Rafter Beekeeping in NW Cambodia: An introduction. ©Dani Jump
Giant Honeybees…Not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Cambodia. Cambodia is, after all, known for its ancient temples—the most impressive being the world-famous and largest religious edifice anywhere: Angkor Wat. Intricately carved from head to toe, it certainly is a spectacular sight—as are a number of other temples in the Siem Reap area, like the must-visit Bayon and Ta Prohm temples. The kings who conceived the idea, the architects who dreamt up the designs, the artisans—whose stone-carving remains today an awe-inspiring memory of a lost civilization; and, not forgetting the tens of thousands who did the construction and clean-up... All deserve immense credit for the achievement.
A visit to Cambodia would certainly not be complete without a temple tour; and yet, not 40 km from Angkor Wat, in a quiet community, away from the cars and the queues, the tarpaulins and the scaffolding, one can find equally impressive works of artistic genius, designed by master-artisans in their own right—artisans that use home-made wax to create thousands of perfect hexagons in which to place eggs, pollen, and nectar.
For nature enthusiasts, these architectural masterpieces, and the artists that create them, are also a must-see. Bathed in golden, early-morning sunlight, these bronze beauties, are every bit as stunning as the Apsara dancers at Angkor Wat. And they can perform, too.
One can, from close quarters, stand back in awe and observe and admire the effortless agility with which they execute their traditional dances.
These Giant Honeybees—Apis dorsata in Latin, and “Khmoom Thom” in Khmer—were widely exploited during the Angkorian era. Their relatives are still being exploited today, by honey-hunters whose tradition may date back to Angkorian times, for all we know. The honey-hunters certainly don’t.
Giant Honeybees generally establish their single-comb colony high up in tall trees—colonies which are accessible only to adept honey-hunters, who risk life and limb in their quest to plunder the liquid gold collected, processed and stored by these winged wonders.
What is unique here is a tradition of exploiting these creatures, that apparently evolved independently from a similar practice on the Mekong Delta of neighbouring Vietnam—a practice commonly referred to in bee parlance as ‘Rafter Beekeeping’, where honey-hunters place tree-poles—rafters—mimicking large tree branches, at a slight angle and low to the ground, to encourage migrating Giant Honeybees to settle on them.
Rafter beekeeping—a dry season activity—works particularly well in degraded forest areas where the only suitable nesting sites for these bees are the rafters, which, placed conveniently at eye-level, provide easy access to the comb.
Although some rafter beekeepers in NW Cambodia continue with one-cut-take-all non-sustainable honey-harvesting, sustainable honey-harvesting—a common sense approach to protecting the bees and maximizing honey-harvests during their short migratory stop-over in the community—was introduced here by the author some fifteen years ago.
The practice is simple enough: smoke the bees and remove only the ‘honey head’. This allows both earlier and multiple harvests of the single-comb colonies, which, of course, translates into more honey, more money, more bees, and a more-balanced ecosystem; benefiting both bees and beekeepers. Thanks to the work of Bees Unlimited honey-hunters in the area are beginning to learn the meaning of ‘sustainable’ in both theory and practice.
Interestingly enough, 2009 was the first year in living memory of local honey-hunters that Apis dorsata colonies settled in the rafter beekeeping community during the rainy season months of June and July; with well over 100 colonies taking up residence in the area—some on rafters, others in the local Community Forest. Could this mean that sustainable honey-harvesting is already having a positive impact on the local Giant Honeybee population?? Bees Unlimited certainly hopes so.
If you’d like to cozy up to Giant Honeybees, document rafter beekeeping and sustainable honey-harvesting in Cambodia, observe how the honey is filtered and the wax ‘processed’—and then perhaps even purchase some Apis dorsata honey that you helped to harvest--book a Rafter Beekeeping Tour. We'd love to have you!
And you know what?? You don’t even need a Temple Pass.
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