Sweetness & Power (12) – Travelling for survival, Isaan’s honeybees might be helping save Thailand’s fruit industry


SPECIAL SERIES: SWEETNESS & POWER

In Part I of this two-part story (see here), The Isaan Record looked at the lives of beekeepers, and the challenges they and their bees face from monocropping which has shrunk places where bees can find nectar.

Thailand is Southeast Asia’s second largest producer of honey, behind Vietnam. Asia as a whole produces 49 percent of the world’s honey, an indication perhaps that Asia has preserved enough of the environment to support the important work of bees.

But is honey production in Thailand at threat? In this Part II, we look at the negative impact of pesticides on the lives of bees. The combined challenges of monocropping and pesticide use have prompted beekeepers, academics, and environmentalists to speak out in the name of bees, biodiversity, and the businesses that use honey.

PART XII: Travelling for survival, Isaan’s honeybees might be helping save Thailand’s fruit industry (2)

An audience of about 20 people, many of them sporting the suntanned and weathered skin of those who make a living outdoors, are listening intently to Nikhom Khotsuwan.

Dressed in a long sleeved grey shirt smartly tucked into dark slacks, the 53-year-old beekeeper and president of the Isaan Beekeepers Association stands mic-in-hand. His eyebrows are furled in an uncharastic display of seriousness as he thanks the audience for coming and the Khon Kaen province’s agricultural authorities for hosting this emergency meeting.

The situation is dire.

“As you may already know, we lost a lot of bees up North,” he says. “Some people came back with just half of the hives alive.” He pauses as he’s interrupted by the gasps from the audience.

The association believes that half of the bee population it stewards has been decimated in the last year.

“We need to talk about this chemical called SS-55,” Nikhom urges.

Insecticidal tendencies

For the large-scale cultivation of popular monocrops such as sugarcane or tapioca, farmers spray on relatively large amounts of insecticides. Some of these chemicals contain neonicotinoids–a type of chemical similar to nicotine–which are known to damage the central nervous systems of insects.

Around a quarter of all insecticides sold worldwide contain neonicotinoids. Though not intended for bees, which pose no threat to the crops being farmed, the bees are nevertheless affected by neonicotinoids.

The bees become addicted to the neonicotinoids, which distracts them from collecting the nectar to bring back to the hive. Even worse, the insects lose their memory and homing abilities. After visiting plants contaminated with neonicotinoids, the bees are often unable to navigate back to the hive. With less bees returning with nectar, the brood of bees back at the hive is gradually starved of food, and the colony slowly dies. Even if they make they it back to the hive, the contaminated nectar gradually poisons the other bees.

Research into this phenomenon played a part in convincing the European Union to ban three neonicotinoids (clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam) in April 2018. France even went one step further and banned two other neonicotinoids, thiacloprid and acetamiprid.

But in Thailand, the use of insecticides containing bee-killing chemicals is still on the rise.

One of the most widely used neonicotinoids is imidacloprid which is marketed in Thailand under the brand name Provado. Other insecticides which do not contain neonicotinoids, such as chlorpyrifos–one of the three controversial insecticides that escaped an outright ban by the government earlier this year–still pose a danger to bees.

Chemical onslaught

A new guise of chlorpyrifos is being aggressively marketed to fruit farmers comes under the brand name “SS-55.” The bee association estimates that SS-55 has killed off up to 50 percent of the bees taken to the North this year.

“The sales reps are telling the fruit farmers that this new formula can be sprayed on the flowers during full bloom,” says Theerapong Setsuwan, a beekeeper with bee farms in Loei and Nakhon Ratchasima, “and even that the insecticide will help to pollinate the flowers! I don’t see how the insecticide is meant to pollinate the flowers when it is killing the bees that are doing the pollinating.”

Nikhom explains that some fruit farmers with whom he has long-standing arrangements have agreed not to use this new formula. But others have decided to give it a try, with disastrous results for the bees.

“When nobody sprayed the flowers in full bloom–because if they did the flowers would get chemically burned–there was no problem,” says Nikhom, noting that the bees are unable to discriminate between blooming flowers that have sprayed from those that haven’t. “But it only takes a few to ruin it for everyone.”

“But we can’t stop [the fruit farmers from spraying],” he says. “It’s their prerogative.”

Theerapong thinks that the government ought to step in and regulate the use of insecticides more vigorously if Thailand’s honey industry is to survive the chemical onslaught.

Siriwat Wongsiri, a bee expert at Chulalongkorn University says that monocropping is a major factor depriving bees of sufficient food sources. And like Nikhom, he feels the far more lethal threat facing bee populations in Thailand–wild or domesticated–is the widespread use of insecticides.

“It’s a big problem because farmers are increasingly turning to insecticides without necessarily understanding how to use them properly,” he says. “The best thing we can do for the ecology is to try to wean farmers off insecticides, though I’m not exactly sure how we would go about doing that.”

Bee populations around the world are at risk by the widespread use of chemicals in mainstream commercial agriculture. Around a quarter of all insecticides sold worldwide contain neonicotinoids, a chemical which impacts the ability of bees to navigate back to the hive. Photo by Mike Eckel

Without bees

Siriwat stresses the importance of bees to the environment. But he also worries about the effect of declining bee populations on Thailand’s fruit industry. Among insect pollinators, bees play a crucial role and their disappearance would cause a huge gap in the ecosystem.

“The fruit industry would be hit hard,” he says. “All the fruit orchards of the northern provinces and the fruit-growing eastern provinces, such as Chanthaburi, where most of our longans and lychees are grown, would suffer a huge drop in output.”

Supha Yaimueang, director of the Bangkok-based Sustainable Agriculture Foundation, points out the vital importance of bees in maintaining biodiversity.

In an intact ecosystem, she argues, various kinds of flora and fauna work as tools with unique but often overlapping capabilities. In a bad year for butterflies, for instance, a healthy bee population might be able to keep the ecosystem sufficiently pollinated until the butterflies recover.

Biodiversity is a kind of built-in shock-absorber for nature, Supha argues, as it provides alternative options in maintaining a robust ecosystem.

Without biodiversity, the ecosystem is more fragile because nature has fewer options for dealing with crises. A problem that is a mere hiccup in ecosystems with high biodiversity could become a major catastrophe in areas with low biodiversity.

“Biodiversity acts as a kind of stabilizer that gives nature–including us humans–some leeway in dealing with environmental crises.”

She also warns that decreasing biodiversity makes it more difficult to deal with the challenges of climate change.

“Aside from the big drop in biodiversity caused by monocropping, the weather is fluctuating too wildly–from extreme heat to downpours that damage agriculture–for the farmers to handle,” she says. “This forces farmers to try and compensate by using more and more chemicals in an attempt to regain some semblance of control over their output in the face of these factors.”

Supha believes that the time has come for a fundamental change in agriculture.

Efforts should be made to better promote beekeeping as a livelihood, says Siriwat of Chulalongkorn University. Too many people merely dismiss the possibility for fear of being stung. Siriwat recommends that farmers everywhere can help to maintain biodiversity and pollinate their fruit trees with stingless bees, known scientifically as Meliponini, or in Thai as phueng chanrong.

The buyers and the bees

But consumers must also shoulder their share of responsibility.

“While it’s good that the younger generation of farmers seem to be more aware of sustainable and organic farming methods which should ideally feature bees as pollinators,” Supha says.

“It is also up to consumers to be discerning about the food that they consume and to be responsible for the choices that they make when it comes to the produce that they consume,” she adds.

Recent proposals to legalize cultivation of commercial cannabis presents new hope for the bees of the Northeast.

Bees thrive on cannabis.

“Oh, they love cannabis flower,” says Nikhom enthusiastically. He remembers cannabis being widely grown as a common herb behind the kitchens of many homes in Isaan.

“People would put it in their food, and of course the bees helped themselves, too,” laughs Janpheng. “They were happy bees!”

The advent of commercial cannabis cultivation in North America has allowed scientists to confirm that cannabis is indeed an excellent source of nutrition for bees.

A bottle of premium grade honey, selling for 300 to 400 baht, contains honey from a single hive, which takes longer to accumulate. This honey is merely strained and not pasteurized, making it thicker, darker, and cloudier in appearance. A 200-baht bottle of “standard-grade” honey contains honey from many different hives. The homogenization process makes the honey clearer and lighter in appearance, which consumers tend to prefer, but at the cost of losing some minerals and amino acids. Photo by Mike Eckel

Nikhom and Janpheng are building an education center for other would-be beekeepers.

Ever the shrewd businessperson, Janpheng also hopes to use their personal success story to market their products when their bee center is visited by people who might be more inclined to become distributors rather than beekeepers.

“Think about it,” she says. “In the first year we only sold a dozen bottles. We made a total of 1,200 baht in revenue for a whole year’s work, but we didn’t give up and look at us now. Now we’re making three to four million baht a year with these bees–about 1,400 hives–with just a few pickup trucks and four permanent employees.”

Janpheng also points out that beekeepers can easily add commercial value to their honey by turning it into confectionaries or dietary supplements.

More commonly though, roughly half of the honey produced is bought by pharmaceutical companies who use it to make skin creams, lotions, and other cosmetics.

The work of bees is one of rare human-stewarded processes that helps everyone, from the beekeeper and the fruit orchard farmer, to the natural-product manufacturers, and the consumer, and to the environment.

Giving thanks to the bees

Nikhom and Janpheng recognize how bees have transformed their lives. A paralyzed limb was brought back to life and sent them on a new life trajectory.

Nikhom confesses that he never really liked pig farming, with its unremitting stench and squealing.

“As long as there’s plenty of nectar for the bees, you don’t need plenty of land,” says Nikhom emphatically, as Janpheng nods sagely in agreement. They compare their lives before and after bees. They marvel at how easy and serene beekeeping feels, despite its own unique challenges, compared to raising pigs and tilling the fields.

Janpheng feels thankful: “I want to share our good fortune by building a training center where our neighbors, or anyone else from anywhere, can come and learn about bees and beekeeping. The bees have been good to us.”

Everytime the couple come back from a trip to the North or Chanthaburi, they make sure to go to the temple to tham bun–to give alms to the monks living there–in dedication to their bees.

For Janpheng, it is a gesture of gratitude to the ‘oversoul’ spirit that watches over all bees, the nang phaya phueng (also the name for “queen bee” in Thai).

“We owe our success to them,” she says, smiling excitedly in anticipation of what she says next.

“In fact, I’m going to build a shrine to them at our bee center. You never know. We might even start worshipping the Queen Bee Spirit next.”