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Monday, 14 September 2009

[Learning to fly: Young bees practice flying.]

Cindy and I drove into the heart of Malaysia, where we thought we would be squeezing through musty jungles; instead, what we witnessed was the mass devastation of what once
must've been a beautiful land.

Its a rugged land, none the less, way up in the sky; and we had to use 4x4's to get there. We were there to save bees that had fallen victim to progress. A 1000 hectares of virgin forest are scheduled to be
bulldozed over, burnt and
then replanted with palm oil plantations.

I'm all for progress; I love watching new buildings being built, new road systems, new cars. I love the ingenuity of man that creates a better place for all, both man and beast. But I didn't see that kind of philosophy in action here at all. All I see is a few people benefitting from a country's wealth. Poor migrant workers, mostly from Indonesia, clad in rags and living in tin shacks, were the hands used to clear the land after the bulldozers had come and gone. And when the machines had come, the animals and birds fled. Those that weren't swift enough died.

[A migrant worker walks over land once densely forested.]

We were up there with a friend, Bruce Cheong and his business partner Kenny. They are both passionate about bees and they told us many interesting stories about these little winged wonders, like; if a bee stings you, walk away from the hive first and then pull out the sting otherwise all the other bees will attack you when they smell the scent of the sting as you pull it out, and how their habitat is being destroyed(not that that needed explanation, we saw for ourselves what was being done to the forest).

While we were standing in the ruins, they pointed to the last standing hill of virgin forest in the entire area, a road from the left and road from the right, along which the bulldozers will travel, snaking towards it. Kenny told us that a tiger had taken refuge there, with all the other animals; and that a hunter would soon be sent in to shoot it, regardless of the fact that its an endangered species. The workers are scared of it and wont work with it around, so die it must!

The fate of the forest bees is the same as that of the tiger. When the loggers come across a bee hive, they chop the tree down and then burn the section of stump housing the colony, whether the bees sting or not.

Pic below: Kenny, in the white, and his friend move a
tree stump, the home of a bee colony, from the ruins
left of the forest. A piece of paper is plugged into the
entrance of the hive to keep the bee's in.

So Kenny, Bruce and Cathy have decided to put a stop to this. Not just for the sake of the bees but also for humanity. According to them, if the bees, who are the main pollinators of our vegetable and fruit crops, die out, our food sources will be greatly affected, to the point of gross food shortages.

So, they pay the loggers to call them when they come across a bee hive and then Kenny goes in with a team to remove it. If the bees are of the honey producing type, then he takes the hive back to one of his pieces of land where they are integrated into his apiary; if not, he releases them back into the wild or gives them to farmers to pollinate their crops with.

Kenny has been involved with bees for a long time. He says that he has been stung so many times now that if a bee stings him, it feels like a mosquito bite(Hence no protective clothing worn in the pic above). He fell in love with the little creatures when he decided to keep a hive as a hobby.

At that stage he was still staying in town, working as a lumber jack; but his bees, returning from forages into the neighbourhood, were stinging passerby's in their cars. And to
placate the angry drivers he would give them a bottle of the honey he had harvested from his bees. Soon however, a steady stream of cars arriving at his front gate, angry people demanding honey, he realized it was time to find a place on the outskirts of the town. Not long after that, his bee population exploded and he was able to swop careers, from being a lumber jack to being an apiarist(beekeeper!). His marketing skills were found wanting and so he approached Bruce and his wife Cathy, who were selling bee products, to help him.

Picture left: A tree stump housing a bee colony that Kenny rescued and relocated to his star fruit farm where he keeps many hives. The tree stump is propped up against a star fruit tree; and then, using a method he invented over many years, he positions a box above the old entrance of the hive. In this way, the bees are fooled into believing that their hive is now in the box itself and they start building there. Kenny is then able to open the box and harvest the honey without ruining the hive as other people would.

We managed to rescue five such logs housing hives the day that we were there. All of them were taken back to this star fruit farm. Kenny, Bruce and Cathy, however, are worried about the future of their bees here too. Masses of adjoining land, once pristine forest, have recently been cleared for rice paddies and they are worried about the pesticides the farmers will use. Bees are extremely sensitive to these poisons and multitudes of whole colonies have been wiped out as a result. So they are currently looking for ways to involve indigenous forest dwellers in protected reserves to help them care for the bees.

After we had spent the day collecting and relocating the hives, we drove to a few other locations where they keep their bees. They have involved the help of the local community, who hang hives in trees on their property, in return for some of the honey harvested. If they did not do that, other bee keepers steal their hives.

To end the day off, we got to stick our fingers into the hive, with stinging bees swarming around(Don't worry mom and dad, Kenny the expert showed us how to do it), and taste the honey. Delectable is the only word for it. The honey from each hive tasted totally different from the other. Some were sweet, some bitter, some bitter sweet, some tasted like Eucalyptus. Bruce explained that a colony will harvest the pollen and nectar from one type of flower and impregnate the honey with that particular flavour, hence the differences in taste.

Well, whatever they do and whatever flowers they pollinate, one thing is for sure, I don't know what they sell in the shops as pure honey, but its not the same thing.

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