Tai­wan bee­keep­ers bat­tle to cash in on pure honey buzz

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

ILAN, Tai­wan: Un­der a shady star­fruit tree Tai­wanese bee­keeper Jiang Hwan-bin tends his hives, pump­ing out pure honey for a rapidly grow­ing mar­ket of health­con­scious con­sumers. Jiang’s fam­ily has been keep­ing bees for 80 years and he now man­ages 500 hives in the north­west county of Hs­inchu. In to­tal his fam­ily run around 2,000 across north­ern Tai­wan. A string of food safety scan­dals in Tai­wan has driven de­mand for clean, trace­able pro­duce, with pure honey seen as par­tic­u­larly ben­e­fi­cial - whether stirred into wa­ter as a sum­mer thirst-quencher or used as a sugar sub­sti­tute in desserts.

But although do­mes­tic ap­petite is vo­ra­cious and outstrips sup­ply, which keeps prices high, bee­keep­ers say it is hard to fully cap­i­tal­ize as cli­mate change and dis­ease ham­per ex­pan­sion. This year alone saw a se­ries of ty­phoons and an un­usu­ally cold Jan­uary af­fect­ing early blos­soms. Jiang, 54, who sells most of his pro­duce through his shop in Hs­inchu city un­der the name “Ah-bin Pure Honey”, says his production fell 30 per­cent due to the ad­verse con­di­tions.

The sit­u­a­tion for the whole fam­ily is even worse: over­all production across the thou­sands of hives they run has dropped by two thirds, he says. The un­pre­dictabil­ity of the sea­sons is re­flected in is­land­wide honey out­put over the past five years. Tai­wan pro­duced 11,726 tonnes of pure honey in 2015, more than dou­bling in a decade, with the num­ber of bee farms go­ing up by over a fifth to 860. The in­dus­try is worth Twd$2.7 bil­lion ($85.9 mil­lion) an­nu­ally. But production has been un­sta­ble since 2011, when it peaked at 15,000 tonnes, with ex­treme weather a ma­jor fac­tor.

Jiang says his fun­da­men­tal fo­cus is now dis­as­ter pre­ven­tion. “We pre­pare for ev­ery­thing as much as we can,” he told AFP. “What we can do is man­age the bees well and do our best to keep more bees. The rest de­pends on the weather.”

Hard Les­sons

Dis­ease prob­lems trou­bling bee­keep­ers around the world have also taken their toll on Jiang’s stock. In 2005 he saw half his bees wiped out by a bac­te­rial in­fec­tion. He quar­an­tined his queens, burned the in­fected frames from his hives, and started again, shar­ing those hard les­sons with other lo­cal bee­keep­ers. The gov­ern­ment says it is also giving bee farm­ers ad­vice on dis­ease pre­ven­tion and vi­o­lent weather swings. “In Tai­wan, cli­mate change has been huge,” says Wu Tzu-hsien, a se­nior api­cul­ture ex­pert for the gov­ern­ment’s agri­cul­ture min­istry. “If the changes are too ex­treme, bees can­not con­trol their body tem­per­a­ture and die.”

Brand Build­ing

In ru­ral Yi­lan county in the north­east of Tai­wan the “Bee Farmer” cafe and ed­u­ca­tion cen­tre sits against a back­drop of misty moun­tains. Gi­ant bee stat­ues greet vis­i­tors, who buy ev­ery­thing from royal jelly to pollen sa­chets at the store in­side. There is a honey mu­seum and ac­tive hives to teach the pub­lic about bees. Vis­i­tors come mainly from Tai­wan, although some from Hong Kong and Sin­ga­pore also drop in.

The busi­ness be­longs to Huang Tung-ming, a fourth gen­er­a­tion bee farmer who man­ages 300 hives in the area, pro­duc­ing a va­ri­ety of hon­eys, in­clud­ing lon­gan, ly­chee and melon. He has di­ver­si­fied to pros­per, sell­ing pro­duce from other lo­cal bee farm­ers as well as his own. There are 10 “Bee Farmer” shops around Tai­wan but the com­pany sells mostly on­line through its Chi­nese-lan­guage web­site, a more mod­ern ap­proach than most tra­di­tional bee­keep­ing fam­i­lies. The busi­ness brings in Twd$50 mil­lion each year.

“In the past, farm­ing vil­lages were iso­lated. When you pro­duced honey you didn’t know where the cus­tomers were,” says Huang. “Now with the Internet, with brand­ing, pack­ag­ing and a cor­po­rate im­age, it’s much eas­ier than be­fore.” Build­ing a bee brand has helped Huang off­set the chal­lenges of bad weather and bee health, both of which have affected his farms. Eight years ago, many of Huang’s bees de­serted their hives, un­able to find their way home after go­ing out for nec­tar.

Huang, 61, be­lieves in­breed­ing affected the bees’ sense of di­rec­tion and has since de­vel­oped a method of iso­lat­ing the best pairs. That has meant his hives have not suc­cumbed to ill­nesses that have killed so many bees worldwide, he says. De­spite the pres­sures, his son Huang Chun-yen, 33, who helps run the busi­ness, says there are still keen young bee farm­ers who con­sider it a good op­tion in the face of Tai­wan’s eco­nomic stag­na­tion. “Young peo­ple can’t find jobs that pay well,” he says. “As the value of bee prod­ucts is high, young peo­ple go to farm­ing vil­lages to learn to keep bees and de­velop their ca­reers.”

For Jiang in Hs­inchu, look­ing after bees means more than just busi­ness. He sees it as a global is­sue, key to en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion and food pro­vi­sion. “Al­most one third of hu­man food re­lies on bee pol­li­na­tion. Bees play an im­por­tant role in the ecosys­tem,” he says. Mean­while, he does his best to de­fend his own hives against what­ever na­ture throws at them. “We be­lieve we have to work hard first, and then heaven will help us,” he says. — AFP

YI­LAN, Tai­wan: Owner of Bee Farmer cafe and ed­u­ca­tion cen­ter Huang Tung-ming checks a hive next to his col­league at a bee farm on Oc­to­ber 4, 2016. — AFP photos

A bee­keeper sorts out a hive at a bee farm.

HS­INCHU, Tai­wan: Cus­tomers look at prod­ucts at Ah-bin Pure Honey store on Oc­to­ber 5, 2016.

A woman walk­ing past the en­trance of the Bee Farmer cafe and ed­u­ca­tion cen­ter.

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