the honeybee prefecture, japan
“The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” ~Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution
I recently had the opportunity to spend some time in Kyoto, Japan, for a work-related visit and serendipitously found a few local beekeepers to chat with. Not particularly intending to seek out bees or honey on this trip, I feel quite lucky to have stumbled across the two that I did and hear a little bit about beekeeping in Japan.
Sugi Yohoen is a huge beekeeping company in Japan. With over 3000 hives in the Kansai area, Sugi Yohoen also imports honeys from other parts of the world in order to offer exotic honeys like litchi (Korea) and jarrah (Taiwan). While offering a huge selection of honey, they also have many processed honey products. Some of their most popular products seemed to be squeeze bottles of honey and fruit syrups with which you could make hot or cold sweet drinks. They also carried a line of honey-based cosmetics (lotions, soaps, shampoos and beauty products) and other goods from the hive like jars of propolis and boxes of royal jelly.
I visited a store in Kyoto near the Ginkaku-ji temple that had recently opened. Coincidentally, the president of the company was at the store when I popped in and we had a great conversation about beekeeping when I showed him a picture of our own hive (of course, I carry around pictures of our own bees with me at all times for any such incidental run-ins with other beekeepers, random people on the subway who express even the slightest interest in bees, etc.).
Even the limited language that we could share between us, you can tell that Koichi Mori is incredibly proud of his company and beekeeping history. His family started beekeeping over 60 years ago in a grove of Kumamoto cedar in 1946 and the company has grown enormously since then. Now with 41 stores across Japan, they opened their first retail store in Kumamoto in 1973 and the latest one that I visited opened recently in June of last year. I tried some of their honey/fruit drink and, just as I was about to leave, Koichi pulled me aside and opened up a frame of comb that was on display and dug a spoonful out for me to try. There’s nothing like honey that is fresh from the comb!
For such a large company, one always wonders about their practices in terms of land use, chemicals and apiary management. From the Sugi Yohoen website, I was quite impressed at some of the initiatives that they have taken to preserve beekeeping in Japan. From providing lotus seeds to rice farmers to increase biodiversity and improve local soils, to maintaining production by hand (being “stubborn to maintain handiwork”), it seems like this company also operates with a conscience.
I brought home two little jars of orange blossom honey and wildflower honey which were both from the apiaries in Japan.
Land of Milk and Honey
I took a trip from Kyoto to Nara one day to visit the Great Buddha temple Todai-ji and visit the deer that run “wild” all over town. There happened to be a little farmers’ market right outside the train station and, as luck would have it, a husband and wife selling local honey from their apiary! I tried my best with the small vocabulary of Japanese that I have and with a lot of pointing managed to get across that I keep bees as well. Not until my wide-eyed look at their full response in Japanese did they realize that I don’t truly speak a word and graciously switched to English.
When I showed the couple the pictures of our bees and our hive, they said that our bees must be really happy bees with the natural style of hive that we have. They have 20 Langstroth hives that they keep on a friend’s green tea farm (who had the market stall next to them). They are incredibly proud of the fact that their beekeeping is done completely without the use of chemicals.
They keep European style bees, which I imagine would be Italians over Russians just like ours, and they seem to have very little trouble with disease. Last year, they lost two hives to mites over the winter, but all of the other hives are strong and healthy.
They had two types of honey in beautiful little jars with home-printed labels. One honey was from the spring-flow and the other from the summer. The spring flow honey was very sweet, just like the honey at Sugi, while the summer honey was thicker, darker and had a much earthier, pollen flavour.
We exchanged email addresses and it would be lovely to keep in touch with this couple and see how their bees fare. They were quite interested in the fact that our bees lived in the city and wished me luck on expanding our apiary to two hives next year. They were amazed that our bees were outside in a Canadian winter (if there is one thing that Japanese folks know about Canada, it’s that it’s very cold there!) and recommended that we should find a friend’s house to put them in for future winters.
the state of beekeeping in Japan
In Japan, beekeeping has enjoyed a long history. Many beekeepers work with the same European honeybees Apis mellifera that are found all over the world, but also have a lot of hives with Apis cerana japonica (Japanese honeybee). The Japanese honeybees are more prone to swarming, but more resistant to disease than their European brethren.
From the Tokyo Foundation, there are a few differences between the Japanese and European honeybees:
“Research has proven various advantages of Japanese honeybees. First, they are resistant to such infectious diseases as foulbrood and chalkbrood. Second, they know how to fight Japanese giant hornets and other intruders. European honeybees are defenceless against giant hornets, which were absent in their native habitat, so that a small number can devastate an entire colony. But Japanese honeybees immobilize invading hornets by attacking them in large groups, form a ball around them, and heat them to death by vibrating their flight muscles so that the temperature in the ball rises to around 47 degrees Celsius.
Third, Japanese honeybees are resistant to cold. European honeybees are unable to move about in temperatures below 11 degrees, being descended from bees native to Africa, but Japanese honeybees will harvest pollen in lower temperatures if needed.
Fourth, and most of all, Japanese honeybees are small but agile. They diligently go about collecting the nectar, pollen, and juice of various plants, giving their honey a profound flavour.”
But, like everywhere in the world these days, all is not well with bees in Japan. 2007 saw losses to almost 50% of all hives due to disease and Japan has subsequently barred the import of queens from Australia, believing that they were spreading the nosema virus. Farmers are feeling the losses of bees and noting decreased fruit production, especially with respect to watermelons, strawberries and cherries across the country. The disaster of the Fukushima nuclear plant last year had caused a moratorium on the sale of honey from that area and beekeepers were constantly monitoring their hives for radiation levels. Many hives were lost and, while insects normally show a high resistance to the effects of radiation, only time will tell what the results are from long-term exposure to low levels.
There are good news stories regarding the sustainability of beekeeping in Japan in spite of these issues. On the island of Tsushima, for example, a strong tradition and industry of beekeeping exists. Beekeepers there have Japanese bees exclusively and work to preserve traditional beekeeping methods like using log hives and cultivating indigenous species of crops and flowers to support a healthy ecosystem. Now accounting for only 10% of domestic honey production, native Japanese honeybees are being encouraged in places like Tsushima and all beekeepers there are using Apis cerana japonica.
From a book by Seita Fujiwara on beekeeping in Japan (Nihon mitsubachi) :
“Indigenous species are the fruit of a region’s ecological balance that has been nurtured over tens of thousands of years, the very ‘trials and tribulations’ that have taken place millions of times as part of the workings of nature. They are coming to attract attention because they possess a universal value like that of an ancient tongue, which no amount of tinkering by humans can create and is irrecoverable if lost in the interest of short-term gain.”
Fukushima and bees: Editorial TG.pub – International Bee Research Association: www.ibra.org.uk