Honey is the ancient sweetener now almost entirely displaced by sugar. Honey may only 0.01 percent of what Thailand produces in sugar in weight, but as it fetches a good price, honey production represents 1.07 percent of monetary value of the country’s sugar.

Yet honey is different from sugarcane is one, other essential way. Save those unlucky enough to be stung, beekeeping is one of the few agricultural pursuits in which all parties benefit: consumers get honey, bees get nectar, beekeepers can make a living, industries can advertise natural products, and plants can be pollinated.

But modern farming is destroying traditional sources of nectar. Increasingly, beekeepers are becoming mobile, transporting their bees throughout Isaan and even to other regions in search of nectar.

In this two-part installment in our series on Sweetness & Power, The Isaan Record has taken some time to go with the bees and their beekeepers to understand how the shrinking sources of nectar threatens not only Isaan bees and the livelihood of beekeepers but is having a devastating impact on the environment and Thailand’s biodiversity.

PART XI: Travelling for survival, Isaan’s honeybees face an increasingly hostile environment

In a small stand of trees surrounded by fallow fields in Loei province, white protective clothes lie on the ground looking like a pile of crumpled, discarded space suits.

“We brought you these,” Nikhom Khotsuwan says amidst the buzzing sound of 50 beehives.

“Will you be wearing them, too?”

“Nah,” the beekeeper casually replies, “I’m used to the stings.”

Arranged in a circle, the 50 hives from a distance seem like a miniature human settlement. But the bees aren’t here to settle. Their home is in Nong Bua Lamphu province, some 140 kilometers away to the south. They’ve travelled here to collect some honey before moving on to feast on nectar elsewhere.

The foraging radius of bees is only a few kilometers. To keep their bees alive and thriving, beekeepers like Nikhom have to take to the road.

For the honeybees of Isaan, regular trips to other areas have become necessary for survival. Isaan beekeepers have formed alliances with farmers in the major fruit-producing areas of Thailand to ensure that their hives stay buzzing all year round. There’s a relationship between beekeepers, fruit growers, and bees that all benefit from. The relationship is also important to sustaining biodiversity.

But there is a common threat. The widespread use of pesticides and monocropping is threatening the bees as well as the country’s fruit industry and the environment.

Paralysis turns a farmer into beekeeper

Nikhom, 53, is a beekeeper of over 20 years and president of the Isaan Beekeepers Association, which has 120 registered members from all over the region. He and his wife, Janpheng Sirichan, 55, have brought their bees to Loei for the nectar of the devil weed flower (dok saab suea), which grows wild in the fields left vacant after the rice harvest, to make devil-weed honey.

A smoke pump, fueled by smouldering leaves and twigs, is being prepared prior to opening a hive for inspection. Smoke prevents the guard bees from “sounding the alarm bell” by inhibiting their ability to produce pheromones used to communicate danger to the rest of the hive. Photo by Mike Eckel

Originally a rice and pig farmer, Nikhom hadn’t considered bees to be much more than an occasional nuisance. Then one day in his late 20s as he was tilling his fields, he felt a strange sensation in his right arm. By the next morning, his entire arm was paralysed. Doctors were unable to help him, or even offer an explanation. Nikhom sunk into depression at the prospect of suddenly becoming “a cripple.”

For the next two years, he spent his time reading voraciously, combing through any material he could find regarding paralysis. Eventually he came across a treatment called bee-sting therapy, which entailed getting bees to repeatedly sting the paralyzed area.

“The article I read explained that people at the time were paying 200 baht for each specially selected bee, which had to be young and in its prime.” The person being treated, Nikhom says, “would be stung repeatedly in one session, one bee for each sting.” He pauses, as if to let the point sink in before breaking off eye contact and turning to face his beehives.

At 200 baht per bee sting (about $6.50) in a country where the daily minimum wage is 300 baht, Nikhom knew there’d just be no way he could afford the treatment he needed.

“You clearly had to be rich to pay for that treatment,” he says with just a hint of a chuckle. “So I went and got my own bees.”

With his own hives, Nikhom learned to keep and breed bees so that he could offer his right arm up for them to sting, again and again, until he eventually began to feel a dull sensation return to the arm.

“I was so happy I almost cried because I knew I had to keep going until it really hurt,” Nikhom laughs, as he runs his left hand over the once-paralyzed arm. After his daily ritual of pushing towards pain for about a year, he eventually made a full recovery thanks to his bees, which he’d grown quite fond of.

Janpheng adds matter of factly, “I told him that if he was going to spend all day with those bees, he’d better start earning a living from it.”

And thus the couple’s start as beekeepers.

Nikhom and Janpheng’s bees live in mobile hives. Half of them are bred as stock for sale to other beekeepers and the other half are assigned to honey making. A hive of bees sells for 1,800 baht (about 58 USD). Photo by Mike Eckel

Let me take you far away

Nikhom does not own the land that his bees are feasting upon today. During the devil-weed season, which lasts from November to December and sometimes until January or February, he drives his bees around Isaan in order to produce devil-weed honey, an award-winning specialty of the region.

A more reliable source of nectar, however, lies in the commercial fruit orchards of Thailand’s northern region and in Chanthaburi, a province in the East famed for its fruit.

The couple and their bees criss-cross the country for several months every year to visit fruit farms and collect nectar.

In return for the nectar that will be turned into honey for the couple to sell, the bees pollinate the orchards at no cost. Without the bees, the orchard owners would have to hire farm workers to artificially pollinate their trees, which is expensive and not as effective.

Of Thailand’s total annual honey output of about 10,000 tons, only eight to ten percent is produced within Isaan, whereas the lion’s share of 80 percent is produced in the north, and the remaining ten to twelve percent from the rest of the country, according to Khon Kaen province’s Agricultural Promotion and Development Center.

Blame it on the monocropping

As more and more land in Thailand is consumed by monocropping–the practice of growing a single cash crop, such as sugarcane, continuously on the same piece of land–the prospects look bleak for the food security of bees in Isaan.

Sugarcane may be sweet, but it offers very little in the way of food for bees. Sugarcane produces no nectar, though bees will gladly feed on the sugary juice leaking from the stumps after a harvest.

Bees collect pollen from sugarcane flower if available, but the sugarcane plant is fickle about when it flowers. They sometimes go a whole year without flowering at all if the conditions aren’t right, making them an unreliable source of pollen. In any case, sugarcane flowers have no commercial value to sugarcane growers, so many farmers plant varieties that don’t flower at all.

Nikhom and Janpheng had first come across this plot of land on a scouting trip in a previous year, while their bees were making honey elsewhere in Loei. Photo by Mike Eckel
“After I set the hives down,” he says. “All I have to do is just let the bees do their thing. Then I go for long, slow drives with my eyes peeled for more locations with the right food for my bees.” Photo by Mike Eckel

Thailand’s area of sugarcane growing, which is linked to high use of insecticides, has almost doubled between 2007 to 2015, from 6.5 million rai to about 11 million rai. The country’s Cane and Sugar Board aims to increase the area used for sugarcane cultivation by yet another 80 percent by the year 2026.

Isaan traditionally had hua rai plai na–“top-of-the-field-tip-of-the-paddy”– woodlands dotted across the farming landscape. These mini-woodlands provided the perfect environment for various kinds of wild plants and animals, and of course, bees, which are attracted to these spots by the wild flowers. Monocropping has worked to remove this feature of the Isaan landscape.

“There used to be so much more land with all kinds of food for the bees. We farmed differently then,” Nikhom says. “Today we see more and more monocropping, whether it’s tapioca, corn, or sugarcane. The land doesn’t get a chance to lay fallow and recover.”

Land left to fallow is another spot where wild flowers can flourish. Bees, like humans, require a varied diet in order to thrive. Without it, bees are not as healthy and are less likely to survive disease and exposure to the chemicals commonly used in commercial farming.

At best, monocropping forces bees to subsist on a monotonous diet. At worst, it creates food deserts for them. Monocropping also has the side-effect of making the environment too toxic for bees.

The combined challenges of monocropping and pesticide use are prompting beekeepers, academics, and environmentalists to speak out in the name of bees, biodiversity, and the businesses that use honey.

Look for Part II of this story tomorrow