-all traditional method of harvesting Apis dorsata colonies just had to go. I would make sure of that."

Dani Jump, founder of Bees Unlimited, at Cambodian street market. Photo courtesy of Damian Magista

Dani’s story isn’t isolated either.  “Traditionally, the honey is harvested in a non-sustainable way, on a one-cut-take-all basis, where the entire comb is cut off, the honey is squeezed out and the larvae are sold to be cooked and consumed. The bees lose their offspring and if the colonies survive, they subsequently leave the area.”

- per the Angkor Center for Conservation of Biodiversity (ACCB)

For both honey hunters and rafter beekeepers, old approaches have proven too destructive.  Across Cambodia, honey hunting provides household calories and income, but bee populations are dwindling due to deforestation, destructive harvest practices and cultural desire for a certain delicacy from the hives.  

Photo courtesy of Damian Magista

Bee brood is the name for the grilled delicacy of bee larvae encased in the hive's comb. Local people enthusiastically flock to enjoy it, which pressures hive viability in the region. Wild honey harvesters push further into forest habitat, hunting hives and cashing in on bee brood demand to support their families.  “Deforestation is just one of the problems facing Apis dorsata. Cambodia’s burgeoning population, with an insatiable appetite for bee brood, is equally responsible for the decline; and, ‘one-cut-take-all’ harvesting has, over the years, had a negative impact on the bees. Deforestation and bee brood consumption must stop, if the bees are to stand a chance of recovering.” - Dani Jump

Positive change is now underway, led by efforts from Angkor Center for Conservation of Biodiversity, World Wildlife Fund, the Non-timber Forest Products Exchange Programme, and Bees Unlimited.  These organizations value intact rainforest that's utilized for sustainable harvest and valued as a complete ecosystem that’s crucially pollinated by native bees.  

Bees Unlimited trains local people for sustainable rafter beekeeping. There are three main principles:

Placement - Finding a strategic, attractive spot for the rafter to attract a colony.  Think of this like a bird house or osprey platform that enhances nesting habitat.

Protection - Raising awareness and organizing villagers and land owners to spare swaths of forest from clearing.

Harvest - The sustainable choice to cut out only the “honey head” from the hive. This is the most honey-rich portion of a rafter hive and spares the larvae (brood) and queen.  Below is a summary from ACCB, and here’s an up-close video of the technique.

Photo courtesy of ACCB

“During a sustainable harvest only the so-called ‘honey head’ is removed, an area at the upper end of the comb that contains almost all the honey. The rest of the comb is left intact, and the bees soon replace the honey head. This technique allows for earlier and multiple harvests, and also helps to protect the bees and restore their population in a given area. Having been deterred by smoke, within minutes after the sustainable harvest the bees are back on their comb. Once the bees start to migrate, the empty and abandoned comb is removed and processed to wax for sale. The bees return to the same place in the next season.”

In Cambodia, we are lucky to witness a full arc of techniques from tree-scaling wild honey harvest alongside careful arrangement of rafters in bee-friendly habitat, to ever kinder and wiser methods that spare the hive’s honey head.  With the guidance of trainers like Pieng Chhoin and Soeun Bun Som, local practices are adapting toward a sustainable honey harvest and beekeeping that promotes healthier forests with adequate hive densities.  

Over time, Cambodians adapted to accommodate bees’ needs by mimicking the limbs of the canopy trees.  Can they now adapt to the needs of the forest, caring for its pollinators?  The reach of wiser techniques, from Bees Unlimited, is surely part of the answer.

In our communities, the challenge to care is similar.  Can we adapt to provide our bees and key pollinators the habitat they need?  Let us bee the answer and grow the wildflower habitat of tomorrow!   

 Courtesy of pinterest.com