The Bee-Keeper

Honey bees collect nectar and, at the same time, attract tourists. For a peek at their lifestyle visit Uncle Sa-ard’s farm in Lop Buri. 

For most of the year uncle Sa-ard Sariphan is busy securing the source of food for his bees. He keeps track of what flowers are in bloom where and at which time of the year, which is important because it determines the quality of honey bees produce.

The fruit of his labour has earned the honey he produces and its by-products five-star OTOP rating.

Uncle Sa-ard, now 80, has been raising bees and honey at his farm in Phatthana Nikhom district of Lop Buri for the last 20 years. The farm serves as the district’s bee conservation centre and is part of Lob Buri’s effort to promote agrotourism in the province.

During November-December his bees feed on sunflower that is in bloom in the province. In January it’s kapok, from February to March it’s longan, April and May sesame, July to September corn flower, and October offers a wide choice of flowers from which bees draw nectar. According to the veteran bee keeper, the flowering pattern hasn’t changed much over the years, except for occasional droughts.

“We approach orchard owners and ask for permission to set up honeycomb boxes there,” he said. “It’s mutual co-existence. Fruit orchards need bees to help with pollination, while bees need nectar.”

Different type of honey is produced at different times of the year, depending on flowers the bees feed on. The best is honey derived from longan flower; it’s aromatic and tastes sublime.

Apart from being an accomplished bee-keeper, Uncle Sa-ard has also taught and trained other farmers in the neighbourhood in various other disciplines. One of them is Nantiya, the owner of Khachonwit Mushroom Farm in the same district.

Worker bees are all female. They collect nectar from flowers and turn it into honey.

“I remember well when I enrolled for mushroom farming 24 years ago. My mentor and trainer was khru (teacher) Sa-ard,” Nantiya recalled.

After trying his hand at other disciplines, Uncle Sa-ard settled for bee-keeping some 20 years ago and hasn’t looked back since. It was a hot afternoon and he proceeded to tell us about bees, their habits and lifecycle.

“Bees live in a social colony and are classified according to their duty: there are queen bees, the workers, and drones or male bees,” he said, opening a box containing a bee hive. He used smoke to calm down the agitated insects.

“All workers are female. The queen bee lays eggs and emits pheromone. A hive cannot survive without the queen because she is the ‘nerve centre’ that regulates the production of males and females according to the needs of the colony.

“The queen is replaced if she dies or becomes old. A new queen is picked to start a new colony,” Uncle Sa-ard explained.

If the queen dies, within 24 hours the workers pick a new one. They select seven to eight eggs in the hive that are less than three days old. Eggs one day old sit upright at 90 degrees, two days old lean 45 degrees, and on day three they lie flat horizontally. On the fourth day eggs develop into larvae. The larvae are fed bee jelly. It takes 16 days for each larvae to metamorphise into a queen.

Uncle Sa-ard said bee-keepers don’t want the queen selected naturally. They select good eggs themselves and turn them into queen bees.

When the queen is old it secretes less pheromone and lays fewer eggs. Bee-keepers then replace it with a younger queen. A queen bee’s life span is three to four years.

When food is abundant the hive becomes crowded and it’s time to start a new colony. At this stage workers stop feeding the queen so that it will not lay more eggs. The queen slims down and along with other bees flees the hive leaving behind young bees.

Uncle Sa-ard said fleeing queen bees usually don’t travel more than 30 metres from the original hive. In the old hive nurse bees feed seven to eight larvae with bee jelly to produce new queens. If several queens are born at the same time, they fight each other until a clear winner emerges.

He then raised a honeycomb from a box and I could see scores of bees clinging to the frame.

“Have you ever been stung by these insects?” I asked.

“Ummm! Countless times,” he replied. “My body has developed resistance to them.”

Then I asked him about their mating habits.

“When the queen bee is ready for mating, she secretes pheromone to attract male drones. She will fly out of the hive and a group of drones will follow her. The queen will mate with seven or eight of them until she has collected enough sperm. Male bees die after mating. Those who fail to mate die later as they are not welcome back to the hive,” he said.

The queen can lay 1,500-2,000 eggs a day. Eggs that are fertilised with male sperm will hatch into female bees. Eggs not fertilised with male sperm develop into drones.

The queen is prolific, filling all the holes in the wooden frame with eggs.

The honey from Uncle Sa-ard’s farm has received five-star OTOP rating.

As said earlier, all worker bees are female and their duties vary with age. Those that are one to three days help clean the comb. When they are three to fifteen days old, they become nurse bees and produce jelly, a milky substance used to feed larvae and the queen. After 15 days their jelly-making gland shrinks and assumes other functions. Bees aged 15-17 days take care of the hive. When 18-21 days old, they are tougher and work as soldiers guarding the hive. From then on they forage for nectar and work outside the hive. They live up to two months.

Worker bees don’t lay eggs because the pheromone queen bee secretes stunts their capacity to reproduce. However, if the queen dies, pheromone level in the hive declines and worker bees can then lay eggs.

“Since they are born workers, bees in this category have very little egg-laying experience. Their eggs hatch into drones as they have no male sperm to fertilise them, ” he said.

A queen bee takes 16 days to mature and start laying eggs, worker bees 21 days, and male drones 24 days.

The primary purpose of male bees is to mate with the queen. When the weather turns cold they rub their bodies against the hive to generate heat and keep the temperature inside warm.

“What is bee pollen?” I asked.

The larvae develop into pupae. They are enclosed in a protective covering before undergoing the last metamorphosis and emerging as winged adults.

Uncle Sa-ard explained that when bees sip nectar pollen grains collect on their limbs. Bee pollen is the male seed of a flower blossom which has been gathered by the bees and to which special elements from the bees has been added. The honeybee collects pollen and mixes it with its own digestive enzymes.

Bee pollen is often referred to as nature’s most complete food. It is expensive so bee-keepers have devised a way to collect them. It is collected off of bees’ legs by special devices placed at the entrance to hives.

According to him, only a small percentage of larvae develop into queen bees, while most hatch into workers. The reason is that worker larvae are fed bee jelly for just three days. Queen larvae on the other hand feed on it throughout their life. Which also explains why queen bees live longer and are bigger and stronger.

I asked Uncle Sa-ard how he managed to produce bee jelly on commercial scale when worker bees were producing just enough to feed the larvae.

He said the average population of bees in a hive is 60,000. When food is abundant they form new colonies. New queen bees are raised. Bee-keepers fast-track the process by selecting 60-90 tiny cups or combs and filling each of them with tiny drops of bee jelly. Then, using goose feather, they scoop three-day old larvae into each cup. The cups attached to a wooden frame are put in a box containing bee hive.

Since the bees are going to raise a new queen anyway, the larvae cups placed there are a welcome presence. The worker bees then speed up production of jelly and fill the cups in three days, after which bee-keepers withdraw the wooden frame. By then the cups are brimful with fresh bee jelly.

Bee jelly has high nutritional value. It can be consumed fresh or mixed with omelette. Filtered, it can be kept for three years in refrigerated condition. At room temperature it can last up to 10 hours if not exposed to sunlight. Therefore, bee jelly is pricey. For high quality jelly, it is advised that you buy directly from the farm. Some farms, however, are known to mix extract from young larvae into the jelly to make up volume.

Uncle Sa-ard then showed how honey was extracted. Some parts of the honeycomb were coated with white bee wax. Inside it was succulent, laden with fragrant amber syrup. Using a knife he sliced through the honeycomb and honey dripped freely from it.

And thus ended an educational and eventful excursion to Uncle Sa-ard’s bee farm. Honey bees, I learned, are the only insects that produce food for humans.

More info

Lop Buri is a couple of hours drive from Bangkok. Uncle Sa-ard’s bee farm is located at Moo 9, Phatthana Nikhom district. From Lop Buri, take Highway 3016 and turn into 3017. Other than learning about the lives of the buzzing insects and their busy keepers, visitors to the farm can also buy honey and by-products derived therefrom.
For more information, contact the farm at 036-639-292 or the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s office in Lop Buri at 036-422-768 to 9.

Story & photos by THANIN WEERADET