SRI LANKA: Clay Pots & Fish Palms
Updated: Apr 13
APIS CERANA IN SRI LANKA
There are 70,000 bee species in the world, and among them 179 live in Sri Lanka – common bees, sweat bees, polyester bees, and leafcutters. So when a WhatsApp message with the contact for “Bee Man” came through my phone, there were quite a few possibilities of what this meant.
Ravindu Gunawardana is the head of Nature Bees Sri Lanka, a group that I had admittedly looked past based on their website photos. In his website profile pic Ravindu is on his mobile phone, wearing a gray wool hat and aviator glasses, head cocked back so that his goatee greets the camera first, looking altogether a bit like the Bob Marley of Sri Lankan beekeeping. To his right is Chathusha Dissanayaka, with beautiful shiny black hair, waved back in a loose faux hawk, which paired perfectly with his Rhythm Nation black leather jacket, peppered with zippers and snaps. I had underestimated them – apparently in Sri Lanka, beekeeping is badass.
I talked with both guys on a WhatsApp call from my hotel at a yoga retreat in the Knuckles Mountains. I was hopeful for bees when I arrived at yoga retreat: amidst the dog-eared Clive Cussler and Jodi Picoult books left by previous travelers, a rusty smoker was shelved next to an illuminated print of Hindu’s triumvirate. The tin on the smoker was a deep dirt brown, and the leather of the bellows was crackingly dry for such a humid climate. Clearly, this smoker had been unused for quite some time. The owner of the hotel brokered my introduction to Ravindu, and he boasted beekeeping himself in England for a few decades before moving to the cool blue mountains east of Kandy in central Sri Lanka. “We just can’t domesticate them here. They won’t hive,” he lamented. “Maybe the honeybees have mixed with the wild ones,” he conjectured.
On the phone with Ravindu and Chathusha, we had a chance to talk further about what’s working or not with the honeybees of Sri Lanka. The guys introduced me to their work with apis cerana, one of three “true” honeybees (those that sting) in Sri Lanka. Apis cerana, or the Hive honeybee or Indian honeybee, or just Mee bee in Sinhala, is found and hived through mainland and Southern Asia. Almost all domesticated Asian honey bees are now referred to as Apis cerana throughout India, Pakistan, Nepal, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand and mainland Asia. They are gentle and don’t swarm much, making them ideal for beekeepers’ needs.
Unlike apis cerana who has a short flight range, Ravindu and I were on the phone since he had gone to Sheffield, UK to learn more about bees, and support his wife, one of only a few beekeeping researchers in Sri Lanka. While Ravindu was supporting his wife's research in the UK, Chathusha was running their commercial honey operation in Kandy with a dozen or so hives, producing raw honey, cinnamon honey, and selling comb and hives to others.
Unlike traditional beekeepers, Ravindu and Chathusha use Langstroth hives.
The more traditional way of domesticating apis cerana bees is to use the trunk of the fish palm tree, Caryota urens, that allows for small colonies to hive right near their food source. For apis cerana, with a small flying range of only a kilometer, close access to pollen and nectar is crucial. But it also means that only 5 to 10 colonies can be hived near each other, limiting the number of hives that can be tended by rural families without access to large plots of land.
Modernizing from the fish palm trunk hive, beekeepers have started to use clay pots for catching swarms and housing colonies. Clay pots are everywhere in Sri Lanka, used for burning coconut oil for morning pooja prayers, for holding water, for cooking and serving hot yellow dal, swirled with curry leaves.
Shops stack the bowls as neatly as an organized honeycomb, whole truck beds are packed with coconut coir to transit the fired pots.
A “modified” clay pot has been created specifically for beekeepers. “After shaping the clay pot, we have to burn it to make it hard, but before that, we cut it down the middle. It can separate into two parts, joined into an upper and lower part. And then we can reuse the two halves. If you are using a traditional clay pot, to take honey we break the clay pot.”
While talking, my phone is beeping with incoming images Chathusha is sending of clay pot hives, broken in half, soft yellow comb in stark relief to the baked terracotta.
As beautiful as they are, Ravindu has some grievances about those traditional clay pots and strongly prefers the modified pots or Langstroth hives. “With the traditional pots, we cannot feed the bees. We cannot manage swarm. We cannot check for disease.”
In 2012, disease wiped out many hives in Sri Lanka. A widespread infection of the sacbrood virus, a normally mild infection which impacts bee reproduction, killed enough larvae that the hives were weakened and succumbed to other threats, like wasps. The virus manifests with uneven sunken brood pattern or with perforated cell cappings, indicative of adult worker bees trying to remove infected larvae to save the larger colony.
From a Western beekeeping perspective, there are no chemical treatments for sacbrood, but in Sri Lanka, where honey was first used in Aryuvedic medicine, Ayurveda also provided the treatment for infected hives. “In India they use tulsi,” Ravindu explained, and in Sri Lanka the “binhkohomba [plant] is used for human viruses and it has some effectiveness against sacbrood.” For people, binhkohomba is used on everything from treating fevers and dysentery to eczema and asthma.
“We’ve had very indigenous knowledge of beekeeping” said Ravindu. “Nobody tried to develop this industry for commercial agriculture until recently. Even when we face issues, we use traditional medicine. In Sri Lanka, the father or grandfather gives the knowledge to the next generation.”
The real grandfather of beekeeping and research in Sri Lanka is Dr. Ranjith Wasantha Kumara Punchihelwa, a professor and prolific author of scientific papers on Asian honey bees. We had corresponded before I started my travel to Sri Lanka, as all beekeeping roads lead to Dr. Punchi. Through a mix of broken URL links, and bounced yahoo emails, Dr. Punchi tried to share with me previous interviews - of his 1990’s interview with National Geographic, of the warnings of pollination decline in Sri Lanka leading to mass famine, and a YouTube video link which had long been removed. Technically savvy or not, it’s clear that Dr. Punchi is Sri Lanka’s preeminent expert, and Ravindu has been his faithful student.
“I was not a brave person when I was in my student days, but I was passionate about beekeeping. My mother, one day she gave me a book about bees from Dr. Punchihelwa. I understood that if I wanted to learn more than I had to go to this person. I found he was a lecturer, and I changed my total education career, and I went to study with him.” The 232 page volume is now discontinued and web links to PDFs hardly load.
But similar to the web links, Ravindu also found the path with Dr. Punchi a bit broken. “Straight away at university, I planned my fourth-year research with Dr. Punchihelwa. But in my third year, he was retired. Then who is the next person? But nobody is there. In Sri Lanka, nobody.”
Dr. Punchi, perhaps the original “Bee Man” had left a gap that now young people were seeking to fill. Ravindu’s girlfriend applied for the lecturer role opened with Dr. Punchi’s retirement, and his sister, now also a third-year student is a good beekeeper. While grandfathers’ wisdom is less evident, young, badass, hipster beekeepers like are filling the space with a mix of modern and traditional.
“We have tried to create a database, as you know the data is a very huge weapon. We collect data and photos. We are publishing in Sinhala,” said Chathusha.
The old ways and the new ways are merging, but like so many nations around the world, it’s the economy, stupid, that guides what is possible. The economics of beekeeping in Sri Lanka might be a core reason for maintaining traditional ways of beekeeping in readily accessible pots and palms. There are only three or four Langstroth hive makers in the country, making wooden boxes in three grades, ranging from 1,500 to 50,000 rupees ($5 - $189 USD as of March 2022). The 2019 per capita income in Sri Lanka is roughly $1400 a year, making these boxes far out of reach for most households. The lowest grade might well become a box full of propolis (bee glue), as Ravindu is “not recommending that type of box. It has lots of errors” which absorbs the bees’ energy and reduces the production of honey.
The economics of honey production also keeps raw high-quality honey out of reach of most households. While honey production is limited, expensive, and challenging, Sri Lanka’s more readily available approach to “honey” is actually not honey at all, but treacle. Kitul treacle is made from sap of the same fish palm tree that hosts apis cerana, as they pollinate the long strings of date flowers, and rotate to thousands of other tropical fruits. The fish palm tree is cut, wrapped with a red string tourniquet, and after a few days, the collected sap is drained. Rather than fermenting and distilling to sap to make Sri Lanka’s rum called arrack, or dried into palm sugar jaggery, the sap is cooked on a wood stove, giving it the same smoky flavor as local honey. Beekeepers stay focused on bees as pollinators, with honey as a small by-product for a luxury or medicinal market. Instead, the average household pours smoky treacle over buffalo milk yogurt, served in – of course - clay pots.