Under a shady starfruit tree Taiwanese beekeeper Jiang Hwan-bin tends his bee hives, pumping out pure honey for a rapidly growing market of health-conscious consumers.
Jiang’s family has been keeping bees for 80 years and he now manages 500 hives in Hsinchu County. In total his family have about 2,000 across northern Taiwan.
A string of food safety scandals in Taiwan has driven demand for clean, traceable produce, with pure honey seen as particularly beneficial — whether stirred into water as a summer thirst-quencher or used as a sugar substitute in desserts.
Photo: Sam Yeh, AFP
However, although the domestic appetite is voracious and outstrips supply, which keeps prices high, beekeepers say it is hard to fully capitalize as climate change and disease hamper expansion.
This year alone saw a series of typhoons and an unusually cold January affecting early blossoms.
Jiang, 54, who sells most of his produce through his shop in Hsinchu under the name “Ah-bin Pure Honey,” said his production fell 30 percent due to the adverse conditions.
The situation for the whole family is even worse: Overall production across the thousands of hives they run has dropped by two-thirds, he said.
The unpredictability of the seasons has been reflected across the nation in honey output over the past five years.
Taiwan produced 11,726 tonnes of pure honey last year, more than doubling in a decade, with the number of bee farms increasing by more than a fifth to 860. The industry is worth NT$2.7 billion (US$84.32 million) annually.
However, production has been unstable since 2011, when it peaked at 15,000 tonnes, with extreme weather a major factor.
Jiang said his fundamental focus is now disaster prevention.
“We prepare for everything as much as we can,” he said. “What we can do is manage the bees well and do our best to keep more bees. The rest depends on the weather.”
Disease problems troubling beekeepers around the world have also taken their toll on Jiang’s stock.
In 2005 he saw half his bees wiped out by a bacterial infection.
He quarantined his queens, burned the infected frames from his hives, and started again, sharing those hard lessons with other local beekeepers.
The government says it is also giving bee farmers advice on disease prevention and violent weather swings.
“In Taiwan, climate change has been huge,” said Wu Tzu-hsien, a senior apiculture expert at the Council of Agriculture. “If the changes are too extreme, bees cannot control their body temperatures and die.”
In rural Yilan County, the “Bee Farmer” cafe and education center sits against a backdrop of misty mountains. Giant bee statues greet visitors, who buy everything from royal jelly to pollen sachets at the store inside.
There is a honey museum and active hives to teach the public about bees. Visitors come mainly from Taiwan, although some from Hong Kong and Singapore also drop in.
The business belongs to Huang Tung-ming, a fourth generation bee farmer who manages 300 hives in the area, producing a variety of honeys, including longan, lychee and melon.
He has diversified to prosper, selling produce from other local bee farmers as well as his own.
There are 10 Bee Farmer shops across Taiwan, but the company sells mostly online through its Chinese-language Web site, a more modern approach than most traditional beekeeping families. The business brings in NT$50 million each year.
“In the past, farming villages were isolated. When you produced honey you didn’t know where the customers were,” Huang said. “Now with the Internet, with branding, packaging and a corporate image, it’s much easier than before.”
Building a bee brand has helped Huang offset the challenges of bad weather and bee health, both of which have affected his farms.
Eight years ago, many of Huang’s bees deserted their hives, unable to find their way home after going out for nectar.
Huang, 61, believes inbreeding affected the bees’ sense of direction and has since developed a method of isolating the best pairs.
That has meant his hives have not succumbed to illnesses that have killed so many bees worldwide, he said.
Despite the pressures, his son Huang Chun-yen, 33, who helps run the business, says there are still keen young bee farmers who consider it a good option in the face of Taiwan’s economic stagnation.
“Young people can’t find jobs that pay well,” he said. “As the value of bee products is high, young people go to farming villages to learn to keep bees and develop their careers.”
For Jiang, looking after bees means more than just business. He sees it as a global issue, key to environmental protection and food provision.
“Almost one-third of human food relies on bee pollination. Bees play an important role in the ecosystem,” he said.
Meanwhile, he does his best to defend his own hives against whatever nature throws at them.
“We believe we have to work hard first, and then heaven will help us,” he said.
The Han Kuang exercises, the nation’s major war games, are to start today and run for five days. The drills are to include a military aircraft emergency takeoff and landing exercise on a regular roadway on Wednesday, featuring all three fighter jet models in Taiwan’s fleet, a military source said last week. The drill is to begin at 6:30am on a 3km section of Provincial Highway No. 1 in Pingtung County’s Jiadong Township (佳冬), and feature an Indigenous Defense Fighter, an F-16V, a Mirage 2000-5 and an E-2K Hawkeye early warning aircraft, the source said. The emergency landing and takeoff drill aims to
MRNA VACCINE: Heart inflammation is rare, but possible after a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 shot, and students need to be aware of possible side effects, an expert said As Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccinations for students aged 12 to 17 are to begin on campuses on Thursday next week, the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) yesterday urged recipients to be especially watchful for five signs of possible myocarditis or pericarditis, which are rare adverse reactions to some COVID-19 vaccines. The Ministry of Health and Welfare’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices convener Lee Ping-ing (李秉穎) joined the CECC’s daily news briefing to report on possible side effects after receiving a BioNTech vaccine. Lee said that cases of myocarditis and pericarditis have been observed in people in the US who have received mRNA COVID-19
Taiwan on Friday accused China of seeking to use the Honduran election to “create controversy” and undermine Taiwan’s long-standing ties with the country, saying it would strive to win support for Honduras’ relations with Taipei. Honduras’ main left-wing opposition party, the Liberty and Refoundation Party (LIBRE), led by ousted former Honduran president Manuel Zelaya, has said that if it wins November’s presidential election it would seek to “readjust” the country’s debt and establish diplomatic relations with China. Honduras is one of 15 UN member countries that maintain formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has already warned Honduras not
TESTING THE WATERS: Making the considerations public a day after a Biden-Xi phone call indicates that the US is testing China’s reaction, a think tank head said A Financial Times report that the US is considering allowing Taiwan to change the name of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Washington to feature the name “Taiwan” highlighted Washington’s “two-pronged” approach to China, a researcher said yesterday. The report on Friday said that Washington might allow the nation to change the office’s name to “Taiwan Representative Office.” The report came after US President Joe Biden on Thursday spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) by telephone for the first time since February. A White House readout of the call said that “the two leaders discussed the responsibility of both