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Farmers plan to be the bee’s knees

Most villagers seem relaxed after the rice harvest in Osado, just six kilometres from Pursat town off the road to Battambang. But farmer Eang Thy, 41, is still busy working behind his home, building hives and raising bees.
“I’m planning to expand bee-keeping to the whole village eventually, but I’m just a farmer so I don’t have money to expand the business too fast. But step by step, I’ll offer other villagers some nests, beehives and bees so we can raise them together.”

Eang Thy’s enthusiasm for bees was fired up by a three-month trip he made to Slovenia in 2008 under a Rotary Club project between the two countries to spread the art of bee-keeping.

Selling the honey, royal jelly and honeycombs can bring a good income for Cambodian farmers, but bee-keeping techniques are still fairly new to the country. One of the people working to introduce
bee-keeping to farmers is Slovenian expert Tomaz Ostir, who spends six months a year in Cambodia each year passing on his apiary skills to local farmers. So far he’s trained about 100 farmers to raise honey.

Ostir started volunteering in 2005 for a nonprofit organisation called Sustainable Cambodia in Pursat province, and last year he established the Beekeepers Association of Cambodia (BAC) to aid farmers.

There are five species of bees in Cambodia but just two are suitable for domestic bee-keeping – Apis cerana (known as knmom pruot) and Apis mellifera (knmom barang).

A colony has one queen, worker bees and male bees, known as drones, he says. The queen can lay up to 2,000 eggs a day and is fed a special type of food called royal jelly, made by the bees. This is a popular tonic in Chinese medicine and can sell for a good price.

Male bees breed with the queen while worker bees look for food, shelter, and maintain order during their short lives of 30 to 50 days.

The first step is to find the bees, Ostir says. He recommends that farmers harvest their own bees, which are largely free of the diseases that can be found in imported stock. Apis cerana bees live in places such as tree hollows, roofs, or in drainpipes, says Ostir. “Normally they live in the forest, but so many trees have been felled in Cambodia that many bees are moving their habitats.”
Then keepers have to make beehives that are easy to open to examine and feed the bees and extract honey, he says. Hives can be made from wood, woven rattan, bamboo, bricks, or reeds.

“When we find a swarm of bees, we just shake it to clean the beehive. Then we put the hive on the frame inside the box and place it near the swarm. If the queen flies inside, other bees will join her and make their new home in the beehive,” he says.

Keepers have to place the hives near trees and flowers, which bees feed on to produce their nectar, Ostir says. Protection is needed against enemies such as ants, lizards, frogs, birds, geckos and hornets, he adds.

Beekeepers also have to be careful with pesticide, which can leave residues that kill bees. That’s why his project stresses cooperation among villagers to maintain a healthy environment.

Ostir says that Apis cerana bees can yield between five and 10 kilogrammes of honey each season. Bees also helped pollinate trees and flowers when they collected nectar and pollen for their food, he says.

“Bees are very important for the protection of nature. Without bees, there would be no pollination. And if there were no bees, many trees can’t produce fruits,” says Ostir.

When it’s time to collect the honey, farmers spray tea water with a little sugar on the bees, as they can’t fly when their wings get wet. Smoke can also be used to tranquilise the bees and stop them attacking, he advises.

Cambodian honey can sell for  between US$14 and US$16 per litre, according to retailers.

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