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Tree beekeeping in Laos

 by B Khatri*

Laos still retains 65% of its land area covered by forest. The population is low and villages are so scattered that it takes a full day to walk from one village to another. The main activity of rural people is shifting cultivation (slash and burn agriculture) but the main source of income is from bee products. Beekeeping and honey hunting are practised in most of the country but the main area is in Sekong.

Province in the south, near to the border with Kampuchea and adjoining Vietnam. In most parts honey is collected from colonies of Apis cerana and Apis dorsata nesting in the wild, without any management. 

A special technique of “tree beekeeping’, totally different from traditional beekeeping in other Asian countries, is widely practised in Sekong Province. Instead of making hives, beekeepers simply form holes in the trunks of forest trees. Bees occupy the holes and build their nests, and subsequently all the combs with brood and honey are collected by the beekeeper. The practice is as follows:

a. Selection of trees. Beekeepers use a wide variety of tree species but unfortunately the English and scientific names are not available. The chosen species have dry timber and do not ooze sap. Bees will not occupy holes which are wet with sap.

b. Making holes in tree trunks. Only one hole is formed in each tree and the size of hole varies with the size of the tree. As the tree grows the hole also gets bigger. The average hole size is 50 cm long, 25 cm wide and 25 cm deep. The hole is formed using a long axe. Holes are formed in September and October, three to four months before the swarming season.

The time taken to make holes depends on the tree species. If the trees are soft it may take three or four hours, but if the wood is very hard it may take a full day. The holes are 50 cm above ground level to protect them from becoming damp, and if the tree is growing on a slope then the hole is made on the side facing the slope.

c. Wedging the holes. Holes are kept open for three or four months until they are well dried and there is no more oozing of sap. When the holes are dry and ready for bees to occupy them, the beekeepers almost completely seal the holes with mud, but leaving a small entrance hole. Bees never occupy the holes until they are partly closed. colonies and to protect them from enemies.

f. Owning bee colonies. The number of bee colonies owned varies but at present it is reduced due to the lack of market for honey. The maximum number of colonies owned by one family is 200, with 50% of holes occupied by bees.

g. Harvesting. The time of honey harvest depends on when bees occupied the holes, but beekeepers harvest honey around five months after occupation. There is no special equipment for honey harvesting. Combs are taken out with a stick and all those with brood and honey are collected. Bees are brushed off with a small leafy branch.

In the evening the combs are sorted into those with honey or brood. Combs with brood and pollen are eaten. Honeycombs are squeezed and the raw honey thus collected is stored for later sale. Wax is placed in a big bamboo container and melted on the fire or in a copper pan with hot water.

After all the combs are removed the bees abandon the nest hole. There are no further food resources available locally (the rainy season has already started). The bees move towards the mountains, returning to the plains when winter comes. Thus the bees migrate and occupy new nest sites every year.

h. Use of bee products. Honey is the main income source. Beekeepers sell most of their honey; some people use it as medicine, others to sweeten tobacco. Sometimes honey is mixed in the local alcohol and used in festivals. Wax cakes are sold in the market and used to make candles.

i. Honeybee predators. Various honeybee predators are the main cause of low honey production:

Bears are the main honey and bee eaters. Bears destroy the whole tree trunk and eat the bees and honey. It is difficult to prevent this activity: if the nesting holes are made in trees too close to villages then bees do not occupy them, and if the bee nests are too far from the villages they are difficult to protect from bear damage.

Red ants are serious enemies of bees. These ants deposit mud in the entrance of bees’ nests making it too small for bees to pass through. With the bees unable to move in or out of the nest they starve and the red ants eat bees and brood. To prevent these ants the beekeepers periodically inspect the holes. If mud is deposited they clear it away.

Wasps eat the bees but this is not so serious. People also eat the wasps and their brood and if they. find a wasp colony they take it, using smoke.

j. Honeybee diseases. No honeybee diseases have been observed.                                                                                                              

Bidur Khatri is a United Nations Volunteer Specialist in Apiculture’, working since February 1989 on an Integrated

* Rural Development Project in Sekong Province, Southern Laos. Before coming to Laos he worked for 12 years in different beekeeping projects. The honeybee programme was started in 1989 and is one of the main activities of the Integrated Rural Development Project financed and executed by UNDICD (United Nations Department for Technical Co- operation for Development). The main objective of the project is to raise the standard of living of the minorities in Sekong Province.