Traditional Japanese Beekeeping

The domesticated Western honey bee(Apis mellifera) is synonymous with modern beekeeping with the overwhelming majority of honey being produced by this species of bee. Everyone is familiar with the imagery of a beekeeper in a white suit tending to their bees before removing honey from hive frames to put in bear-shaped bottles.The Save the Bees campaign has made backyard beekeeping popular as many think they are helping the environment. However, the bees that need saving are the wild ones and not the Western honey bees. Western Honey Bees while suffering from hive collapse due to mites,climate change, and pestisides are in very little danger from going extinct. More so, they have been shown to do more harm than good for the environment, they outcompete wild bees, can spread diseases to their wild counterparts, and they are useful for pollinators in agriculture like almonds and apples but not for the wild plants. Western Honey Bees and wild bees are very different like dogs and wolves. Western Honey bees live in hives together, are poor pollinators, and produce honey. Wild bees are more solitary, much better pollinators, and most do not produce honey. 

Bumble Bee collecting pollen froma lavender plant
By Ian Kirk via Wiki Commons

There are however a few species of wild bees that do produce a harvestable amount of honey. There are a variety of bee-keeping traditions from all over the world such as Mayans getting their sugar fix from stingless honey bees which is currently experiencing a revival to the hallucinogenic Honey harvested from giant nests high up on cliffs in Nepal. Today, I will focus on the lesser-known style of traditional beekeeping in Japan.

Page from the Mayan Codex depicting Beekeeping

The History of BeeKeeping in Japan

The most common species of wild bee in Japan is the Apis Cerana Japonica, a subspecies of the Eastern Honey Bee. Japanese people have been harvesting honey from the wild since at least the 600s. Honey was highly prized for its medicial qualities and was often given as a tribute.In the Edo Period,(1603 and 1867 ) Beekeeping becomes more commercial and a variety of books on the subject were written. But the Japanese Honey Bee will see it role as Japan sole source for honey starting in 1876 when the first Western honey bees were brought to Japan. The Western honey bee and the western-style framed hives produced a greater quantity of honey, allowing honey to go from something to do in addition to farming to a full time business.Western hives also house a much larger amount of bees that can be employed to pollinate argicultural products on a massive scale.The Western honey bees since they are essentially domesticated animals are also more controllable and less likely to abscond on a whim.

A hive of Japanese Honey Bees being scouted by a yellow hornet
By Takahashi via wikicommons

Nowadays, 95 percent of honey production in Japan is imported and only 10 percent of domestic honey comes from Japanese honey bees. But Western bees have a major disadvantge when compared to Japanese honey bee, they didnt evolve alongside the Japanese Giant Hornet(murder hornet) and therefore have no defense against them. Just one Japanese Giant Hornet can kill 40 Westerns bees a minute and just a handful can completely wipe of tens of thousands of bees.(Note:I would not recommend taking a “handful” of hornets) Western honey bees are easily sucepitle to dieases such as mites and brood diseases.

The Japanese honey bee, on the other hand, are resistant to diseases, the cold, and develop an ingenious defense against the hornets by forming a ball around them and raising their body temperature until it cooks the hornet. The fact that these bees can moshpit a murder hornet to death shows how cool nature is. The Japanese honey bee is without a doubt better for the environment as they are much better at pollinating wild plants and like likely to trasmit dieases to other wild bees. For these reasons, I think traditional Japanese beekeeping should make a comeback.

Japanese Honey Bee ball of death By Takahashi via Wikimedia Commons

How is Japanese BeeKeeping Done?

Traditionally, Hives were and are made by drilling holes into large logs called Hachido. This is the style used on the island of Tsushima, famous for its honey. The pilebox hive, a simple wooden box that makes honey extraction much easier so it is now the go-to for hobby Japanese Honey Beekeepers.Langstroth Hives(the frame hives used for Western honey bees) are not generally used for Japanese honey bees.

In mid-April and May, bees leave to start a new colony. This is called swarming. Beekeepers track down a wild swarm of Japanese Honey bees and put a bee cage with a nectar lure to attract the bees. A Chinese orchid called kinryohen is often used to entice the bees. Once captured, the bees are then placed into a Hochido or pilebox. Beekeepers can not open it up see the inside of the Hachido so they have to pay close attention to the behavior of the bees outside of the nest. The main thing they are paying attention to are signs of predation from Japanese Giant Wasps. Honey is harvested once a year in the fall. For the pilebox, the lid is taken off and then honey is squeezed from the honeycombs. Around 1/3 to 1/2 is taken, the rest is rest to sustain the bees during winter. The bees or their larvae are not harmed in this process. For the log hives, the hive is destroyed during honey comb removal. Hemp or another material is burned to calm down the bees. Unfortunately, without honey or their larvae, the colony will perish in the winter. This makes the pilebox both more humane and manageable as you don’t need to capture a new wild swarm every year.

Pile Box Hive
Photo from Japan Natural Beekeeping
Video of Traditional Japanese honeybee beekeeping using Hachido(logs)

Hot Spots for Japanese Bee Keeping

Japanese Honey bees are found throughout Japan except for Hokkaido and Okinawa. There are many communities in mountainous parts of Japan that have had a long bee-keeping tradition. But Japanese Honey Bees can also move out of sticks and adapt well to city life. But even for bees, Tokyo apartements are still far too small and the rent is outrageous despite being split 34,000 ways.

The most famous place in Japan for beekeeping is on the island of Tsushima, an island between Kyushu and Korea. Beekeeping has been present there since the 600s. There are no western bees on the island as there is no need for them since the island has little agriculture. The untouched nature of the island provides Japanese honey bees with ample flowers, safety from harmful agricultural chemicals, and peace of mind since there are no bears on Tsushima. They do have to watch out for Japanese Giant Hornets, their biggest foe. Honey is collected from Japanese Honey bees housed in Hachido. The honey is called Hyakkamitsu(The nectar of 100 flowers) because the bees collect honey from a wild variety of flowers throughout the year. The taste is very rich as the honey is aged and it has a complex flavor from the asortment of seasonal flowers` nectar.

Tsushima Tours offers specials tours at the end of September – early October where visitors can harvest honey from Hachido in Tsushima with under the guidance of expert beekeepers. They provide you will all the equipment that you will need. It cost 2000 yen or about 20 dollars.

Hachido in Tsushima
Photo from Tsushima Trip

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