Friday, August 04, 2023

Four Kinds of Honey Bees in Northern Thailand

These bee hives look like something Winnie-the-Pooh might stick his paw into. The hives are made of hollowed out sections of tree trunk. The photo was taken by my daughter Anna, who was traveling this summer in southeast Asia. 

To escape the heat, she and her boyfriend headed up into a mountainous region in northern Thailand called Chang Rai, where the residents drink three kinds of tea and grow four kinds of honey. She was surprised to learn that the black, green, and white teas all come from the same plant--the same species of tea. But the four kinds of honey are not made by the same kind of bee. This is four kinds of honey made by four species of bees. Thailand, it is claimed, has the greatest bee diversity in the world, including half the world's species of honey bees, and in this tiny village the various honeys they produce are an important part of the diet. 

There's the honey we're familiar with, and then there's another one that tastes like apricot jam. A third, produced by the stingless bee, has a fermented fruity flavor like Kambucha. 

Another species, the asian giant honey bee (Apis dorsata), can't be kept in a hive, so villagers climb trees to reach the honey. Wooden footholds are placed in the tree trunk to expedite the climb. The giant honey bees don't stick around all year, but instead migrate up to 200 kilometers, returning to the same branch six months later.

The asian honey bee (Apis cerana) produces less honey than our honey bee, but is much easier to take care of

A Brief Account of Life in a Mountain Village in Thailand

Their first night in the village, they were surprised to be awakened at 3:30am by the robust crowing of roosters, so raucous that the whole village has little choice but to rise and begin its day. Chickens run loose, apparently free of local predators that might consume them before people have a chance to. Once a year, a tiger passes through the area, apparently without raising much concern.

The town runs on solar energy, but lest one think this mountain village an idyllic integration of humanity into nature, daytime brings cooking fires and the burning of refuse. The villagers are conditioned to the resulting stew of smoke that can linger in the valley, but it registered as noxious and toxic to Anna. 

Some of the refuse is plastic, which we're all told releases toxins when burned. What plastics do the villagers have if they grow their own food and have few possessions? Though they cook delicious meals most days, there are times when villagers may not feel like cooking, and so pull out store-bought noodles and tomato sauce, the plastic wrappings from which end up getting burned in the refuse pile. 

This is not much different from my own experience growing up in a small village in Wisconsin in the 1960s. One of my chores was to burn the garbage, plastic and all. In autumn, we'd rake some leaves into piles to jump into, and others into piles to burn. We'd toss acorns into the glowing core of the fire and wait for the popcorn-like explosion. On brisk, sunny fall days, the whole village became suffused with what registered as a sweet and endearing aroma of burning leaves. Even after moving to a city, the 1930s house we moved into had an incinerator in the basement for burning trash. And in the 70s and 80s, when I played jazz gigs in smoke-filled bars, it was not until the next morning that I'd notice the wretched smell of stale smoke in the clothes I had worn. 

There have been efforts to promote cleaner air in remote mountain villages around the world. Some students, before entering Princeton University, sign up to spend a "bridge year" in a foreign country doing good deeds, one of which is helping build cleaner burning stoves for villagers in Peru and elsewhere. You'd think the villagers would be grateful for a home less choked with smoke, and maybe they are, but the capacity of the body to become conditioned to abuse is both impressive and exasperating.

Lots of interesting reading out there on bees. Here's some info about eight species of honey bees around the world.

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