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  • Writer's pictureSara

THAILAND: Take What you Want and Leave the Rest

Updated: May 6, 2022


“I have heard of feeding sugars. But I have never heard of medicines,” Yupa said.

In a one-room meeting hall, lined with shelves of shellacked wood sculptures, Yupa, the sales head of Khun Lao’s Honey Society looked crestfallen. I had just explained that in the US, hives are managed with sugar syrups, fondant, and a variety of medicines to kill off varroa mites and other hive diseases. She looked so alarmed, that I trailed off in the description of hive treatments, somewhat embarrassed to report that we do this to honeybees.

Yupa and I were the only two women beekeepers in a room of honey hunters, beekeepers, and pollinator specialists, so I was particularly interested in her take on beekeeping.

“I am the only woman beekeeper in my community. It was unintentional. My husband and I went along together. At first my husband started to keep the bees, but my husband is a lazy man and didn’t want to work the bees. When he got stung, he got allergies. But I have no problem, and I am now the main keeper in the house. The money comes to my pocket,” she explained as she showed me row after row of modified log hives of apis cerana honey bees.

Yupa’s words about not having ever used "feeding sugars or medicines" have been ringing in my ears for several weeks now.

I am back in the US, finally over wicked jet-lag after falling in love with a gorgeous, delicious, and restorative time in Thailand. (Gratuitous travel photos here of temples and curries.)

Back to beekeeping….

My read of Yupa’s surprise about US beekeeping approaches indicates not a gap in knowledge, but a differing cultural approach to beekeeping and the realities of working with indigenous species (that find food naturally and have resistance to mites because the hives aren't overstressed).

Four years ago, Yupa was in a workshop led by Katrina Klett, the person who connected me with the Khun Lao village. Katrina and I know each other through the Echoing Green fellowship, where we both were funded to launch organizations – mine in Rwanda with entrepreneurs, hers in China with bees.

A towhead blond, Katrina was a shoe-in for the 2007 American Honey Princess title, hailing as a second-generation beekeeper from North Dakota, where her parents raise queen bees. But Katina’s more relevant role is as founder and CEO of Elevated Honey Company, an artisan honey company in the highlands of China’s Himalayas. Katrina and her husband Guoqing are “dedicated to preserving traditional Asian beekeeping methods to produce the world’s purest honey. Our honey comes from naturally-occurring wild beehives.”

A student of University of Minnesota’s esteemed entomologist and MacArthur Genius Fellow Marla Spivak (see her TED Talk here about why bees are disappearing), Katrina, too, embraces a bee-friendly apiculture, believing beekeepers must be intentional about protecting bees in their apiary practices.

Straddling both commercial honey production and traditional Asian apiculture, Katrina was well-positioned to lead conversations and trainings with the beekeepers of Khun Lao, like Yupa.

Katrina invited “people who have been doing beekeeping traditionally, or people like me who have no bee experience,” said Spencer Leung of GO Organics which promote pollinators across Asia. “Modern beekeeping is a totally different skill set from the traditional ways,” reflected Spencer as he joined me in seeing the results of the trainings four years later.

In a two-day course, Katrina and Guoqing had shared some techniques that they use in China with Elevated Honey that might be of use to the Khun Lao beekeeping community in Thailand – from swarm capture, to building hive boxes, to honey harvesting in a sustainable way.

“Before the training course, we didn’t know to use the smoke when working the hives. And now we know the smoke can help the bees calm. We know how to protect them from any insects or ants. We now keep the old wax and the bees will come back to the hive,” Yupa proudly explained.

From those trainings, in four years, managed hives have increased from 100 to more than 500 hives in the Khun Lao community. For this community that does not have a classic income source from honey, the increase in hives is a significant economic boom for households that are mostly in the tea industry, or who have previously relied on honey hunters to cut natural combs from the outlying forests.

Yupa explained, however, that it wasn’t a whole cut and paste application of the trainings into the Khun Lao community. They still prefer to use vertical log hives than the boxes.

“After the training course we tried to combine the traditional log ways with the modern way. But the bees don’t like the landing pad of the box. We tried to transfer the bees to the box hive, but they prefer a hole to enter the hive.”

Yupa was able to discern what worked for the bees and what didn’t. Through a mix of confidence and culture, she was able to adopt elements of the training that were valuable to her, and leave the rest behind, ensuring that any insights were contextualized into the apis cerana, Chiang Rai setting.

Sombat nods when Yupa says that they modified their approaches, visibly relieved that she was the one that said it first. (My presence as a white woman asking questions about northern Thai beekeeping through a translator cannot be underestimated as dominant force.)

Sitting to Yupa’s left in the Honey Society meeting room, Sombat is a 35-year-old honey hunter and beekeeper who has been climbing trees to cut honeycomb for 18 years, more than half his lifetime. He’s Karen, part of the minority of a million refugees who live in Thailand from Myanmar, and he learned honey hunting from village elders somewhere along the way. Sombat is one of three honey hunters in the Khun Lao village and estimates that among them, they clear nearly 70% of the wild combs each season, cutting down more honey comb in the midst of nectar flow, taking smaller pieces of honeycomb later in the season. Among the hunting party, Sombat is the one to climb up the tree, a role of skill and leadership among his friends. He was stung badly once while in the tree, “but not so high up the tree -- I didn’t fall too far,” he says, still with shy bravado.

Aside from this small introduction, Sombat has been mostly quiet, listening attentively in his yellow and purple windbreaker, Covid mask, and over-sized backpack.

But then he talked about what the bees want - animated and insistent.

Like Yupa, Sombat took what was useful for him from the trainings, and discarded what didn’t work for their bees. In addition to honey hunting, he manages a small apiary for pollination on his farm. Keeping bees happy means that this farm is more productive.

“I took the modern box and I turned it to the side. Then I can take out just the comb with honey, not the ones with brood,” he said. Folks, this is awesome. The box’s top lid is now a side panel wall, facing outward not upward, able to be removed without disrupting the hanging comb inside the hive.

When apis cerana bees create their comb, they always do so vertically, attaching to whatever constitutes the ceiling of the hive. In Thailand, most hive boxes I saw didn’t have removable frames, so the lid of the hive became the ceiling, rather than the upper bar of the rectangular frame.

Each time a beekeeper lifted the lid, they essentially removed the entire colony, dangling from the wax combs that were attached to the lid. In the US, the lid removes on its own, and the frames of hive stay in the box, removed one by one to extract honey. But frames aren’t available in Khun Lao, so the box becomes a liability to the bees; the comb looks jagged and unhealthy.

“With the box on its side, with a hole for an entrance, we can take only what we need and don’t have to hurt all the comb,” Sombat said. “The training blew my mind, but we don’t have the frames.”

This modification and contextualization created a seamless merge of “modern” and “traditional” beekeeping. Only two weeks into this inquiry, I’m realizing that the dichotomy that I’ve created between the two is failing me. Maggie Shanahan, an US researcher living in Mexico, mentioned to me that these distinctions between modern and traditional might really just be “intentions” rather than a hard-line categorization. Does a beekeeper want to be “modern”? Does a beekeeper want to be “traditional”? Within both traditional and modern leanings, there are still innovations to be had. Is a frameless box hive on its side, with a drilled hole for an entrance through the lid that now serves as a wall more modern or more traditional?

What I’m coming to appreciate, in conversations with Yupa and Sombat (and others like Maggie), is that beekeepers from all backgrounds, practicing all kinds of methods, are responding to the stressors around them. Whether the topic is feeding sugar syrup, or medicines, or hive placement, beekeepers are evolving their ways – and if it’s in a bee-friendly way, those innovations will be about what the bees want, modifying and contextualizing in a way that is sustainable for beekeepers and honeybees.

“Others are starting to change like me,” said Sombat.

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