SRI LANKA: Wild Colonies like Half-Moons
Updated: Apr 13, 2022
APIS DORSATA IN SRI LANKA
I swapped seats with a young Muslim woman who had been near the window of the two-hour train ride. “I can see this any time” she said as she moved her university student backpack into the isle, inviting me to the window, where she had been sitting on her weekly commute from Colombo to her university town. No sooner had we changed seats did the train round a corner in the banana-rich mountains of Kandy, bringing in view a half-dozen half-moons of bee colonies, mounted to the underside of frangipani branches. I had been in Sri Lanka for less than 36 hours, and had seen my first apis dorsata, the giant Asian honey bee.
Sri Lanka, a small, pear-shaped island off the southeastern cost of India, hosts a strongly Buddhist culture, an adoration of rice, and thick jungles and hazy coast-lines.
I entered into Sri Lanka through the coastal financial and governance capital of Colombo. The sky was black with late afternoon rain when my flight landed, and by the time I arrived by Uber to the Galle Face Hotel, I was soaked – not by rain, but by sweat and humidity in 102 degrees. The Galle Face Hotel was first constructed as a Dutch colonist gathering hall for men in the 1800s, and was converted to a hotel in 1864, hosting both Mark Twain and braided beach-bomb Bo Derek in its years. An Aperol Spritz at the beach bar and garlic chili prawns at the Ministry of Crab, and travel day was officially over.
My first Colombo morning started with string hoppers, discs of rice noodles eaten by hand, and strong Ceylon coffee. Before Sri Lanka became known for its tea exports, it had been one of the largest producers of mountain coffee, pollinated by the giant Asian honey bees. No bees, no coffee. That alone will get me behind the cause.
While many Sri Lankans were tending to families and poojas, I started early with a tuk tuk to the Pettiah Market, the commercial center of Colombo. It’s where households shop for vegetables and fish, with coconut and rice being a main staple in any meal. Along the streets at the market’s periphery, bright orange coconuts piled up in gutters outside the gem shops selling Sri Lankan sapphires in their own surprising shades of orange and pink. The padparadscha sapphire is an entire sunrise in one rock.
By mid-morning, I had seen the iconic red and white Cargills building, and the stunning Islamic red-and-white counterpart, the Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque, both in the Fort area of Colombo. I joined a wedding photo shoot.
Nearby, at the Barefoot Café, Sri Lankan pop art, rough cotton weaving, and paper bags of cinnamon bark filled nearly two floors of the adjoining gift shop.
On a small shelf, next to the more affordable bottles of treacle syrup, were jars of raw Ceylon honey. The label read: “Wild Bee Honey was used extensively by indigenous people of Sri Lanka (Veddas) to preserve meat, as an elixir to long and healthy living and for its healing properties. Today fresh honey is offered in homage to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in the Royal Palace Complex as an annual ritual.”
I boarded a train to Kandy to see the Sacred Tooth.
The ride was beautiful – through rice paddies with white egrets and cows, lush banana plants and elephant grass, palm trees with areca nut, used to stuff betel leaves for the stimulant paan. A second-class ticket was $1.40, and ended at Lake Kandy in the center of Sri Lanka. Along the way, the half-moon hives were stunning. The apis dorsata prefers open hives in high trees. It hasn’t adapted to live in the dark, the way its cousins in trees or modern Langstroth hives do, nor does it need protection from cold in this climate. So finding a safe place to build waxy comb, rear brood, and make honey puts these bees in the tops of trees.
Before sunrise the next day I walked to the temple, joining hundreds of barefoot families in their morning offerings of flowers, upma studded with cashews and dates, and small pots of rice. Someone brought the Buddha a cup of coffee in a white plastic dixie cup.
The pooja starts daily at 5:30am. The silver-plated doors that enclose the Sacred Tooth, mounted on a pyramid of gold, opened for offerings and prayers. This pooja is one of three that happens throughout every day, with more elaborate ceremonies and crowds on full moon nights. In a special area, three-month old children were presented to the tooth of Buddha for extra blessings. A line of families set their offerings on the polished teak, which would be removed by temple workers in time for the next ceremony a few hours later.
Although the day's first pooja had already ended, outside the temple vendors were setting up stalls of flowers – cutting the waxy stems off purplish water lilies and shaping white jasmine blossoms into small mounds. More half-moon hives must be nearby, as the flowers were covered with bees. Their corbiculae –the baskets on their back legs for carrying pollen – were packed with the yellow protein that would be returned to the hives to feed baby bees. A single bee can carry half of her body weight in pollen. The vendor was amused that I was more interested in the bees than the flowers. “The bees are my friends” he said, and scooped one in his hand, making a pocket with his fist around her, and presenting her to me.
“Nice to meet you, friend.”