Hornet, Ants, and Geckos-Beekeeping in Thailand

Peter, a newsletter reader based in Chiang Mai, Thailand, agreed to an interview about beekeeping on the other side of the globe. He’s kept bees three or four years, north of Chiang Mai City and to the south of Hang Dong, and supports about six other beekeepers as well. Following is what he shared.

Why do you keep bees?

My wife (who is also now a beekeeper) said I could not have a mistress so I decided on bees instead. Same amount of trouble and can also focus your attention very quickly.

Typical yields?

No idea actually. We are not set up to count and everything we produce is sold or given away faster than you can blink.

Do you “overwinter” (i.e., have a down time)?

We do not have a winter. We have a wet season and a dry season. The wet season is a bit quiet but if you keep feeding the bees well at that time there is always activity in the colonies. The cold time is with the dry season but strange though it may seem so is the peak of the hot temperature. During the year it never drops below 13°C (55F), the peak is around C (109°F) when the bees get really playful. An average would be in the range of 25-33°C (77-91°F).

What pests / diseases are prevalent? How do you prevent or treat?

Varroa is known; I have never been hit by it. I understand that treatment is with prepackaged chemicals from China but we do not use chemicals at all so if / when we get hit we will be on a fast learning curve.

Hornets can weaken colonies big time for three or four months. Apis Mellifera is not indigenous to Thailand and so they have no defense for the hornets who really like breakfast, lunch and dinner.

We haven’t found the solution to this yet. We are working on a trap using the pheromone of the colony as bait, but still in the early days of solving this. The local methods are generally ineffective.

Black ants (large black ants) are a problem at the start of the rains since they move above ground at that time. They can empty a strong colony in a day or two and leave a very empty and clean box. The only treatment is to spot them quickly and kill with ant powder.

Very little else really. There are things like very small ants but they are not really an issue, geckos sometimes stop by but again not a problem. Direct sunlight is a bigger problem … get that on a hive in the peak of the hot time and the bees will vacate.

I guess the Bee Catcher birds are a problem for some and there is not a lot you can do about those other than move location. Wax moth is a classic and all you can do is keep strong colonies and that keeps the pest at bay.

We are getting a lot of dead bees around the hives in one location at present. It seems to happen every year at about this time so either someone is spraying or there is a poisonous plant in bloom. We will wait for that to pass.

Regulation-is there a lot / none-how does it impact beekeeping?

There are no regulations with beekeeping. Best to ask people if there are any objections even though there are no regulations. The general view from people is quite positive.

The only control I can think of is that you should not make bee hives out of teak if you want to move them about. If you do and you then are seen to be moving your hives you will be automatically sent to the government holiday camp since moving teak is normally illegal and very tightly controlled. The law is strictly to protect logs and timber but interpretation is up to the official on the street and they sometimes have only their own view.

What kind of equipment do you use?

We use Thai hives in the main. We are just trying out Langstroth hives. The Thai hive system was brought here about sixty years ago by the Taiwanese who planted all the fruit orchards. The system is a single box that holds up to eleven frames. Eight or nine frames will be in the box during the honey season. The frames are the standard Langstroth size.

Other equipment is quite basic; a hive tool, a smoker and sometimes even a bee brush. That is about it. We do not wear a veil or any other special clothing. No gloves and you just wear slippers so it is really very relaxed.

Now what that means is that if you are my wife you stand back and supervise. If you are me you get used to bees running up the inside of your trouser leg, sometimes they do not sting. Better to get used to it than to get hot and most of the time I am sting free.

We just made a small batch of Langstroths. The owner of the woodworking shop is now a beekeeper; perhaps not quite what he intended but that is what happened. Other recipients are a couple of university students (who were told to go and learn) and existing beekeepers who are trying a new system. The Langstroth system has great flexibility when compared to the Thai hive, and that is very attractive. The negatives are that you need to be able to work to exact measurements, which does not seem to be local practice. The cost is not so refreshing; it is quite a lot more but you cannot directly compare Langstroth with Thai since they are not one and the same, Langstroth offers so many alternatives.

… The Thai system is better with transport. All you need do is close the two clips on the top and the hive is ready to go. The Langstroth in comparison needs strapping together or stapling and needs to be treated with more respect.

From where do you obtain equipment (suppliers, make your own, or something else)?

There is only one supplier in the region and he supplies a few smaller outlets so there is not exactly what you would call choice. A lot of the equipment is made in Taiwan but smaller items (like smokers) are made by small businesses locally.

Making your own is not always a good idea. We just made a batch of deep and shallow frames. It seemed like a good idea at the time but it was a lot of hard work and at the end of the day we were no where near the cost on the street.

Hives are sold through this supplier but they are all made in Phrae which is about four hours down the road towards Bangkok.

From where do you obtain bees (Packages, swarms, splits)?

There are no package bees here at all. No swarms. It is splits. Either you do your own or you visit an apiary and ask them. You can only buy bees from say May – October since May is the end of the Longan honey season and November is the start of the wild flower season and if they have fed the bees and built them up ready for the nectar flow they are not going to sell to you; they will make money with the flow and then sell to you.

Queens are another challenge. You learn to graft very quickly (or at least your wife does) since it can be difficult to find supply or you cannot be sure of the quality you are being offered.

Why is the Thai system labor-intensive for harvest?

Because you harvest every four days during the nectar flow. You spin every frame (including brood) that has any honey. Each frame needs the bees cleared off. Eight or more frames in a hive and say 100 hives at an apiary. It takes a team of people, the frames are spun at the apiary and during the flow you keep going back and doing it again. Often this would be a family business.

Africanized bees? Or what kinds of bees?

We keep Apis Mellifera which is the commonly kept bee here. Some village people keep Apis Cerana (indigenous) but whilst they need less attention the yields are lower and it can be a challenge to get them to stay in a box sometimes. Apis Florea (dwarf honey bee) are also indigenous but the honey yield is minuscule so I do not know why there is interest. Apis Dorsata are also indigenous and the locals love them when they are in the forest since they are a source of wild honey. I do not quite see the fun though since these bees are very aggressive and I think best left alone. They build comb off the bottom of a branch or between two branches on a tree. No Africanized bees here at all as far as I know.

Unique challenges of beekeeping in Thailand?

Selecting sites is a fundamental challenge since insecticides are liberally used and nobody talks about it. I have never seen honey from citrus fruits here but there are lots of different types over a wide area. The reason I am told is that the bees do not stand a chance due to spraying. I once had hives in a mango orchard. I was so happy until all the bees started dying. Around the orchard farmers were growing flowers for bulbs. The flowers were sprayed to protect the bulbs and the bees found this out the hard way.

Buying local bee hives that are of reasonable quality is an issue. I swear that they do not use a tape measure and I can see that they are only just learning how to paint and drill holes. In the States you can buy a hive body and know that any cover will fit. Here you buy a hive and keep the cover with it because it will not fit any other hive. Quality could be improved quite a lot.

How’s the honey?

People like honey but strongly prefer to buy from the beekeeper. The honey in the market is always suspected to be mixed with say HFCS. I do not know if that is true but I think there may be good foundation. I would also not like to check the moisture content. I think I know what may happen there. We extract in the range of 17-19.5% depending on the season. I am very sure that some bottles in the market will be 25% at least.

Longan honey is thought to be the best honey. Many beekeepers only take this honey and will not harvest any other type. Comb honey is in demand but it tends to be only from the tourist markets and the large hotels. Creamed honey does not normally exist since it does not get cold enough.

Anything else you want to add?

Bound to stir up a storm, but for American readers—I would suggest that people get used to the idea of Chinese honey. It is there and it really, really is a threat, but the only way to counter that is through better local production processes and more efficient marketing. The border controls are totally ineffective, micro-filtering pollen and cross-blending with other countries’ honey makes it very difficult to stop. Here we do not see Chinese honey, which is a blessing since they could sell here at lower the local production cost and still make money.

And, in summary, just because you did it last year and the year before does not mean that you should do it next year. Always question what you are doing, why you are doing it and whether or not there is a better way. Too many beekeepers are fixed in their ways.

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