We have recently launched a website “Archives of Japanese Honeybee Beekeeping” to introduce the history and culture of Japanese honeybee beekeeping.
As many of you may know, there are two types of honeybees in Japan – native Japanese honeybees (Apis cerana japonica) and Western honeybees (Apis mellifera), which were brought to Japan in the Meiji era. And, most of the honeys on the market today are of the latter.
The beekeeping of Japanese honeybees started in mountainous areas at the latest in the Edo period, and honey was then distributed and consumed for medicinal purposes. When kneading pills, for example, honey was a necessary ingredient. In “Hachimitsu Ichiran (Overview of Honey)” published in 1872, various images of beekeeping procedures are illustrated in the Ukiyoe style (Fig. 1). However, after Western honeybees and modern beekeeping techniques were introduced, Japanese honeybees with less honey yield become less and less popular and available and the honey was only locally consumed (not widely available for sale).
By the way, I still have the first edition of picture book “Konchuu (Insects)” published by Gakken in 1970, which I used in my elementary school days. The section on honeybees only describes Western honeybees, reading “they were introduced from Europe to harvest honey…”, and no mention on native Japanese honeybees at all. At one point, honeybees exclusively meant Western honeybees, and Japanese honeybees were somehow “forgotten”.
Since the 1980s, some reports on local beekeeping of Japanese honeybees started to be published. According to these reports, the beekeeping method of Western honeybees and its beehive type were rather standardized, whereas the “traditional” way of beekeeping were continuously carried out in mountainous areas and showcased diversity and reginal characteristics as in the shapes and materials of beehives and tools. Ecological studies on Japanese honeybees became more prominent after the 1990s. Then, hobby beekeeping of Japanese honeybees became one of the fads in the 2010s, and more and more websites to share information and knowledge about beekeeping techniques and relevant SNS are currently available.
However, little literature on the history and cultural aspects of Japanese honeybee beekeeping were available especially before the Edo period. Thus, a lot of things still remain unknown such as how Japanese honeybee beekeeping survived after the introduction of Western honeybees. In addition, many of anthropological and ethnographic studies on Japanese honeybee beekeeping have been published in academic journals and local history reports etc., making it relatively difficult for the general public to get hold of and fully understand the literature.
This website aims at capturing the overall history and cultural aspects of Japanese honeybee beekeeping with the following main contents: 1) a database of the available literature in the field of humanities, 2) the history of Japanese honeybee beekeeping and relevant literature, 3) photographs of various beehives and beekeeping tools across Japan (Fig. 2), and 4) a short documentary film of traditional Japanese honeybee beekeeping. The film captures the raw and vivid images of beekeeping processes and surrounding landscapes that cannot be sufficiently portrayed only with texts and photos. We also hope to effectively utilize this film to further the discussion on Japanese honeybee beekeeping across Japan and compare the different regions to explore both differences and similarities. Some of the contents are also available in English so that they can be used for the beekeeping research and comparative studies of native honeybees in neighboring Asian countries and regions such as South Korea, China, and Taiwan.
The beekeeping of Japanese honeybees is often carried out as part of multiple livelihood system, others of which include forestry, charcoal making, shiitake mushroom and orchard cultivation, hunting, and river fishing. Beekeeping research may, therefore, highlight other aspects of local livelihoods in an unexpected way. For example, we interviewed a local blacksmith who produces tools for harvesting honey in Kozagawa area, Wakayama Prefecture, in the summer of 2019 when we were filming the documentary of traditional beekeeping. Those so-called “Nokaji” or village blacksmiths have drastically decreased in Japan. However, when he talked about his proud work with such details as the length of honey harvesting tools and how to make the handle, and how he tailors tools to the preference and convenience of beekeepers, he surely reminded us of these fine techniques of local craftsmen supporting local agriculture, forestry and livelihoods for a long period of time.
We hope that this website will be widely used not only by beekeepers and researchers, but also by anyone who is interested in honeybees.
*This website is viewable on a smartphone, but it is easier to view on a larger PC screen.
The development of Archives of Japanese Honeybee Beekeeping was supported by Japan Society for the Promotion of Science’s Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research (No. 19K01215), the 2019 Interactive Communication Initiative of Research Institute for Humanity and Nature (RIHN : a constituent member of NIHU) and the FEAST Project of RIHN (No.14200116).
Gakken’s Picture Book “Konchuu (Insects)” (the 1970 edition to the revised 1990 edition), Gakken
(Translated by Yuko K.)