Life is getting sweeter for bee farmers


Kuang Haiou shows villagers how to choose suitable areas for beekeeping in Xinzhu village, Lijiang, Yunnan province. (CHINA DAILY)

Villagers have seen living standards rise after they began raising and protecting the insects, which pollinate plants and also protect biodiversity. 

Bees are a tiny but vitally important species for planet Earth.

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, almost 90 percent of the globe's wild plants depend on insects to be pollinated, along with 75 percent of leading crops worldwide.

Bees account for a large number of pollinators. However, in an increasingly modern and industrialized world, the insects face many complex, interacting threats.

In addition to climate change, one of the deadliest threats to the bee population comes from humans in the form of pesticides and the expansion of residential areas, which is leading to a loss of habitat.

In China, the indigenous species, the eastern honey bee (Apis cerana), is one of the most-threatened families, according to Kuang Haiou, an expert with the Apis cerana Research Institute at Yunnan Agricultural University.

Kuang said the eastern honey bee is also threatened by the western honey bee (Apis mellifera), an invasive species that was widely introduced for crop pollination purposes in the 1930s.

"Unlike the eastern honey bee, which pollinates various plants with scanty levels of distribution, the western honey bee is accustomed to focusing on single crop flowers. That's why the eastern honey bee plays a more crucial role in maintaining the ecosystem," Kuang said.

In addition, western honey bees are larger than their eastern counterparts, which can easily be driven out of their original habitats.


Kuang explains beekeeping methods to two residents of Xinzhu. (CHINA DAILY)

Reproductive failure

"In the fight for food, the invasive western honey bees have become dominant, with little hindrance," Kuang said. "Even worse, the western bees' quest for the queen disrupts the mating process of the eastern queen bee, which results in reproductive failure."

Queen bees usually mate once a year, during spring, with multiple partners from the same species. However, the chemicals they release attract drones, both the eastern and western kinds.

"The bigger western honey bees will mate with the queen, but they cannot fertilize her eggs because they are members of a different species. As a result, eastern honeybee groups face the threat of extinction (because of missed mating opportunities)", Kuang said.

In recent decades, the eastern honey bee population has fallen sharply across a large part of China's central plains, he said. "Currently-the worst time-the number of eastern honey bees has declined by more than 70 percent or 80 percent," he added.

Conversely, Kuang noted that the eastern honey bee has gradually seen stable population growth in mountainous areas.

That's as a result of strengthened environmental protection, such as stronger controls on the use of pesticides and measures to protect environmentally fragile areas. Furthermore, contributions from NGOs and local residents have also been important for the species' recovery.

In the southwestern province of Yunnan, where mountainous forests are the last habitat for native bee species, the Society of Entrepreneurs and Ecology-an NGO-has been working to protect the eastern honey bee since 2015 by promoting beekeeping among villagers.

Experts, including Kuang, were invited to train local residents, design hives and provide professional guidance on disease control and a reduction in the use of insecticides.

Nearly 800 residents of 20 villages in the region have received training. Now, about 500 people can run bee farms independently.

Crucial role

In northwestern Yunnan, the Himalayan honey bee (Apis cerana himalaya), a subspecies of the eastern honey bee, is crucial to the ecosystem because its pollination efforts play a large role in the reproduction and health of forest plants in the alpine areas, according to Xiao Jin, vice-president of SEE's Southwest Center.

Xiao said the Himalayan bee, which has a population of less than 200,000 in China, pollinates more than 70 percent of wild plants, or about 7,000 plant species, in northwestern Yunnan.

"Keeping a couple of beehives is a long tradition in local communities. The project has encouraged local people to run bee farms and plant medicinal herbs, such as multileaf Paris, at the same time. The two benefit each other and promote the sustainable use of local biological resources," she said.

In addition to providing technical support, SEE has helped with branding local honey and further encouraged greater participation of bee farmers via promising incomes from the environmentally friendly business.

So far, farmers in the SEE program who own eight to 14 beehives can make average annual incomes of about 8,000 yuan ($1,250), equal to that earned by selling two cows that would take four years to raise from calves to adults.

The operation of bee farms not only protects the eastern honey bee but also improves people's awareness of environmental protection, according to Xiao.

"Bees in just one hive need plants covering at least 0.33 to 3.33 hectares to feed. A better environment with greater biodiversity will boost the production of honey, and a total of 4,000 beehives are believed to contribute to the protection of 1,066 hectares of forest," she said.


Kuang Haiou shows villagers how to choose suitable areas for beekeeping in Xinzhu village, Lijiang, Yunnan province. (CHINA DAILY)

Deeper understanding

In Hongshuitang, a village in northwestern Yunnan's Lijiang, Li Chengjun used to make a living by growing tobacco. In 2015, he was the first resident to pilot beekeeping in the village.

The 45-year-old now owns 76 hives and can make nearly 100,000 yuan a year by selling the honey they produce.

Keeping honey bees has not only greatly improved Li's living standards, but it has also changed his understanding of the relationship between humans and nature. He said the honey bees have taught him a lesson.

"We used to sacrifice natural resources to make money. But now, surprisingly, we have discovered that the greatest treasure we have is nature, which can lead us to a long-term prosperous life," Li said.

In Kuang's opinion, conservation of biodiversity can only operate sustainably with a scientifically planned green business and the support of local residents.

Recalling his work training beekeepers in the past decade, he said the improvement in local farmers' living standards brought about by running bee farms is the most rewarding result.

"Years ago, many impoverished villagers in northwestern Yunnan only turned on a single lightbulb at night to save the cost of electricity," he said. "But now, when I visit those same bee farmers, I find their newly renovated houses are so bright, with beautiful ceiling lights.

"As a bee expert, nothing was sweeter than the moment I noticed that the species I've been studying for decades (the eastern honey bee) had become so dear to the local people, and is greatly loved by the general public, thanks their hopes of a better future."

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