Bees, Sex, and Opium

By Peter, a Beekeeper in Thailand

First impressions may be that the title is a little curious for an article about beekeeping, but there are strange things in real life.

In the hills above Chiang Mai in Thailand there is no industry, and the people living there have great challenges in making a living. Farming exists but it is really hard work and can only support a certain number of people. There are lots of wooded hills and limited arable land. It is home for many people though and they like to stay with their roots if they can.

There are vulnerable members of these communities though; the young and old women. The young women see the bright lights of the big city and that is where they head. They believe that the bright lights are glittering gold. The trouble is that it is all a façade and it is really no easier for them in the city. But these young women are very visible and attract the attention of the bar recruiters who will spin a tale of riches; not just in the local market but also for Bangkok. Once the net of prostitution closes round it is very difficult to escape.

The old women need to stay in the hills and look to easy income; something they can do, something they have seen in the past. Very quietly they look to growing opium. The poppies grow without any problem; opium was a very common crop in the past. Without any other income it is easy to look back to what is known to work. The penalties when you get caught are severe but they need to eat so is there really no choice.

This is where bees come in; offer an alternative, offer something that is not there today.

We are working on a project at present where we would like to introduce beekeeping and hive manufacture to a community in the hills. The first step is working the land. We have been given use of 14,400 square meters (155,000 square feet) of derelict land. It was a rice paddy in the past but the irrigation system changed and so it is now to be used for growing sunflowers. The land will need a lot of work before there can be any thought of growing but within the next two months we hope to be moving forward with planting.

Why sunflowers? Well, they are not too hard to grow and the seeds can be simply sold or crushed for oil. The flowers are very attractive to bees. It is possible to grow three crops in a year so if planting is staggered on parts of the land then there will be a continuous food supply for the bees.

From this we will teach anyone who volunteers to join the project how to grow sunflowers and how to keep bees. No catches; just come and help. We are also hoping to open a small woodworking workshop so that beehives can be made locally. We intend to make Langstroth hives since they are well-documented and easier to manage when it comes to honey and pollen harvest (compared with the local system used on the plains).

We will start off with 20 hives in the first year. The whole range of hive products can help spawn other activities (candle making or polish manufacture for example). The idea is that with the extra activity there will be more ways for the young and old ladies to make a living.

After working with the project we anticipate that some participants will leave and set up their own businesses in competition. If they are able to do this they have our blessing. Some will stay with the project. Sunflowers and bees are self-sufficient and with good management can go on year after year. A woodworking shop could also offer a service to the community in addition to making hives, it would mean that wooden farming implements could be made in the hills rather than having to go down to the city to find supplies.

The management team putting this together is a mix of university doctors who have existing self-sufficiency projects in the area, local land owners (who make the land available free of charge), through to myself and my wife who know how to keep bees. The project status is that we have applied to a trust in Singapore for the initial funding (about US $15,000), if that comes through then we will quickly push forward. Even before knowing of our funding we have found the land and started marking it out.

Editor’s Note: To read more about beekeeping in Thailand, see Hornet, Ants, and Geckos-Beekeeping in Thailand from January 2012.
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