Honey hunting has enhanced the livelihoods of local communities and supported forest conservation efforts in Preah Vihear province, as efforts are made to improve the sustainability, sanitary norms and environmentally-friendly nature of the trade.

Collecting wild honey is a long-standing tradition of many Cambodians who depend on forestry products, and use the viscous liquid as medicine and for daily sustenance.

Say Saren is a member of a honey purchasing committee of a community based in Dong Phlet village of Chheb II commune in northeastern Preah Vihear’s Chheb district.

She told The Post that during the honey season, hunters can earn extra income by finding hives of wild bees and collecting the sweet liquid from them, in a sustainable manner.

“[The practice] is not difficult for them [hunters] – they won’t be nicked [by the authorities] – and … is more profitable and easier for them than illegal logging and poaching. It enables them to renovate their homes, buy motorcycles and other stuff,”Saren said.

In Preah Vihear, the honey season typically takes place during the dry season between February and April, when plants begin to grow new leaves and flowers blossom.

Seeing the potential benefits of harvesting wild honey, the Non-Timber Forest Products – Exchange Programme’s (NTFP-EP) networks have coordinated with local authorities and officials from the Forestry Administration and the Ministry of Environment to formally establish honey-hunting groups in three provinces: Kratie and Stung Treng provinces in 2015, and Preah Vihear province in 2018.

The organisation has trained people and given them the technical knowledge necessary to collect wild honey in a sustainable way, which has created jobs and offered increased opportunities for communities to be involved in forest protection.

Originally, there were a total of 10 honey-hunting groups in the three provinces, but many disbanded after linked projects wrapped up. Today in Preah Vihear, just two remain with 130 households earning a decent living fromhoney hunting.

NTFP-EP’s community enterprise development officer, Men Sokheng, said the market was expanding for the wild honey harvested by the three provinces’ communities, with an uptick in purchases from both end consumers and companies for resale.

“[The hunters] procure quality honey and then spread the word to friends, families and peers. So there’sbeen more appreciation for wild honey than ever before, with loads of social media posts containing information about wild bees,” he told The Post.

Ensuring the quality of honey and transparency in its supply chain is essential to building consumer confidence and market stability.

Sustainable honey practices

NTFP-EP Cambodia, in collaboration with partner organisations and relevant institutions, has developed technical standards for collecting wild honey in the Kingdom, which covers three main stages.

“Before collecting honey, the community prepares materials such as rope, gloves, gauze filters, buckets, canteens to hold the honey, clean water and a wooden honeycomb cutter. The materials we use are all hygienic,” Sokheng said.

The honey huntersmust first wash themselves thoroughly, wear clean clothes and avoid putting on deodorants, perfumes or other scented products that may cause the bees to sting.

“During the honey harvesting, communities uses smoke, not poisons, to deal with the bees,” he said. “When they’re up [in the treescollecting the honey] they take only 80 per cent of the honeycomb and leave the other 20 per cent for the bees to care for their young and for more eggs to hatch in the hive.”

The honeycomb is kept in clean plastic bags, in line with quality and hygienic principles, and has to be cut into small pieces to keep from souring or fermenting.

Saren said that the honey hunters are all men, and travel in bands of no more than six.

“The journey to find the bees means they sometimes have to travel far away and sleep in the forest. If they do not go too far and stay within 10-20km, they still have to clean all the materials after harvesting the wild honey before returning home at 4pm in the afternoon,” she said.

With an abundance of wild bees, hunters are now able to collect between two and four canteens of honey at a time, she said, crediting the NTFP-EP and the sustainable practices recommended by the programme.

“Having left twenty per cent of the honeycomb, in a week or two they can go back and get honey from the same hive again. But they must only collect honey from older, larger beehives, not newer ones,” she explained.

Wild beehives can be found in protected areas, community forests and floodplain forests with attached fisheries communities. Hunters have been known to spend two or three nights in the wild during a trip.

The honey is filtered a number of times: the hunters initially filter the liquid from the honeycomb before selling it to committees like Saren’s, which repeat the process before using a refractometer to determinate water content, as part of quality evaluation.

Sokheng affirmed that the committees do collect information on the hunters, including their names, number of beehives they collected from, on which trees and in which areas.

Making the grade with wild honey

He said that top-grade honey has a humidity level of 19-20 per cent, second-grade has 21-22 per cent and third-grade has 23-24 per cent.

“If it has 25-26 per cent or more water content it goes ungraded and isn’t purchased,” he said.

According to Sokheng, wild honey varies between the provinces due to the divergent soil properties, climatic conditions and vegetation.

“According to one study, wild honey in Preah Vihear is dark red, while in Stung Treng it is dark yellow and in Kratie it is the most beautiful golden colour,” he explained.

There are many types of bees in Cambodia, from the largest, the giant honey bee (Apis dorsata), known locally as “elephant’s ear”, to the eastern honey bee (Apis cerana), red dwarf honey bee (Apis florea), black dwarf honey bee (Apis andreniformis) – which some locals call “dog poop bee” – western honey bee (Apis mellifera), stingless bees of the Trigona genus, and others that have been domesticated.

“Our team went to get honey from the giant bees, which are special because the queen is very big and they can fly very far. Studies show that these bees can fly up to 10km from their hives. Thus, it is possible for them to use flowers from a variety of plants in combination to form the honeycomb.

“The bees drink the nectar from many kinds of flowers, so the quality of the honey is better and more effective for making medicines, and this is a special feature,” Sokheng said.

According to the Saren, the best wild honey can be stored for up to a year if collected in accordance with standards.

“But not longer than that,” she said. “When something is natural and no artificial preservatives are used, the longer it is stored the more the quality decreases.”

Tough times for honey hunters

The biggest challenge in wild honey harvesting is that the beehives are often very far from the villages and that the hunters must carry the clean water along. Prolonged time in the forest also increases the risk for snake bites or contracting dengue fever or malaria from mosquitoes – even with hammocks and nets.

Sokheng also noted that hunters struggle to find buyers, largely unable to use Facebook or other digital marketing tools effectively, and that the trade is still associated with deforestation and non-compliance with sustainable technical standards.

“There are other villagers outside the community who use fire, not smoke, and they kill the bees,” Sokheng said. “Apart from that, another challenge is wildfires caused by hunters and hikers. But the biggest challenge is that people are clearing a lot of community land for farming, no matter where their community is.

“There are also a lot of challenges related to illegal logging and clearing the forest land that affects the wild bee’s sanctuaries,” he added.

Liquid gold?

Still, Sokheng said that the hunters are willing to protect the environment and contribute to the protection of the forests, both directly and indirectly. They give forest patrol teams five per cent of their profits and an additional 1,000 riel from each litre they sell.

“When they go collect wild honey, they keep an eye out for incidents in community forests and report them to the authorities, to prevent forest crime,”he said.

In Preah Vihear, wild honey generally retails at 80,000 riel ($20) per litre, but can drop to 70,000 riel for purchases ranging from five to 10 litres. This year, Preah Vihear’s two honey-hunting groups reported that they collected a total of 320 litres of honey, selling 50 per cent and retaining 50 per cent.

However, Sokheng stressed, “we want these communities not to think of it as their main source of livelihood but as a side-business that generates additional income”.