Hong Kong’s beekeepers
From rooftops to island farms, the city’s homegrown honey industry is buzzing
By Iris Lo Hau-lam
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A security guard was patrolling a Hong Kong car park, glancing over the cars as usual, when he suddenly stiffened. Staring at a parked van, he stumbled back. He had never seen anything like this. He needed to find the owner.
Harry Wong Ka-hon, Cheung Ka-chung and Kong Pui-wa had just entered the carpark when the sweaty guard sprinted towards them.
“Bees are trying to get out of your car!” the guard yelled.
Instead of running away, the three made a dash straight for the van.
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At Chan Chun-kwong’s village house in Fanling, several honeybees flew in and out of the 40 hives in the back garden. It is hard to tell exactly how many bees Chan has. Theoretically, a standard hive, about 48 cm wide and 22 cm deep, can produce at least 7,000 adult bees. That means Chan could be taking care of around 280,000 bees.
Trees, such as longan and lychee, which honey bees love to pollinate, surround Chan’s garden. “My home is superior for beekeeping,” said Chan, a beekeeping master. “I can harvest every kind of honey, whatever I want.”
Chan, 70, retired and a beekeeping master, teaches beekeeping. That was how he met Wong, Cheung and Kong. He has been teaching the three young beekeepers for the last year.
But despite 40 years of beekeeping, Chan only started his online business last year. Now, he sells honey, propolis, beeswax, pupae and even hives through social media.
“In the past 39 years, I only kept honeybees as a hobby,” said Chan. “I’ve never thought of starting a business until my friends set up a Facebook page for me.”
“Hong Kong is too small and lacking in tree species to harvest different kinds of honey, as mainlanders do,” said Chan, hearing that Wong, Cheung and Kong had also set up a company called Beetales. “I don’t care whether they can be successful. I just want someone to inherit the skills.”
In addition to their online sales, Wong, Cheung and Kong also connect with other beekeepers on the online platform Hong Kong Raw Honey. This growing group of local beekeepers sell their honey as well as side-products, such as lipsticks and mead, in local markets, and they like to keep their hives on farms in rural areas such as Yuen Long and the North District. A few even keep their hives on rooftops in urban areas. Much of their business, they say, involves dealing with people who are afraid of bees.
Amateur beekeepers are also growing. Like Chan, they usually keep their hives behind their village houses. All over Hong Kong, in places like Mui Wo and Lamma Island, people are creating “beehive villages” in their backyards.
In the carpark, Wong, Cheung and Kong approached the van. About 300 hundred bees were flying around inside the car urinating golden liquid everywhere.
“That…is so messy,” Cheung said and sighed.
While a master beekeeper like Chan can attract bees in the country parks, the three beginner beekeepers still get most of their bees from Chan’s beehives.
Cheung opened the van door, and most of the bees escaped, flying away. He quickly sealed up a hole in the hive with a plastic tarp.
A beehive has a hole on the bottom right corner, so that honeybees can fly out for pollinating in the morning and back inside the hive in the evening. The beekeepers should have sealed it before leaving the van. As Cheung drove away, dozens of bees flew around him.
The Hong Kong beekeeping industry has a long history. The first local beekeeping company, Po San Yuen in Fanling, launched more than 90 years ago. The products are omnipresent in local supermarkets.
The earliest evidence of humans eating honey is an 8,000 year old rock painting of a person climbing a tree to fight bees and steal their honey near Valencia, Spain.
These honey pioneers would tear the natural hives apart, squeezing the hives to harvest the honey. This kills all the pupae, or the baby bees still in their cells, devastating the hive and any chance at sustainability.
Over the years, beekeepers figured out how to create artificial hives, making it easier for them to extract honey without damaging the hive and the pupae. After years of improvements, steel wires are the toughest material for stabilizing the hives. One hive can produce anywhere between 10 and 200 pounds of honey in a year
On a farm in Yuen Long, Kong, 23, wearing goggles, drove a nail into a wooden box. Kong, a university student in an environment program, was making a Langstroth hive, a common artificial modular hive used in the United States. Inside the hive, Kong hung wooden frames, the distance between each one narrow, for the bees to store honey. Each honey frame has three steel wires horizontally, and a hive will usually have five frames.
Living in artificial hives, honey bees still eat honey to produce beeswax, which they chew to soften and then build into the hexagonal cells of their honeycomb. But they are safe from the threats of wasps and flies, who in the wild will attack them or corrode their hives.
Kong installed a temperature indicator on the hive wall so she can ensure the temperature stays below 30 Celsius for the honey bees to survive. She painted the lid of the wooden hives different colors and put them under a canopy. Six hives gather together in rainbow colors.
Wong and Cheung focus on maintaining the hives. They shuttle between urban areas and their farm at least twice a week in summer and almost every day in the winter and spring, the harvesting seasons.
Maintaining beehives is far more complicated than they imagined. Grabbing a frame out of a hive, Wong quietly stared at the bees covering it to make sure every female bee had clear yellow-and-black stripes and every male bee had six robust legs.
Cheung gently blew bees off another hive, looking for any threats that he had to erase.
The galleria mellonella, also known as the honeycomb moth, is the main threat to honey bees. The moths love sneaking into beehives to eat bee pupae. Because bees store sweet honey in their stomachs, they are delicious desserts for wasps, hornets, omnivorous dragonflies, leopards, toads, birds and cockroaches.
Chung clipped a wasp out of the hive. A 2.5cm-long wasp had invaded the beehive while Cheung was checking in. Several apis cerana, the only honey bee species in Hong Kong, crawled over it. The wasp was more than six times the size of the honeybee, but it had failed and was dying. Wasps cannot survive when they are overheated. The honeybees had used their body heat to burn it to death.
At least 20,000 bee species are found all over the world, but only four main species are recognized as “honey bees”, including apis ceranae. While wasps look similar, they are larger and more aggressive. They will fly into apartments and sting people, and they do not produce honey.
“Apis cerana are the most mild species among bees,” said Wong, taking a honey frame out. He gently blew the bees off the board and several hexagonal honeycombs appeared. Some holes were sparkling with honey, while some holes were covered with white dots, the bee pupae.
Throughout the whole process, Wong did not wear a mask or gloves. “Our master taught us that we have to keep the connection with bees and nature,” he said.
“Everyone got stung at the beginning but that’s fine. They only sting you when you hurt them or slam them into your fingers.”
They only experienced a dramatic bee chasing scene once when they waved a fan toward the bees to blow them off the hive for harvesting.
“We learnt that online; we thought it would work,” Wong said and chuckled.
Obviously, things did not go well. Clouds of bees surrounded and stung them. Bees chased after them for at least 10 meters, then slowly returned to their own hives. The beekeepers were covered with red welts.
Honeybees sting humans only when they are threatened. And when they do, they die. Their stingers get stuck in human skin, so when they try to fly away, their bodies rupture and their organs are pulled out.
The proteins in bee venom cause pain and swelling in humans but usually aren’t harmful. About 5 percent to 7.5 percent of people are allergic, the venom triggering a more active immune system reaction, according to the Journal of Asthma and Allergy.
People allergic to beestings might have severe redness, a swollen tongue or throat, nausea, vomiting and loss of consciousness.
“Bees are not scary though,” said Cheung, who had just been stung. He pulled out the stinger, covering his wound with an ice bags. He said he was bitten by a wasp on his nose when he was 10 years old. “Honey bees are cute,” he said.
An urbanite, I was hardly convinced. So I joined their bee workshop.
When I arrived on the farm at Ngau Tam Mei, Yuen Long, Rainis Chong, was playing with a baby bee.
“Hey, do you want to play with this baby bee?” Chong asked me.
I thought about what I would do if the bee crazily climbed all over my body.
“Put your nail on her hand; bees follow human nails,” said Cheung quietly.
So I did that. The bee crawled on my nail. I slowly turned my palm over, the bee automatically crawled on my palm. The bee peacefully climbed over my hand. It barely stopped, and it did not sting me.
Then we walked into the beehives and tasted some propolis. Some honey spilled over my hands and my camera, so I quickly put the whole propolis into my mouth and chewed.
Unlike the honey tea I drunk in a café, the sweetness was the richest I had ever tasted. This was the longan honey, the sweetest honey of them all. The propolis squeezed while I was eating it, and some of it stuck in my teeth.
Two bees flew on my fingers and lens. I felt something slightly shave my skin. The bees were eating honey off me with their red tube-like tongues. They flew away when their stomachs were bulging with honey.
Cheung put a few cups of honey on the hives, and some bees soaked in honey like it was a spa; some bees flew to the flowers for pollination.
Beehives don’t have to be on a farm. One Hong Kong beekeeper has kept his bees near the Wholesale Fruit Market in Yau Ma Tei for more than four years, but he didn’t want to reveal his name in case his neighbors get mad, he said. He didn’t “want to cause any terrible damages to the beehives after disclosing the details.”
The Hong Kong government does not impose regulations or licensing systems on beekeepers, but still, he said.
The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department removed 1,767 beehives in public areas in 2020, according to the government, but it does not distinguish between wasp hives and honeybee hives.
Back in the workshop, Wong and Cheung talked about the history of beekeeping and basic knowledge of bee species. They introduced their business plan they call “a home for the urban bee,” trying to recruit partners to keep bees in the city or even on the rooftops of their homes, to sell honey.
Jose Law was elated about the plan. Law lives in a typical three-story village house, a suitable environment to build an artificial hive on his rooftop. He might be a potential partner of Beetales to help build up the local business chain.
“I’ve wanted to keep a honeybee hive at my house for a long time,” said Law, “because I’m a honey fiend. I want to harvest honey by myself.”
The state of the global honeybee population is not good. Between 1947 and 2008, according to the Journal of Invertebrate Pathology, the number of honeybees decreased from 5.8 million to 2.3 million.
In the United States in 2006, beekeepers reported high losses when worker bees disappeared, leaving their queen bee and immature bees in the hives in what is called colony collapse disorder.
In winter 2008, beekeepers lost 28.1 percent of their bees, according to the National Management Survey by Bee Informed Partnership, which increased to 43.7 percent and 35.6 percent in 2010 and 2019.
A drastic drop in the number of honeybees also affects other industries, such as agriculture. Fewer honeybees lead to fewer natural plant pollination, which raises the cost of artificial feedstock by farmers.
Cheung and Wong, 35 and 33, first had the idea of learning beekeeping after travelling to Madagascar two years ago, which changed their lives, they said.
Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world and farming is the backbone of the country’s economy, constituting 30 percent of GDP. Wong and Cheung said they thought beekeeping might be a viable business that will help with pollination after massive deforestation. “Beekeeping is a potential for Madagascans to earn their livings while protecting their lands,” said Wong.
Africa is gifted with a diversity of wild honey bees species. In Ethiopia, annual honey production was estimated at about 43,000 metric tons, shared with around 23.5 percent and 2.35 percent of African and worldwide honey production. The country ranks the biggest beekeeping industry in Africa and the tenth in the globe.
When the COVID-19 pandemic ends, they will return to Madagascar to help with beekeeping efforts there. Bees matter to Hong Kong and to everywhere on the planet, they said.
In Yuen Long, the beekeepers wore black veils over their faces. This day is the only time they wear gear. They were harvesting honey.
Bees bumped against Wong’s veil, but they did not sting him. Wong led the bees away from the hive, and then put the entire hive inside a transparent cylinder.
The frame was vertically hung inside the cylinder. Wong pressed the button, then the frame turned rapidly.
Golden liquid splashed on the cylinder. Liquid slid to the bottom of the machine. When it finished, Wong gently put the hive back, bees covering the hive again. Inside the honeycombs, the pupae still quietly crawled behind the thick white veils, eating their honey.
Wong said he only extracts the excess honey in the hives.
“Sometimes, I am still worried about they don’t have enough honey to eat,” said Wong, gluing a thick yellow mixture of sugar and pollen on the edges of a hive.
“They gave us their honey, but sometimes, I have to give it back when they don’t have enough food.”
“Learning to keep bees is hard,” said Tavis Du Preez, 58, a Canadian who put his bee hives in his garden on Lamma Island six months ago.
Du Preez wears white upper-body protection gear with thick white gloves and a black face veil. Bees are more aggressive when their hives lack a queen bee, like Du Preez’s.
In a hive, worker honeybees will choose a queen bee to mate with drones, the male honeybee. The drones protect the queen bee. But if the queen bee dies, the colony becomes unstable and may even forgo the hive to find a new one for raising another queen bee.
If Du Preez approaches the queen-less hive, the colony might feel even more threatened.
“That’s the problem I have to deal with,” said Du Preez, “sometimes I am still afraid of being stung by bees.”
In Cantonese, the word for wasp, hornet and honey bee is all the same, “Fong.”
“Sometimes, lack of knowledge creates irrational fears towards honey bees,” said Du Preez. “Education is very important. I keep bees because of my daughter; I want her to know more about nature.”
His 9-year-old daughter is not afraid of insects. Sometimes she goes to the garden, sticks honey on her little palm and let the bees enjoy their meal.
Du Preez works as a English teacher, and he wants to build beehives at the school. The school did not have a plan of beekeeping yet, but Du Preez hopes the school will launch a program in the future.
“I’m doing a tiny bit of help for the world,” said Du Preez.
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I’m doing a tiny bit of help for the world.
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