Short facts about tropical beekeeping
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