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The call of the wild

For thousands of years, communities living in tropical forests have harvested honey from the wild. Today, many people in these regions still prefer wild honey to honey harvested from the hives of domesticated bees. But there is growing concern over this hunter-gatherer activity as traditional communities face increasing pressures from the modern world. Changes in land use, use of modern technologies, and the loss of bee habitat are just a few of the factors affecting forest peoples. And, despite the growing demand for wild honey, honey collectors are rarely organized to market their products in order to receive the greatest benefit for the risks they endure in gathering this valued resource.

Wild Asian honey bees
credit: FAO

In Asia, honey is mainly collected from the wild from the nests of the Giant Honeybee, Apis dorsata, which occurs throughout most of south and south-east Asia and can produce up to 20kg in a year. Some honey is also collected from the Dwarf Honeybee, Apis florea, but honey is only usually harvested from this species where nests are abundant as each colony only produces a few hundred grammes of honey. Nests of A.dorstata are predominantly found in or near forests. The bees of a colony build a single comb up to 1.5m2 hanging from a rockface or under the branches of tall trees. In India and Thailand, 'bee trees' may host more than 100 nests although 10-20 colonies per tree are more common. Despite the ferocity of this giant honeybee when nests are disturbed, bee hunting exists in many parts of Asia and is often associated with many rituals, songs and prayers. Techniques and knowledge of honey gathering is passed on from generation to generation and the skills of successful collectors are held in high esteem amongst local people. The sites where A.dorsata colonies have their nests are often 'owned' by individuals or a group although the honey is usually collected for them by a professional honey collector. In Thailand and in the Sundarbans of India and Bangladesh, honey collection is often controlled and organized through issuing collection permits by the forestry departments and, in protected areas, may not even be allowed whilst, in other regions, forest dwellers collect it free of charge for domestic consumption or sale.

In several regions, including Kalimantan in Indonesia and southern Vietnam, bee colonies are provided with attractive nesting sites in the form of wooden planks (tinkung) or split poles (gac keo meaning 'rafter'). Most honey cropping is done at night, when the bees are not active and less able to attack but, although not all the colonies' nests are harvested, colonies may be destroyed as a result of removing the brood comb. However, in southern Vietnam in the Melaleuca forests of the Mekong delta, cropping is done during the day using smouldering smoke to chase the bees away whilst the unprotected honeycomb is removed. Sufficient brood comb is left to allow the bees to return and rebuild the nests resulting in a higher survival rate of existing colonies and potentially higher honey harvests. Honey produced from this region in Vietnam accounts for about half of the country's total production but it fetches a much higher price in local markets because of the value attributed to its taste and medicinal properties. Several provinces of Laos also produce very fine qualities of forest honey with small amounts sold over the border with neighbouring countries. In 1993, a small factory was established to process and pack forest honey for export to Bangkok and Europe.

Because of its freedom from agro-chemical residues, forest honey from developing countries has the potential to be marketed as 'organic honey'. Therefore, it has a potential in international trade, if its production and quality can be enhanced by integrating beekeeping with forest management. However, deforestation, intensive cultivation practices and the replacement of diverse natural forest with plantations is currently reducing nectar sources and sites suitable for colonization. Use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides is also killing the bees. But, given the importance of honeygathering to people that still live in suitable forested regions, support could be provided to to help upgrade the quality and therefore the value of honey and beeswax. It is also essential that the development of further honey collecting is managed to protect the trees that host the nests, the bee colonies and the honey gatherers themselves. In Mount Elgon, Uganda, honey is harvested by burning down the trees that host the hives and in Ethiopia over 70,000 hectares of forest were destroyed by fire earlier this year. It is believed that some of the fires were started as a result of honey collectors trying to smoke out bees in drought-ridden areas.

Information sources:
Voices from the Forest, October 1999
Beekeeping in Asia, FAO Agricultural Service Bulletin

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