Sustainable beekeeping the goal of Siem Reap trio of honey hunters

Sustainable beekeeping the goal of Siem Reap trio of honey hunters


Group hopes to change traditional ‘slash and burn' techniques that kill colonies.

Photo by:
Kyle Sherer

Pieng Chhoin, one of Tbng Lech's honey hunters, carves up a bee colony last week. He is one of three partners in Bees Unlimited, which is working to bring sustainable honey collecting to Siem Reap. 

WHEN Daniel Jump came to Siem Reap in 2004 to see the indigenous beekeeping trade in Tbng commune, he was "devastated" by the slash-and-burn tactics taught by residents there.

Jump has travelled the world since 1990 as a "beekeeping extensionist", a job that involves helping beekeepers in different cultures to maximise their honey and wax production. But the destructive honey harvesting practises in Siem Reap compelled him to stay in Cambodia and mount a campaign to change the traditions that had been taught in the Kingdom for centuries.

Tbng apiarists have adopted what is called "rafter keeping", a rare type of beekeeping practiced mainly in Siem Reap. The keepers prop up beams, or rafters, in forested areas, which attract colonies of bees in the dry season. In March and April, they harvest the honey, seizing the entire hive and consuming the bee larvae. The take-all approach, which wipes out the entire colony, has worked in the past due to a high bee population. But in a modern, deforested Cambodia, it might push the species towards extinction.

Pieng Chhoin is a 53-year-old rafter keeper in Tbng Lech village who has been honey-harvesting since the age of 15. He said that in the 1980s, honey hunters in the Tbng area were overwhelmed with so many colonies it was impossible to harvest them all. Now, said Jump, "People will put 100 rafters up and there's not 100 percent occupancy. It's like a hotel in the low season, there's only 20 percent to 30 percent occupancy. Because of this wholesale slaughter of bee larvae every season, there's actually a drop in population. So those numbers will keep going down".

"The fact that they were actually destroying the entire colony to get a little bit of honey was just ridiculous. They were basically cutting off the hand that feeds them. So I was really interested in teaching them to do it sustainably right from the get go. I made it my mission," Jump said.

He explained that with a minor adjustment, honey harvesting could be turned into a job with long-term viability. He called his approach "sustainable honey-harvesting", and described it as "basically common sense".

"I didn't want to see them killing the bees, and thought there had to be a better way of doing this, of leaving the brood alone and taking the honey. The colonies are such that you can slice off the honey head and leave the rest. It's very easy to harvest sustainably."

The honey head is the area of the hive that stores a large concentration of honey and no bee larvae. Carving off the honey head doesn't damage the colony, which means the same rafter can be harvested repeatedly as the bees work to restore the missing section. When a sustainable honey harvest is completed, the bee population grows.

But even though Jump's approach presents possibly the only path to survival for honey harvesters, it's a tough sell to many who are disturbed at the thought of deviating from the routine, he said.

"It hasn't been easy to persuade them to adopt it," Jump said. "Traditions die hard. You can't convince a person overnight to completely abandon what he's learned from his father and what he's practised all his life. But they're taking it on. I'm probably not going to be alive the day sustainable honey hunting becomes a part of the tradition, but I hope that's what eventually happens."

Jump's first convert was Pieng Chhoin, his current business partner in Bees Unlimited, a Siem Reap-based three-man team that provides beekeeping training throughout Cambodia. Pieng Chhoin is now promoting sustainable honey harvesting to the 35 keepers in Tbng Lech village, but Jump said he also took a lot of persuading.

"Chhoin waited about a year to adopt it. In 2004, the first year we worked together, he just wouldn't do it. He felt that he was going to lose everything. He was afraid that by cutting off just the honey head he would get some honey, but the bees would fly off and the colony would be gone, robbing him of the rest. So he wasn't willing to try it.

"But the following season I convinced him to try it on just one of his numerous rafter colonies. We did it together. And the second time he harvested the colony he got more than the first time - and that convinced him that it works. And he's been trying to promote it among his fellow villagers ever since."

Chhoin and Jump, together with Soeun Bun Som, also promote sustainable honey-harvesting through Bees Unlimited, which they launched in February last year. "When Bees Unlimited does bee-keeping training, we train how to transfer a wild colony into a box, how to manage it, how to put up rafters, sustainable harvesting, honey processing, honey filtering, and wax processing," Jump said.

"We work in areas with a honey hunting tradition. They're not afraid of bees, they can harvest. But what's lacking is sustainability, control and quality." 


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