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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