THAILAND: Hill Station of Chiang Rai with MiVana Coffee
Updated: Apr 13, 2022
STINGLESS BEES & APIS CERANA IN THAILAND
The Khun Lao Village in the Chiang Rai province is an orchid-filled hill town of 130 households. The town is peppered with all the necessities: clean wooden houses, a gilt temple, a new school, a quick clearwater creek, electricity and wifi, some new trucks to bring in goods, loose dogs that all have names, a daily fresh market selling pungent basil and green melons. The weathered wood of the corner shop is sprouting rooftop moss, while three clay pots of fuchsia orchids hang from the awning’s edge. We bought cold beer there last night, opened with a bottle opener dangling from a string in the middle of the ceiling. It’s 6:30am, and the owner gets off a moped in her teal blue satin pajamas, lights a fistful of of incense, offers a prayer at the resident shrine, and heads back home.
Next to the corner store, Air is behind an espresso machine, making a coffee as he explains the town. Here in Chiang Rai they have beekeeping for a long time. As he pours a latte, he explains that “if you want to learn how to keep bees, you’d just ask the old people. There is informal teaching in traditional ways.”
Air set down my coffee with a hand that wears a bracelet of jade beads, woven into a single chain with red string. He’s in black jeans, and a gray cotton polo shirt with the company logo, MiVana Organic Forest Coffee, stitched to the pocket, and of course a blue surgical mask. I came to talk about bees, but first, coffee.
Air is a coffee specialist of MiVana, working with the company for the past 11 years, 8 of which have been in this Khun Lao village. He’s learned the ways of this town by living here, integrated with the community as part of the development approach that MiVana uses.
This village is a tea locale, explains Pichai Samrongsong, the agronomy manager at MiVana. Assam tea is the main source of income in this region. Black tea. White tea. Green tea. Chewing teas. Nearly all 500 individuals in this town are connected to the tea industry, as growers, pickers, sellers. Coffee in Thailand has just been gaining momentum in towns like this about 13 years ago, not as a traditional drink in Thailand but as a new cash crop.
In introducing coffee cultivation to this hill town, Pichai explained that when MiVana first came to Khun Lao to explore cultivating shade-grown coffee, they started with meeting the community and exploring potential fit. “We started with studies for one or two or three years. We had to stay with them, learn from them, eat with them, get to know each other."
"We have some knowledge to share with them, and then they make the decisions themselves if they want to work with us. We’re not the judge. We didn’t force them – they choose the best for themselves. You have to decide if you can go together,” said Pichai.
Today, seven towns have opted to create an independent social enterprise to partner with MiVana in coffee production. MiVana pays the group for fair trade and organic coffee, as MiVana itself focuses on economic development, natural resources, and societal health. “We want to balance it. We can’t have too much of any one thing,” Pichai explains.
When the Khun Lao village did decide to work with MiVana, Air moved to this small town from his home in Chiang Mai after his university degree in agriculture communications to serve as the company’s representative and community liaison. As the son and younger brother of farmers who rear livestock and paddy rice, Air feels proud to talk with his family about his work, and proud of the impact MiVana has had on the community.
“When the coffee [production] started, the quality was very bad, and then we gave them trainings. Now we are winning prizes for two years. The farmers see how quickly how it improves,” Pichai said. Farmers have created a richly layered agro-forest for diversification of flora and income.
As much as Air is teaching the community about bio-diversity for award-winning premium coffee, he’s also learning from the researchers who now pass through this model community. As the first agro-forestry company in Thailand, MiVana has garnered some fame, and researchers now come to test and refine agronomy concepts with the MiVana team and the farming community of Khun Lao.
As we talk, cement trucks roll behind us on the road on a regular basis. They are hauling wet cement up the hill to create a path to the next village and to new vacation homes on the ridge beyond Khun Lao. The economic development is coming.
The morning loudspeaker is calling out a fundraising appeal for neighborhood activities of 300 baht per household in contributing to shared events. The society is strong.
And as for natural resources, the bees are the next phase of ecological strengthening. (Starting to wonder when I was going to get there, eh?)
Six of us perched on thin wood slats in the bed of a pickup truck, along with a small black dog, driving high into the hills of Chiang Rai. Leaving Khun Lao, we pulled off the main road into a grove of coffee trees, growing in the shade below towering bamboo and banana. A little unclear that the truck’s handbrake would hold on the hill when we stopped, we jumped from the Toyota and cleared its path if it started to roll backwards. Scattered haphazardly around us among the spindly coffee trees were miniature, single box wood hives, scaled just right to house the equally tiny stingless bee of southern Thailand.
A corrugated cement roof was placed on top of each small hive, providing a heavy weight to deter monkeys seeking the wax bubbles filled with honey inside. The 20 some hives were part of a research project, established by a local university that set out to investigate the impact of invasive species on the local ecosystem. This next phase of the research sought to determine if imported species - like bringing the southern stingless bees to the north - could serve as better pollinators to shade grown coffee than the endemic stingless honeybees. Unlike the northern stingless bees found native in this area, these southern hive transplants can be split in half and will re-produce a new queen, a promising behavior for reproducing colonies without losing them to swarming.
Thailand has 77 universities, each one of them with an agriculture department, almost all of which include research into bees and other pollinators. Thailand’s abundance of coffee, tea, and tropical fruit all depend on pollination services offered by bees. Tea is practically sterile if not cross pollinated by insects, and coffee production can get a 25% higher yield when visited by bees. The researchers have found that the tiny stingless bee is a superior pollinator for coffee than its larger native bee counterparts, as these little ladies will visit each of 10 stamens on a single coffee flower bud. Apis cerana and Apis dorsata will produce much more - and much sweeter - honey than the small bees, but the tiny stingless bees make up for their low production in their thoroughness in pollination.
With Air and the village leader, we removed the cement weight at the first hive of Southern stingless, lifted the hive’s wood top lid, and peered through the cellophane observation cover. The hive was abnormally quiet and dark.
Peeling back the clear layer, the entire research hive had been eaten by ants, now making their own home where once there was wax, bees, and honey. Almost all of the hives in this grove had been cleaned out by ants who had just walked through the front door. Hive after hive had been emptied.
I’ve been fascinated by the stingless bees and their individual bulbs filled with honey. I’ve literally been walking around with a Google image photo on my phone of Mexico‘s Yucatán stingless bees, with their comb organized in a nautilus-like concentric circle. In Mexico and here, to harvest stingless bee honey, beekeepers use a syringe to pop each cell one by one to extract the honey.
The flavor of this honey is sour, almost like a lemon squeezed into it. I’ve never had anything like it. In Thailand’s south, the taste is apparently even more sour. A hearty argument ensured among the Air and the beekeepers: is the sour flavor due to the enzymes used by the bees to process nectar into honey, or is it the bees’ diet itself? Some thought it was fermentation from rainwater. Some thought it gets more sour if larvae are crushed into the honey for those not patient enough to drain each cell on its own.
Eventually without a definitive answer, they agree to disagree. But whatever the reason**, for its unique taste and limited quantities, it’s an expensive and rare honey. This was a loss.
Back at the village leader’s home, we had a second chance to see the northern stingless bee. In a double-decker hive, mounted on the house exterior, high enough above our heads to escape the neighborhood roosters, stingless bees created a network of dark wax honey bubbles - not unlike what I imagine synapses in the brain to look like. After the disappointment of the southern stingless bee research site, we were all too hopeful to take a moment to cover up. With the lid removed, a thousand miniature bees flew up and out of the hive, pinching in defense. Backing away, I carried a few dozen biting bees tangled in my hair, and spent the next 10 minutes bent over, shaking agitated bees out of my hair while other onlookers scooped metal spoonfuls of honey from the hive pods. In the cold shower at our village homestay, more bees pooled at my feet that night when I washed my hair.
(healthy colony of Northern stingless bees, in slow motion with a queen spotting at the end of the clip)
Beekeeping in this coffee and tea town is becoming more common. Hosting 10-15 colonies of stingless or Apis cerana bees per household is adding to income. Like the transition of agriculture practices to include shade-grown coffee, communities are in the process of changing what they know and believe about keeping bees, collecting honey. In the days to come, this is what I want to explore more. Which practices stand firm and which fade away? Which practices evolve into a new hybrid form that looks like neither predecessor? I’m remembering that Air told me this morning that the informal teaching of the traditional ways was how the knowledge was passed down. How does that way of knowing fit with university researchers and modern hive boxes?
Air’s work shows us what is possible: “I was the person who came when there was nothing here. This was a normal village in the middle of nowhere. They grow a little bit of coffee, but they are nothing special. After I came here, I saw many things change in a good way and the people here, the community here, their life is getting better. It’s not just about the money. It’s about sharing what you have. You have food, you share food. You have knowledge, you share knowledge. If I keep sharing and doing good things, then good things will become more. Amplified. Good opportunity came here and I am proud of it. Now they have many choices.”
What choices will the community make about what to embrace next?
** Talking with Dr. Bararee Chuttong, a researcher at University of Chiang Mai, the reason for the sour taste of stingless bee honey is the high water content of this honey in its raw form, leading to fast fermentation of the sugars.