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Short facts about tropical beekeeping

March 11, 2012

Yesterday afternoon Dokmai Garden was honoured by the presence of Ronny Willman, professional beekeeper from Sweden. He demonstrated living bees to a group of tourists and interested people who have settled here in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. Below are some short facts from Ronny’s presentation and demonstration.

Bees are kept for honey production. Bees collect nectar from flowers and transform it into honey which is a preserved form of sugary water. Honey is used as food by the adult bees when the weather is bad or flowers are scarce.

The European bee Apis mellifera is the only bee species kept for large scale honey production in Thailand. The Thai (Taiwanese?) strain is surprisingly peaceful and nobody was stung yesterday although we opened a bee hive and handled the frames. A smoker does not seem necessary. Some Thai farmers may catch a bee swarm of a native bee species (A. florea or A. cerana) and keep them, but they usually do not produce more honey than a bottle or two in a year. Thai people may also burn a nest of wild bees (e.g. A. dorsata) at night, and harvest their jungle honey. Bee and wasp larvae can be barbecued and served as food too.

The main season for collecting nectar to make honey is during the longan blossom (now). Longan (Dimocarpus longan, Sapindaceae) is a tropical fruit native to the northern Thai forests, and commonly grown in the Chiang Mai valley. Longan honey is liquid due to a high amount of fructose, and is most flavourful.

When longan is not in blossom other nectar sources are needed for the survival of the bees. Another current nectar plant we have noticed at Dokmai Garden is the native ‘Camphor sage’ Blumea balsamifera (Asteraceae). One important nectar source in November-December when very few flowers are displayed is surprisingly the hated exotic weed ‘Mile-a-minute’ (Mikania micrantha, Asteraceae). A good nectar plant during the rainy season is the South American ‘Coral Vine’ Antigonon leptopus (Polygonaceae) which comes in white and pink flowers.

The beekeeping technique and many large honey producing companies in Thailand are Taiwanese. A Thai beekeeper can buy or make a simple wooden box with entrance slits and a landing strip. During car transportation one turns the lid down to cover the entrance and exposing the ventilation grid. Place the beehive in the shade and avoid straight rows of many hives or it will be hard for the bees to recognize home. A nearby source of water is welcome.

Inside the beehive are wooden frames with wax sheets pre-stamped with hexagons. More frames can be inserted when the community grows. The beeswax to make honeycombs is produced by glands situated between the ventral abdominal segments of worker bees. In a wild nest, the larvae are kept in honeycombs in the centre, then there is a circle of honeycombs for pollen storage and the outermost honeycombs are used for honey storage. Trays with sugary water can be placed inside the beehive during times when nectar is scarce. To make sure the bees do not drown, add some landing sticks. In western beekeeping several boxes are commonly stacked, separated by a grid to prevent the queen from laying eggs. This technique does not work with Thai bees. They stay in the lower box.

The bee queen is an egg-laying machine, and is much longer than the workers.

A bee queen mates with male bees (drones). The drone dies after copulation and the queen returns to the hive to get cleaned from the detached male organ before going out again to seek a new male. On the average she mates with 5-15 different drones. She saves the sperm and if allowing a sperm to fertilize an egg there will be a female, if preventing the sperm there will be a male drone. The workers decide whether the female larva will become a new queen or a new worker. A queen is induced by making a larger cell for the larva and by feeding that larva with large amounts of royal jelly only (a secretion from worker bees containing protein, fat, sugar and vitamin B5 and B6). A worker larva only gets royal jelly for three days, and is then fed protein rich bee-bread (pollen mixed with nectar). Honey is the food for the adults during bad weather or times when no flowers are available. If the humans harvest the honey, we must compensate with sugar dissolved in water or the bees will starve to death.

Since wild bears are extinct in northern Thailand a beekeeper may only fear human thieves, bee-eater (a beautiful bird), red ants and parasites such as the Varroa destructor mite. This mite is native to Southeast Asia and native bees survive by constantly cleaning their bodies, a behaviour not present in the domesticated bee species Apis mellifera which therefore is very vulnerable. To avoid attacks from red ants, something which happened within days after the arrival of beehives at Dokmai Garden, the metal legs of the beehive can be placed in water trays or be wrapped with cloths with repellents. By blocking one entrance with a stick it is easier for guard bees to protect the remaining entrance against robbers.

Text & Photo: Eric Danell

19 Comments leave one →
  1. March 11, 2012 1:42 AM

    In your estimation, what is the risk of hives being stolen in Thailand? This is a common problem in the United States.


    • March 11, 2012 8:30 AM

      A small collection of hives is not interesting to thieves, but a commercial bee farm with hundreds of hives need guards. I know of a recent example told by Ronny. Thieves who obviously also were beekeepers came with a truck at night and loaded as many beehives as they could. They even stole beehives stamped with the governmental emblem. The value of a nightly raid could be worth 100 000 Baht.

  2. March 11, 2012 5:43 PM

    What an interesting post!!
    Beehive thieves? Never thought about that.
    But recently I read that in the USa thieves stole bees hives because of the nationwide shortage of bees.

  3. Ronny Willman permalink
    March 13, 2012 6:00 PM

    Eric explained that many are asking where to buy bees.

    Most new colonies are made during the rainy season and mostly sold during August-September.
    If you have your own hive you can buy frames with bees, for example 8 frames with brood,pollen and honey/sugar and a queen which you put in your hive and have a complete colony.
    Usually the price is 100-150 Baht/frame.

    You can also buy a complete colony including the hive for 1000-1500 Baht.

    If you are interested, I can try to help you finding bees for sale in August-September.

    Ronny Willman

  4. tariq permalink
    December 9, 2012 3:59 PM

    hello,,,,,sir i feel happy to see ur page,,,now recently i start business of bee,,,,now i stay in lop buri for sun lower season,,,,so i want to knw after this which place will be good for moving the bee,,,,and when will be start another season,,,,and which season is the best for making new colonies,,,,and where i can buy the empty boxes,,,
    plz answer me on my e-mail,,,i will be thank full to u,,,

    • December 10, 2012 11:13 AM

      Dear Tariq,

      I have only contacts here in Chiang Mai, but I forward your request to Khun Ronny Willman.

      Cheers, Eric

  5. Killian permalink
    April 1, 2013 10:12 AM


    I am in Phrao, about 70 km outside Chiang Mai, and have just bought a hive from some helpful keepers in my village. A few questions:

    1) have you built your own frames before, or is there a supply shop in CM that you would recommend? I would like to try and build something but the time it takes to build comb may be costly for the bees; any tips on making/laying the foundation would be much appreciated.

    2) do you take preventative measures against mites or other problems inside the hive (fouldbrood etc.)? if so, what preparations do you take and when?

    3) i purchased an eight-frame langstroth, and from what i’ve seen it is common practice here to stack an extra two frames on top of those eight. do you add any extra frames, and if so, have you had trouble with overcrowding or swarm cells?

    looks like i’m a wee bit late on the workshop, but I am grateful for any help offered. Thanks!


  6. Ronny Willman permalink
    April 2, 2013 3:46 PM

    1) No, I have never made any frames, that does not seem like an economical option. Fora Bee on Highway 11 about 7 or 8 km south of the intersection with ring road 2 is one of the largest suppliers of bee equipment, although the assortment is not that vast here in Thailand. One box of 100 wax sheets cost 1500 Baht.

    2) Mite infestations should be treated once or twice a year if needed. If you use fluvalinate or similar please remember to stay away from honey harvesting for two months. There are many methods against mites here in Thailand, but that subject demands a thorough discussion. Foulbrood has not been reported from Thailand. To my experience disease and parasites are not a main issue here in Thailand.

    However, the farmers’ applications of pesticides in their orchards cause significant death among bees. Red ants may also cause severe damage to bee populations. Some areas have so many hornets that Thai bee-keepers avoid such areas in spite of abundant nectar sources.

    3) During harvesting you use 8 or 9 frames for each hive. Other times 3-8 are sufficient.

    I have a stationary bee farm with longan as the only nectar plant. I harvest from mid February until early April. Just before the harvesting, usually at the end of January, I merge bee hives to make them strong enough. In early March the queen is barred to further strengthen the productive ability. Towards the end of the season some more fusions might be necessary.

    After harvesting I have about 50% of the original number of bee hives. During May-November this number is increased by division.

    Sugar is the largest cost, about 25-30 kg/hive, so do not expand the number of bees until there is a need during harvesting. In December-January the number of bees tend to decrease.

    Most larger bee farms depend on transportation to new nectar sources which evidently demands an entirely different management plan than what I briefly described here.

    Ronny Willman

  7. James Dumar permalink
    May 7, 2013 7:12 AM

    Hi Ronny, great info- thanks for sharing!
    What is your average yield/hive/year please?
    Any info on Chiang Rai area for apiculture?

  8. Ronny Willman permalink
    May 8, 2013 11:30 AM

    Hi James,
    Stationary bees in a longan farm yield 25-30 kg/year.
    You can increase this by moving the bees to longan farms at different altitudes which giving prolonged flowering time.
    Another 10-20 kg can be harvest if you are successful, but much work moving bees.
    I have no experience about other nectar sources or info on Chiang Rai beekeeping.

  9. James Dumar permalink
    July 20, 2013 9:12 AM

    Thanks for taking time to reply!
    Still trying to figure out why Thai apiculturists do not use supers!

  10. Alex permalink
    December 16, 2013 12:41 AM

    I’m a beginner beekeeper based in Italy and i will stay in Chiang Mai in February 2014 for a week. I would like to meet you or see your farm. It’s possible?
    Thank you in advance

  11. December 16, 2013 4:52 PM

    Dear Alex,

    Keep an eye on our website to check for the 2014 program. Most welcome, Ketsanee.

  12. February 19, 2015 10:40 PM

    Hello..I am a Scottish beekeeper, but have a daughter living in Chiang Ma Thailand and working at the University there. She has had a swarm of bees on her veranda for five days and is desperate for someone there to come and remove them.
    I have told her they must not be destroyed, Can you give me any contacts who might be able to assist her?

    Many thanks,

    Avril Clark Bothwell Beekeepers, South Lanarkshire Scotland.

  13. Mike permalink
    April 17, 2016 10:08 AM

    I live in Phuket (7 degrees north) and have only seen small bees about twice the size of a gnat. They make nests in my gate motor and produce beeswax and honey. I’ve never seen the bees that live at 40 degrees latitude. My mangosteens and passion fruit have little or no fruit. Is the reason for this that the small bees can not pollinate the fruit? And what do you suggest I do? I have about 2 1/2 rai and could facilitate bee boxes. I would, however have to learn how to care for them. Thanks for any suggestions you might have.

  14. majid permalink
    June 17, 2016 6:27 PM

    i’m majid beekeeper from iran
    happy find your website here
    i want you introduction 1-2 profecional beekeeper to me
    and they teach thai beekeeping and jelly royal production to us in iran
    we have big bee farm our company susceptibility for pay cost for teaching>airplan cost,stay and…. in iran
    pls contact me at
    whats app:00989153111720
    thanks alot
    i hope you help us
    b@warms regards
    majid modabber

    • August 8, 2016 2:57 PM

      Thank you for your kind invitation. I post your request here so that anyone interested can contact you. Good luck!


  15. Vince Poulin permalink
    September 4, 2016 1:51 AM

    dokmaidogma – Eric – would you have a list of the best “bee flora” for southern Thailand (Trang/Krabi). What best flowers and flowering shrubs to plant?

    • January 3, 2018 5:08 AM

      You simply need to make your own observations to expand the period of nectar blossom.Lamiaceae is usually a good plant family for nectar.

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