Hive of activity: Tapping into the buzz of backyard beekeeping in Japan

OTSU, SHIGA PREF. – There’s been lots of debate about the international decline of honey bee colonies in current years, with specialists blaming the deaths on elements comparable to the use of neonicotinoids on crops, the unfold of varroa mites and the impression of climate change.

Knowledge compiled by the National Agricultural Statistics Providers show that honey bee populations in the United States have fallen from an estimated 6 million hives in 1947 to 2.four million hives in 2008, an general drop of 60 %.

On this aspect of the Pacific, the Japan Beekeeping Affiliation estimated that tens of hundreds of domestic colonies died off between 2008 and 2011.

Whereas the complete quantity of households preserving honey bees in Japan lately is roughly the similar as in 1985, newcomers to beekeeping have tended to be small in scale, not business operations.

Researchers Ryo Kohsaka, Mi Solar Park and Yuta Uchiyama say while honey manufacturing has virtually definitely declined in the past 35 years, the production of royal jelly — the gelatinous substance that bees produce to feed queen larvae that’s coveted as a health supplement — has fallen from approximately 13,000 kilograms in 1985 to slightly greater than 2,000 in 2015.

Akitaka Kaihara, a business beekeeper in Kumamoto for greater than 20 years, says the significance of bees on the international ecosystem can’t be overstated.

“Bees might well be the most important insect on Earth,” Kaihara says. “Experts estimate that as many as one-third of all crops worldwide rely on bees.”

It has been estimated that bees perform about 80 percent of all pollination worldwide. | RICHARD LEMMERIt has been estimated that bees carry out about 80 % of all pollination worldwide. | RICHARD LEMMER

More broadly speaking, it has been estimated that bees perform about 80 % of all pollination worldwide. From an economic perspective, it’s believed that somewhere between $235 billion and $577 billion value of the world’s annual meals production may be instantly traced to bees.

Kaihara was lamenting the decline of bee populations as far back as 2003. Virtually 20 years later, he says, the state of affairs has only gotten worse.

Kaihara identifies two major issues: the encroachment of mites into home bee colonies and the growing use of pesticides on farms nationwide.

Reiko Mizuno, a researcher and environmental activist, says the use of neonicotinoids (agricultural pesticides that resemble nicotine) has tripled in Japan over the past 15 years. Individuals dwelling in rural areas may sprinkle such chemical compounds round their houses to kill cockroaches, ants, centipedes and different bugs.

For instance, Kaihara says, rice farmers ceaselessly target stink bugs, however chemical compounds drift in the air, contaminating the surrounding surroundings and killing many honey bees.

“Mites and pesticides are huge problems for beekeepers,” Kaihara says.

The results of the use of these pesticides could be catastrophic for nearby bee colonies.

Rika Shinkai, an anthropologist and apiculture researcher at the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature, warns towards pinning all the blame on pesticides for declining bee populations worldwide.

Nevertheless, she notes that the European Union has lately banned three widespread neonicotinoids and a quantity of different nations are anticipated to implement comparable restrictions. Japan isn’t anticipated to comply with go well with anytime quickly.

Naturally, she argues that neonicotinoids ought to be banned in Japan, highlighting spraying as one of the business’s largest problems.

“Some neonicotinoids are sprayed from helicopters in mountain areas to prevent pine wilt,” Shinkai says. “In some areas, pesticides are also sprayed aerially onto rice fields.”

The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries recommends protecting bees away from rice fields during spraying activities.

Honey bees fly around the entrance to a bee hive in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture. | JOHN SPIRIHoney bees fly around the entrance to a bee hive in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture. | JOHN SPIRI

The attraction of honey

The importance of honey bees to the home agricultural sector definitely isn’t lost on beekeeping hobbyists resembling Iain Davey, who lives close to Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture.

“Bees are extremely efficient pollinators,” Davey says. “They’re essential, really.”

Davey, in flip, impressed Russ Hewick, the owner-operator of Dragonfly Tours Japan, to attempt his hand at apiculture — albeit for slightly totally different reasons.

“Bees have always interested me,” Hewick says. “The more I read about the hive culture — a single queen, all workers working toward a united cause — the more I wanted to start beekeeping. They also remind me of one of my favorite aliens — the borg in ‘Star Trek.’”

However most beekeepers, including Kaihara from Kumamoto, in all probability take up the activity for extra simple, sensible functions — the procurement of honey.

Bees produce honey from the floral nectar of crops by means of a process of regurgitation, enzymatic exercise and water evaporation.

Honey is undeniably nutritious in phrases of composition, containing simple sugars resembling fructose, glucose, maltose and sucrose, as well as a number of extra complicated carbohydrates.

Whereas refined sugar converts to fat, honey sometimes converts to power and, because honey is inhospitable to bacteria, it by no means spoils.

The precise composition, colour, aroma and taste of any specific batch of honey rely upon the flowers visited by bees that produced it.

Kaihara’s honey is produced from nectar that bees have foraged from milkvetch, tangerines and, apparently, soba (buckwheat). The latter has a dark shade and a very distinctive, considerably bitter taste.

Home vs. overseas bees

Anyone with an interest in taking over beekeeping in Japan has the choice of working with both honey bees native to Japan or these originally imported from the West.

Japanese bees are primarily wild, so domestic hobbyists try to lure them into hives that they’ve purchased or assembled and placed nearby.

Tom Brown, who lives in Kyoto, says he keeps Japanese bees primarily because he’s lazy.

“I just leave them alone and they get on with it,” he says, including that they’re higher capable of handle the menace posed by widespread home invaders corresponding to hornets and mites. “They’re native, so they’re better suited.”

Western hives sometimes function a extra complicated brood field constructed to help movable frames where bees construct honeycombs that may be removed for inspection or honey harvesting.

A beekeeper examines the interior of a hive. | JOHN SPIRIA beekeeper examines the interior of a hive. | JOHN SPIRI

Many Japanese brood bins, nevertheless, merely embrace two skinny horizontal sticks on the inside of the compartment that the bees use to construct their combs. Such packing containers may be constructed fairly easily, with cedar being the commonest sort of wooden, adopted by cypress, pine and even cherry.

Over the course of three years, Brown laid out a dozen bins that he constructed himself along with lures, purchased for ¥three,400 each, containing odors that appeal to swarms — the queen with a big group of worker bees.

At first, the lures seemed to work and the box was colonized fairly shortly before a bear destroyed it. A colony was created in his second yr but the bees abandoned it a short time later.

Nevertheless, a colony lastly established itself in the bins early this spring in a location that Brown thought-about the least possible — inside his backyard.

“It’s a bit like hitchhiking,” Brown says. “A million trucks pass and finally one stops for you.”

Western honey bees — apis mellifera, or “bee bearing honey” in Latin — are the commonest of the dozen or so species of honey bees worldwide.

Certainly, some have argued that they’re the world’s first domesticated insect.

Domestic apiculturists sometimes favor Western bees because they will produce 10 occasions extra honey than their Japanese counterparts.

“Most domestic hobbyists keep Japanese honeybees,” says Takeuchi Takayoshi, who sells Western bees online. “Perhaps as many as 99 percent of commercial beekeepers in Japan keep Western bees.”

One advantage of maintaining Western bees is the incontrovertible fact that they not often abandon their hives en masse — evidence of their domestication. Japanese bees, nevertheless, are primarily wild and can typically bolt for a brand new house — most often in a hollowed tree.

A beekeeper points at a queen bee in a hive. | JOHN SPIRIA beekeeper factors at a queen bee in a hive. | JOHN SPIRI

Mite infections

Bee hives in Japan are underneath constant menace of being attacked by a number of predators.

Of these, the infestation of varroa mites — which causes a deformed wing virus in bees — poses the biggest menace to a colony.

The mites, which are seen to the bare eye, are a leading factor in the international decline of honey bee populations. These small parasites sometimes nestle into the area between a younger bee’s abdomen sections, subsequently affecting the improvement of their wings.

“Mites are the biggest threat to bees if only because the problem is nationwide. Pesticides are only a problem in certain areas,” says professor Jun Nakamura, a bee skilled and researcher at Tamagawa College.

Kaihara agrees.

“Varroa mites can decimate a colony in just 10 days,” Kaihara says. “They’re able to reproduce so quickly.”

Nevertheless lengthy it takes, the finish outcome of an infestation is nearly all the time the similar — the colony collapses.

Once a beekeeper has found that more than 3 % of a hive has been infected, pesticides are sometimes employed in an try and stem the infestation.

“Only two chemical treatments have been approved in Japan: Apivar and Apistan,” Kaihara says.

Nevertheless, beekeepers have to be cautious of overusing these chemical compounds in case the mites construct up a resistance.

Shinkai says varroa mites are more of a menace to Western honey bees than their home counterparts, which may “bite off the mites from each others’ bodies when grooming.”

However Japanese bees, that are smaller in measurement than their Western cousins, are nonetheless weak to an inner parasite referred to as Acarapis woodi, Shinkai says.

The parasite was first recognized in Japan around 2009, when a beekeeper in Kyoto with more than 100 hives reported that several of his colonies have been mysteriously dying. By 2014, the collapse was almost full, with only three hives surviving.

In contrast to the varroa mite, Acarapis woodi can’t be detected with the naked eye, as they’re smaller and stay and reproduce in a bee’s trachea.

While formic acid may also help deal with the infestation, menthol, which may be bought on-line in a crystal type that beekeepers soften earlier than putting in hives — has additionally proven to be efficient in discouraging the parasite.

Aggressive invaders

Compared to mites, the Asian big hornet is a much more aggressive predator, with some specialists suggesting that 30 hornets can attack a hive and slaughter as many as 30,000 Western bees in a single afternoon.

Hewick noticed a hornet attack together with his personal eyes in 2018, watching eight of the fierce-looking insects desperately making an attempt to get into one of his hives.

Thankfully, the metallic mesh he had hooked up to the entrance of the hive saved his bees as the hornets have been too giant to cross via.

An attack by Asian giant hornets is thwarted by wire mesh that has been attached to the entrance to a hive. | RUSS HEWICKAn assault by Asian big hornets is thwarted by wire mesh that has been hooked up to the entrance to a hive. | RUSS HEWICK

“They were even biting at the wire,” Hewick recollects. “Many dead bees carpeted the entrance. It was pretty scary.”

Hewick is so involved about the veracity of the hornets, he now refrains from lifting the lid on his hive to inspect his colony in autumn.

Davey wasn’t so fortunate.

Throughout his trip again to the United Kingdom in summer time, hornets attacked one hive and ate the brood. Additionally they severely weakened a second hive.

But as fearsome as hornets seem, they’re comparatively straightforward to regulate.

Most beekeepers fill a cup with a sweet-smelling fragrant liquid or apply a sticky strip on the hive to lure a hornet scout. Once trapped, the hornet releases pheromones that appeal to other hornets and lures them to their deaths.

Domestic honey bees have additionally developed their very own defensive system to a hornet assault, surrounding a scout when it enters their hive and vibrating their our bodies furiously until they effectively warmth the hornet to demise.

Whereas mites are undoubtedly a menace to bee colonies in Japan, black bears do appreciable injury as nicely.

These giant mammals are interested in a hive by not solely the honey in the combs, but in addition a colony’s eggs, larvae and pupae — and even the bees themselves. In one fell swoop, a colony can disappear.

Reviews of bear attacks on hives are frequently filed in mountainous areas of the Japanese Alps.

I used to be unlucky sufficient to endure bear raids on three consecutive nights just a month into my first foray into beekeeping in the Shiga city of Otsu. The long-term survival of my colony is doubtful.


Saving humanity?

Regardless of being a species a lot farther removed from humanity than, say, canine and cows, bees is perhaps extra necessary to us than any domesticated animal.

If bees go extinct, Nakamura says, the planet might “end up eating only grains and yeast.”

Whereas such an argument might perhaps be described as an exaggeration, there’s no denying that bees are basically essential to agricultural production. In that sense, the survival of honey bees could be a bellwether for humanity’s personal potential to work together harmoniously with nature.

Beekeeping primer

The web sites under talk about beekeeping in Japan, in addition to locations to buy bees: