Sun may set soon on beleaguered beekeepers

Updated: 2015-07-17 07:52

By He Na(China Daily)

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Sun may set soon on beleaguered beekeepers

Chen Zongtao became a beekeeper last year to aid his recovery from alcoholism and 'win back' the hearts of his family. Photos by Zou Hong / China Daily

Although China is one of the world's largest exporters of honey, life is anything but sweet for the producers. The average age of the nation's apiculturists is rising and young people are shunning the industry, meaning that ancient skills and techniques may soon be lost forever. He Na reports from Yichun, Heilongjiang province.

Deep in the woods at the Wumahe State Forest Farm in Yichun, Heilongjiang province, a cotton tent was pitched alongside a narrow road that leads to the foot of a nearby mountain. About 60 beehives stood in front of the tent, and swarms of honeybees buzzed busily back and forth in the sunlight.

To city dwellers, a tent is just a temporary refuge, a place for rest and play, but for Yan Fengbo, 36, and his wife, Wang Wei, 32, their tent is their home for five months of every year.

The latitude, 46 degrees north, means daytime temperatures can soar to 30 C in summer, while at night the mercury can fall to 10 C. However, the climate is of little consequence to bee farmers, who have no alternative to long hours of hardship if they are to produce the honey that provides most of their annual income.

China is one of the world's largest honey producers. Statistics from the Apicultural Science Association of China show that more than 300,000 farmers raised 12.5 percent of the world's bees last year. Moreover, consumption of honey in China has doubled in the past decade, and last year surpassed 350,000 metric tons, with a per-person average of more than 260 grams, close to Japan's annual 300 g.

Those figures mask an uncertain future, though. Although there are more than 350,000 bee farmers, the average age is 48.7 years, and 50 percent of them are 50 or older. Those born in the 1980s or later account for less than 5 percent of the total.

'Cherish every drop'

Yan is the youngster beekeeper in Yichun, a small town known as China's "forest capital", in the Lesser Hinggan Mountains.

A guide to raising honeybees lay on a cushion in his tent, many of the pages ripped and brown with age. Yan can't remember how many times he has read the book. Because his father died when he was a child, Yan didn't attend school. Instead, he taught himself to read by deciphering the subtitles on TV news programs. When he was 20, his stepfather introduced him to beekeeping, and he adheres to the traditional techniques he was taught then.

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