“Giant Honeybees (Apis dorsata), more than any other indigenous species here…are not only a critical piece of the jigsaw puzzle we call ‘life’, they are also the lifeblood of traditional honey-hunters throughout Cambodia. As such, they must be protected. Not just Giant Honeybees, but all honeybees.” - Dani Jump 2013
Founded by Dani Jump, Bees Unlimited is located in Siem Reap Province Cambodia. Dani and his team engage with traditional honey hunters teaching sustainable harvesting practices. Indigenous honey hunters will not only harvest the honey comb, they will also remove brood comb severely compromising the colonies ability to survive. This practice along with deforestation has dramatically reduced the number of colonies in the area.
I contacted Dani to find out more about his work. He was kind enough to grant an interview. It is a complex issue encompassing old traditions, socioeconomics and education. The interview was conducted via email.
DM: Can you tell us a little bit about your background? How did you end up in Cambodia championing native species?
DJ: I’ve been interested in insects from an early age; collected them —particularly beetles— as a kid, growing up in India. Bees never appealed to me. I wasn’t really exposed to them; not until my third stint as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV), in South America, back in 1990.
To make a long story very short, let’s just say that I tempted some Africanized (“Killer”) Bees into a box one day, baiting it with a little honey, a swarm took it over the next day. I’ve been addicted to beekeeping ever since!
I had studied in France, majored in French, worked as a PCV in two Francophone countries, so, after four years of Spanish in Paraguay I was keen to use my French again.
I just couldn’t resist the temptation to work for an international development organization as a horticulture advisor, “in the shadow of Angkor Wat”, as they put it. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Dabbled in bees for a bit, but the break really came in 2004, when, after being unemployed for a couple years, I was introduced by a friend to a young lady, as a ‘beekeeper’. “Beekeeper”, she exclaimed! “We’re looking for a beekeeper”!
That was the beginning of my work with Apis dorsata, my introduction to rafter beekeeping, and the eventual self-appointed mission of promoting sustainable honey-harvesting.
DM: Your work is primarily around the conservation of Apis dorsata in Cambodia. What attracted you to them, and why is it important to protect them?
DJ: I was out in a village one day with a friend (and regular contributor to the “American Bee Journal”, Stephen Petersen, of Fairbanks, Alaska), when I heard the villagers explaining, in Khmer, what sounded like ‘rafter beekeeping’; a tradition, they said, that was being practiced in a community some distance away.
I was privileged one day to join a team of community foresters working for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in this very village, where residents manage a community forest. One of them just happened to be the most respected honey-hunter/rafter beekeeper in the region. He showed me some of his Apis dorsata colonies, and how he harvested them.
I was shocked! He was cutting away the entire comb. That’s when I realized the rafter beekeepers here needed help.
Cutting off the hand that fed him—and his family—made no sense to me at all. This one-cut-take-all traditional method of harvesting Apis dorsata colonies just had to go. I would make sure of that.
(Editors Note: Traditional honey hunters will cut out the entire comb, brood and all. This is a non-sustainable practice. Bees Unlimited teaches honey hunters to only remove the honey comb which is then replaced by the bees. This allows for multiple honey harvests and does not destroy the colony.)
Giant Honeybees (Apis dorsata), more than any other indigenous species here, which also include A. cerana, A. florea, A. andreniformis, and a host of the stingless Trigona bees, are not only a critical piece of the jigsaw puzzle we call ‘life’ (something that most folk here—and elsewhere—are blind to); they are also the lifeblood of traditional honey-hunters throughout Cambodia. As such, they must be protected. Not just Giant Honeybees, but all honeybees.
We won’t even talk about bee pollination of forest flowers, field and fruit crops, melliferous weeds, etc…
DM: We know that pollinators are under duress around the world, A. dorsata is no exception. What are the biggest challenges they face today?
DJ: It’s not the Amazon rainforest here, but Cambodia is home to some very valuable hardwood. Forests are being cleared at an alarming rate; and when the forests go, so do the Giant Honeybees. Honeybees are on the decline, there’s no doubt about it.
Deforestation is just one of the problems facing Apis dorsata. Cambodia’s burgeoning population, with an insatiable appetite for bee brood, is equally responsible for the decline; and, ‘one-cut-take-all’ harvesting has, over the years, had a negative impact on the bees. Deforestation and bee brood consumption must stop, if the bees are to stand a chance of recovering.
DM: Your organization, Bees Unlimited, is involved in educating traditional honey-hunters. Specifically around using sustainable techniques to harvest from A. dorsata colonies. Can you tell us about the techniques you use, and the challenges getting traditional honey-hunters to adopt them.
DJ: First, let me say that Bees Unlimited is not an organization. We are just three guys who work together, when we can, to promote beekeeping/sustainable harvesting, primarily, of Giant Honeybees.
That our target audience is one of traditional honey-hunters is no accident. A team member is a traditional honey-hunter/rafter beekeeper, with over 35 year’s experience. He’s also a sustainable honey-harvesting convert which makes our work even easier. He teaches others what he learned from his father about rafter beekeeping, and what he has learned from me about sustainable honey-harvesting.
That’s the easy part. The difficult part is getting access to honey-hunter communities. In other words, convincing organizations around the country of the benefit of bees/rafter beekeeping/sustainable honey-harvesting and getting them to fund our training projects.
As far as the techniques involved are concerned…they include ‘rafter beekeeping’ for easy access to colonies, and the removal of only the ‘honey-head’… Simple as that.
(Editors Note: The ‘honey-head’ is the portion of the honeycomb where the honey is stored. Usually at the top of the comb.)
DM: Can you tell us about some of the unique behaviors of A. dorsata?
DJ: A. dorsata are beautiful bees, and with their large, often immense single comb colonies, a sight to behold! Not overly aggressive/defensive, they can be approached and observed quietly within a couple meters of the colony. When disturbed, they do the ‘Mexican Wave’, which is better seen than described. Check out videos on YouTube, for that. I ‘feature’ in a very popular one, Wild Bees which shows a traditional, end-of-season, one-cut-take-all harvest before the bees migrate out.
The ‘Mexican Wave’ serves not only as a deterrent, but also as a warning; and believe me you’d better heed the warning or risk being attacked by thousands of very large bees. But that’s where a little smoke comes in very, very handy.
DM: Overall, how is the population of A. dorsata doing in your region? Have you seen any decline? If so, what do you think are the causes?
DJ: It’s been years now since I’ve systematically interviewed honey-hunters about the declining bee population. Suffice it to say, local honey-hunters have, and are witnessing in their own short lifetime, the demise of local honeybees. I hope I’m not being prophetic here, but the truth is, these are very bad times for bees.
There just is not the number nor the size of colonies there used to be. My own team mate recalls that, in the ‘good old days’ honey-hunters would often not access all the colonies before they migrated off; so numerous were they!! This is certainly not the case anymore.
This year, in particular, appears to be a bad year with very few colonies having yet settled in the rafter beekeeping community where they normally migrate to in October.
Hard to know exactly why; could be the late rains, could be excessive bee-killing in other areas. The huge quantity of A. dorsata brood seen and sold in the local markets certainly has something to do with it as does the continuing loss of habitat.
DM: What can we do to help support the declining population of native pollinators around the world?
DJ: Now, that’s a tough one! It certainly doesn’t help that the United States of America, through USAID projects in developing countries—projects funded by US taxpayers, beekeepers among them, continues to spread GM crops around the world. These are not good for bees and are most certainly having an adverse affect on indigenous honeybee populations, where they are planted.
As a beekeeper, and a US taxpayer, if you’re concerned about the plight of bees abroad, contact your local politicians and start making some noise!! There is a link between GMOs and CCD. Both Apis mellifera and indigenous bees are affected. Genetically modified crops are hurting us all!
DM: Thank you for you time. Is there anything else you’d like to share?
DJ: My pleasure (as always)! If you’d like to see Apis dorsata up-close-and-in-person, come visit Cambodia sometime. Look us up. Our Market, Village, Countryside, and particularly our Bee Tours are not to be missed!!
You can find out more about us at our website: www.beesunlimited.com
Facebook (be sure to ‘Like’ our pages): www.facebook.com/BeesUnlimited
Looking forward to meeting up and taking you out one day!
One last thing…
It’s not been easy. Tradition dies hard; but I can now safely say that instead of systematically wiping honeybees off the map, the rafter beekeepers I’ve been working with since 2004, understand the value of sustainable honey-harvesting, and are starting to make it a part of their honey-harvesting tradition.
Thank you to Bees Unlimited for the fascinating interview and the incredibly important work their team is doing to support not only A. Dorsata but other native species as well. I would encourage you to visit the Bees Unlimited website and/or Facebook page. You will see that the decline of native species include not only apis but water fowl, snakes, insects, plants, and mammals.
If you find yourself in Cambodia take one of their tours. It’s the real deal. I’m looking forward to visiting Bees Unlimited myself.