19 June 2017

Beekeeping in Dong Thap Muoi: Sweet honey on saline alum land

NDO – Although it is known as a saline alum pocket of the Mekong River Delta, Dong Thap Muoi, or the Plain of Reeds, is the home to many bee keepers.

Throughout the region, there are thousands of hectares of interminable melaleuca trees, also known as honey-myrtles or paper-barks, and the bee keepers place their bee hives across the road, along the sides of the canals or underneath the trees. Honey made from the nectar taken from melaleuca trees is a unique specialty, which can only be found in this region.

Although no one knows exactly how many bee swarms are currently living in the natural melaleuca forest of Dong Thap Muoi, the number is without doubt very large.

Nguyen Van Le, a 42-year-old bee keeper in Binh Phong Thanh commune, Moc Hoa district, Long An province, said that as Dong Thap Muoi houses the largest area of melaleuca forest in the southern region and as the melaleuca trees are heavy with flowers, which are the honeybees favourite, it is the best place for bee keepers.

In comparison with the flowers of longan, durian, orange, pamelo and mango, honey gathered from the melaleuca flowers has a higher quality. In addition, while most fruit trees have a short bloom season, melaleuca flowers bloom for months, bringing about greater productivity of honey.

Le currently has over 300 bee boxes which are kept in the shadows of the melaleuca trees. Everyday, he opens the boxes so that the bees will fly everywhere to gather honey. Small worker bees, despite their light and thin wings, can fly dozens of kilometres to visit flowers and collect nectar, after which they return to their hives and regurgitate the nectar. Their journey, repeated day after day, is also the journey to make pure honey.

However, like their colleagues in other places, beekeepers in the melaleuca forest also face many risks and hardships. The beekeepers have to move from place to place in the forest because no matter how rich the flower yields of the trees, it is never enough for the bees. A bee swarm houses millions of bees and it takes them just half a month to dry the nectar of flowers in a region. Therefore, by constantly moving their hives, honey quality will be improved.

As a result, every two or three weeks, the beekeepers load their bee hives into their boats and move to other places, where they then put the hives along the canal’s bank or attach the boxes right to melaleuca trees, if the water level is too high. This is also a difference between the apiculture in melaleuca forest and other places: even when the forest is submerged with water, it doesn’t affect bee swarms or their productivity and the quality of honey they make.

The biggest obstacle for beekeepers in Dong Thap Muoi is rainy and windy weather. The weather in the southern region these days has become unpredictable with heavy rains, even though the rainy season starts in the seventh lunar month. At that time, beekeepers are kept busy with covering the bee hives to protect them from the rain, while having to leave a space for the bees to return. Despite their best efforts, rain has caused great losses to the beekeepers, since many bees never return as they can get lost in the vast forest or are blown off course by the wind.

Bees collecting nectar from a melaleuca flower

One can easily meet dozens of bee keepers rambling across the canals of Dong Thap Muoi. For them, any place covered by melaleuca forest can provide them with shelter. Their belongings, of which the bee hives are most valuable, just include a few sets of clothes, cooking tools and the bare necessities such as rice, cooking oil, salt, fish sauce and dried fish.

Tran Van Sau, a beekeeper from Thuan Binh commune, Thanh Hoa district in Long An province, owns more than 100 bee hives and he and his bees have travelled across Dong Thap Muoi in recent years. He only stayed at home during Tet (lunar New Year festival), before continuing his travels through the canals. He stops at each suitable place for two weeks or up to a month, depending on the flower season or the weather conditions there. When he has collected enough honey, his eldest son comes to see him and to get the honey before selling it to traders at Tuyen Nhon market and Ho Chi Minh city.

His life repeats in this pattern, he may be far from home for up to a year, only returning home to take a break a few days, before he continues his journey anew. “My children told me that I’m old enough to stay at home and retire from this trade, but I have been attached to be bees for my entire life,” he said. “In the past, I sometimes had to take the bees even further, to places such as Kien Giang and Ca Mau provinces, so its OK if we just hang around Dong Thap Muoi now,” he stated,

Only someone who has once sat on a boat weaving in and out across the windy, scented melaleuca forests, watching the bees industriously flying from flower to flower, can understand the hardship of making pure honey and, therefore, treasure every drop of honey.

Not following the example set by others, who cheat with tricks such as spreading sugar around bee hives or mixing sugar into honey to earn more profit, beekeepers in Dong Thap Muoi are a simple people who always put their bees first. If bees are fed with sugar for a long time, they cannot fly, they cannot reach flowers to get nectar and they will die. It is their destiny to work and work industriously. When they stop, their life will consequently end.

It is also the destiny of beekeepers in Dong Thap Muoi who are wholehearted in their work and bring valuable honey to life. The natural honey there is the essence of the saline alum land and is the outcome of all the hard work of the beekeepers.



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