On June 12th, FEAST’s researcher Max Spiegelberg, RIHN guest researcher Rika Shinkai and I joined a small international session on the Asian Honeybee Apis cerana and the beekeeping practices organized by Professor Fumio Sakamoto at Kyoto Gakuen University in Kameoka, who is also the founder of Kyoto apis cerana japonica Lab. Besides us, also Tai Ezumi from NPO Terra Rennaissance, promoting beekeeping within a project on community development in a landmine contaminated area in Cambodia as well as Ikumi and Yuichi Shiga from the Japanese Bee Weekend Beekeepers Club among others attended.
We learned that different types of honeybees have different habitats. The Asian bee (Apis cerana) has 4 sub-species of which the Chinese (Apis cerana cerana) and the Indian (Apis cerana indica) ones are spread most widely. The Japanese subspecies (Apis cerana japonica) is one of the subspecies of Asian bees. The Western bees were later imported from the USA as livestock as they are easier to raise in beehives and produce more honey.
To me, it was interesting to see in this session the many different types of honeybees, beehives, honey harvesting practices, and processing methods used within Japan and Cambodia. And even though the number of professional beekeepers in Japan has declined, there are many on-going researches about bees and beehives.
In one of the traditional Japanese ways, the beehive will be built in a vertical block-style, starting usually with 3 blocks in spring and then adding layer by layer at the bottom as bee’s comb grows bigger. For instance, at the hives of Sakamoto-sensei’s lab, there were currently 5 blocks piled up. Bees will enter the hive from the gate at the bottom and start to build the honeycombs from the top. Once the top block is full with honeycombs, it will be harvested without killing any bee.
Then the new, empty block will be added at the bottom to allow enough space for the bees to continue building their honeycombs downwards. Usually, 2 blocks, each contains about 5-kg of honey, can be harvested each year, and another one is left for the bees as winter food. This practice is different from western-style beekeeping in which the whole honey will be harvested at one time. To me, the traditional Japanese way reminds me of some eco-friendly wild-honey harvest practices in Thailand, where in some villages, only parts of wild-honeycombs will be harvested at a time, allowing bees to be able to restore their remaining honeycomb. In this way, people can harvest honey without disturbing bee’s life-cycle that much.
After collecting the top block, it will be placed in a plastic box. The honeycombs will be cut at their caps and honey will start dripping out into the box. This honey, called ‘tare-mitsu’, (meaning ‘dripping honey’ in Japanese), is considered to be a top quality one. Later, the remaining honeycomb will be placed on a net where more honey will be squeezed out gently. The quality-differentiation in processing is an interesting aspect from the point of special practice and value adding to honey as a product.
Experiencing beekeeping practices in Japan make me think of many ways to further develop the honey market in Thailand. For example, bee-friendly practices or dripping processing can be applied and might be able to increase the value of honey products in Thailand. I also learn the importance of doing scientific research about beehives and think that this must be done much more in Thailand. New-generation bee-keepers should also be able to tell the stories and communicate with consumers in the market.
*Prof. Sittidaj Pongkijvorasin is a Visiting Research Fellow from Faculty of Economics, Chulalongkorn University, Thailand and staying with FEAST from April 1st to July 31st, 2018. His research is “Impacts of local and eco-friendly agro-food production on small farmer and consumer’s perception on local agro-food product.”