Samui Wining & Dining
Hello Honey

Nature’s busy bees produce this wonderful product all over the world.

10Honey is something we simply take for granted. It’s always been there and we love it. Cave paintings in Europe indicate that ancient man was harvesting honey around 8,000 years ago. And the next step in human/honeybee relations came when people started keeping bees in manmade structures rather than just going out and searching for wild hives. Ancient Egyptians were beekeepers and their methods were copied throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East. 

Honey bees represent only a small fraction of approximately 20,000 known species of bees. As in a few other types of eusocial bees, a colony generally contains one queen bee (the fertile female), seasonally up to a few thousand drone bees (fertile males) and a large seasonally variable population of sterile female worker bees.

Natural beehives, typically referred to as nests, are naturally occurring structures occupied by honey bee colonies, whereas domesticated honey bees live in manmade beehives, often in an apiary. Only the Western honey bee and the Eastern honey bee are domesticated by humans. In the wild, they create elaborate nests containing up to 20,000 individuals during the summer months (domestic hives may have over 80,000 bees). They work together in a highly structured social order. There is only one queen in a hive and her main purpose in life is to make more bees. She can lay over 1,500 eggs per day and will live between two to eight years. 

Simply put, honey is made by bees using nectar from flowers. The variety produced by honey bees is the type of honey collected by beekeepers and consumed by humans. Honey bees form nectar into honey by a process of regurgitation and store it as a primary food source in wax honeycombs inside the beehive. Beekeeping practices encourage overproduction of honey so that excess can be taken without endangering the colony.

In the hive, the bees use their ‘honey stomachs’ to ingest and regurgitate the nectar a number of times until it’s partially digested. The bees work together as a group with the regurgitation and digestion until the product reaches a desired quality. It’s then stored in honeycomb cells. After the final regurgitation, the honeycomb is left unsealed. However, the nectar is still high in both water content and natural yeasts which, left unchecked, would cause the sugars in the nectar to ferment. This process continues as bees inside the hive fan their wings, creating a strong draft across the honeycomb which enhances evaporation of much of the water from the nectar. Reduction in water content raises the sugar concentration and prevents fermentation. Ripe honey, as removed from the hive by a beekeeper, has a long shelf-life and will not ferment if properly sealed.

In 2005, honey production worldwide was around 1.3 million tons. China, Argentina and Mexico topped the list of producing countries and Asia as a whole provided nearly 40%. Thailand is an emerging producer but is still firmly considered a secondary source, mainly for the domestic market. However, over the last few years there has been a problem. When suspiciously large numbers of honeybee colonies started collapsing in late 2006, the search began to find the culprit behind the mysterious deaths. Now it seems a whole web of issues may be causing what’s known as ‘colony collapse disorder’. It’s becoming clear that there is no single parasite, virus or chemical to blame, argues Frances Ratnieks, a bee scientist at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England.

In an increasingly globalised world, bee pathogens travel quickly between bee populations. That’s in part because of the economics of beekeeping. For example, the $2 billion almond crop in California requires 1,000,000 honeybee hives for cross-pollination. That’s more than 40% of all the beehives in the country. So, come almond-tree flowering season, which begins in February, apiarists load up their hives on flatbeds and truck them to San Joaquin Valley. Whilst this pilgrimage may be necessary to keep churning out cheap almonds, it also creates a melting pot of pathogens. And the moving and trucking itself could negatively impact the bees, too.

Ratnieks also suspects that honeybees are more susceptible to disease because their natural forage has been wiped out by single-crop farming in many countries. So far, no one has been able to offer a workable solution and it’s unclear what the longer term ramifications may be.

Thailand does have a recognised tradition of beekeeping and a top commercial beekeeper can make 40-50 kg of honey per beehive. Most hobby-beekeepers are happy with 10-15 kg. And it should be noted that each bee only brings home a few milligrams on each flight and the further they have to fly to reach the flowers costs them additional nectar in used energy. It could take hundreds if not thousands of bees to make the couple of spoonfuls you spread on your toast in the morning. For those interested in the subject the best way to meet professional beekeepers is to go to Chiang Mai during the Lam Yai flower festival. It’s held annually over the first weekend in February and the festivities also include floral floats, parades, traditional dance shows and beauty contests.

On Samui, there is something of a cottage industry. There are some hives around the foot of the mountains in Maenam and there will undoubtedly be others around the island. It’s not something that the beekeepers advertise and, in actual fact, they like to keep the location of their hives secret; perhaps for fear of having them looted or stolen. You can buy Samui-produced honey, however, it’s not as easy to find as you might think. Often it’s from ‘a guy’ who appears about once a month with bottles of it in his motorbike side-car. Usually the honey is sold in old Thai whisky bottles and there is the merest hint of liquor when you taste it. I’d suggest asking a Thai person at your hotel where they get theirs from.

Honey is a wonderful natural product enjoyed around the globe. But it may soon become a luxury. And here’s the sting, like a whole host of environmental issues, the collapse in honey production may be entirely of our own making.

 


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