Rafter Beekeeping in NW Cambodia
Giant Honeybees... not the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Cambodia. After all, Cambodia is not known for its bees, but rather for its temples—the most impressive one being that of the world-famous and largest religious edifice anywhere in the world: 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 carvings remain today such an awe-inspiring memory of a lost civilization; not to forget the tens of thousands who had a hand in construction, clean-up, and maintenance; everyone involved deserves immense credit for such a phenomenal achievement.
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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 tarps 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.
The artists/architects that construct these masterpieces are also a must-see. Bathed in golden, early-morning sunlight, these bronze beauties are every bit as stunning as the stone-cut 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.
Giant Honeybees—Apis dorsata in Latin, and “Khmoom Thom” in Khmer—were widely exploited during the Angkorian era. Today their relatives are exploited by honey-hunters whose tradition may even date back to Angkorian times, for all we know.
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Giant Honeybees generally establish their single-comb colony high up in tall trees—colonies 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.
Interestingly enough, this tradition of exploiting bees apparently evolved independently from a similar practice on the Mekong Delta of neighbouring Vietnam—a practice 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 in NW Cambodia—works 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.
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A common sense approach to maximizing harvests and protecting bees during their migratory stop-over in the rafter beekeeping community--sustainable honey-harvesting--was introduced here by the author over fifteen years ago, and is practiced by most of the rafter beekeepers now.
The practice is straightforward and simple enough: smoke the bees and cut away only the ‘honey head'. This allows for both earlier and multiple harvests of the single-comb colonies, which, of course, means more honey, more money, more bees, and a healthier ecosystem that benefits both bees and beekeepers. Thanks to the work of Bees Unlimited, local honey-hunters have begun to learn the meaning of sustainable in theory and in practice.
As for non-sustainable harvesting, that's another story, entirely!
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2009--which seems like such a long time ago now--was the first year in the 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 honeybee population?? Bees Unlimited most certainly hopes so.
An Open Invitation:
If you’d like to observe and document rafter beekeeping and sustainable harvesting here, and see how honey is filtered and wax rendered--and perhaps even purchase some pure Apis dorsata honey--don't hesitate to book our Rafter Beekeeping Tour.
If your timing is wrong for this tour, please consider our other tours.
We'd love to show you around.
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