Risky business

The decline in agriculture has boosted the growth of beekeeping in Hualien County. But capricious weather has resulted in a steep drop in honey production

By Ian Bartholomew  /  Staff reporter

Wed, Jul 10, 2013 - Page 12

For those who follow food news, one of the big stories recently has been all about how the unpredictable weather in recent weeks has hurt the honey harvest.

Rain has forced the bees indoors (so to speak), and as a result they have not been feeding properly. In some areas production of honey has fallen by as much as 90 percent.

Uncertain industry

“It is a precarious business,” Li Fu-liang (李福涼) told the Taipei Times when we met at a tiny apiary in Hsincheng (新城), Hualien County, where I visited him during his rounds of the many small facilities maintained by Fuchang Beekeeping (福昶養蜂育種場). It was a hot day, the sun shining brightly through the leaves of a small patch of forest. This small stand of trees was surrounded by overgrown fields, abandoned as the local farming population aged and younger people looked elsewhere for employment.

Ironically, the decline in agriculture has helped the growth of beekeeping.

Li said that above all, beekeeping requires a natural, unpolluted environment. The relative lack of development along Taiwan’s east coast has made Hualien and Taitung a powerhouse for the production of high-quality honey, but this situation is changing. “New regulations that encourage farmers to utilize fallow land have caused an increase in the cultivation of crops, and subsequently an increase in the use of pesticides,” Li said. “The more chemicals that are used, the worse the situation is for bees.”

Li is a veteran of Taiwan’s beekeeping industry with 40 years experience and formerly a judge in annual competitions for production of the best honey. He currently runs production operations for Fuchang Beekeeping, which he says has around 1,000 hives, making it one of the biggest producers in Taiwan.

It would have been hard to guess this from the small and seemingly temporary nature of the apiary. Indeed, according to Li, these bees had just got back from an experimental forest in Taitung. “Beekeeping in Taiwan is a nomadic affair,” Li said. “We are like gypsies, moving from place to place, wherever the bees can feed.”

The apiary where I visited Li was located in the foothills just below Taroko Gorge. “The hills themselves are not a good environment,” Li said, “as there are too many predators, especially spiders, and the plains are usually over-developed.” He is constantly looking for new locations for the bees, renting or borrowing land from farmers in good locations. “The bees can feed across a 5km radius from the hive, so some of our bees will go all the way into Taroko Gorge,” Li said.

Li said that honey, which has become increasingly popular in recent years, produces a good profit, but is dependant on increasingly unreliable weather. The disappointing honey harvest was very much on Li’s mind when I spoke with him as he supervised a three-man work crew harvesting royal jelly, a product that had once been the economic basis of the beekeeping industry, but which has now largely been superseded.

According to Li, harvesting the royal jelly means that staff visit the hives every few days to collect the creamy paste intended to feed the queen bee. This means they are able to keep a close eye on the condition of the bees. Such close observation is not so necessary in operations that only harvest honey, Li said.

One man worked out among the hives, carrying a smoke gun to herd the bees away as he pulled the frames out for processing. Two others sat in the back of a truck, a net pulled over the entrance, engaged in the laborious work of picking out the larvae from individual cells ranged on a frame, and then scooping out the tiny quantity of royal jelly into a container. Despite the net covering the entrance to the truck bed, a few bees buzz around inside.

Possible health benefits

Impressive health claims have been made for royal jelly, the substance that is fed to bee larvae that can transform them into a queen bee. The transformation from a drone with a lifespan of just a few weeks to a queen bee, which can live for a long as five years, has led some to attribute almost magical qualities to the substance. Among the health benefits claimed for the substance are alleviating arthritis, encouraging hair growth, improving sexual performance, lowering cholesterol, slowing signs of aging, easing menopause and curing insomnia, fatigue, ulcers and skin irritations.

“It used to be the main product that we sold,” Li said, of the time in the 1970s when he entered the industry. “The price for royal jelly was very high at that time, and unlike honey there is a constant supply.” He offered me a taste of the creamy golden paste. There was a sharp tartness beneath the thin layer of sweetness, and it lacked the depth of flavor and the floral scents of a good honey.

“It is not as popular as it used to be,” Li said, “and much production has now been transferred to China, where labor is cheaper.”

Fuchang now puts its emphasis on improving the hives and finding good environments for the bees, cooperating with government agencies and universities, making use of experimental forests and the grounds of establishments such as the Zichang Minimum Security Prison (自強外役監獄) in Hualien, which is being developed as an area for organic agriculture.

As Li took me around the seemingly haphazard arrangement of hives, he pointed out that the company was gradually moving across to the use of more advanced, eco-friendly hives. “In the past, we used painted wood, and some farmers would even use tar to seal the hives,” he said. “Now we have a better knowledge about what paint and other (chemical) substances might do, so we have shifted to using undressed wood and beeswax to make hives. This is more expensive, but we must do what we can to make a better environment for the bees,” he said.

Fuchang sells most of its honey and royal jelly under the label Honey Bee Town (蜂之鄉). More information can be found at www.bee-pro.com.