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May 30, 2012
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Chiangmai, Thailand
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Number of Hives
Its 9.30am on a chilly, (15 degrees C) but sunny December morning in Chiangmai, Northern Thailand and the bees in our 6 colonies are just starting to fly for the day. Apis meliffera has been in Thailand for a little over 50 years, a relatively short time in evolutionary terms but the honeybee seems to have changed quite a lot over this time. The differences in the behaviour of the honeybee and how we produce honey here are now really quite different from what I read from UK beeks on this forum. So I thought it might be interesting to discuss a few of the most obvious differences with you all. I have limited experience, (4 years) of beekeeping here, so ideas any of you have on how to take better advantage of these different behaviours and conditions are most welcome.

Firstly then lets start with the opening comment about temperature. Here the bees fly every day of the year. However, they don't fly in heavy rain or when the temp is below 15 degrees. I see posts on the forum of UK bees flying at very low temps. Clearly the honeybee has adapted to the much higher summer temps here, (+40 degrees C) but it also seems to have lost its capacity to forage at temps below 15 degrees C. I can’t for the life of me understand why this would happen, particularly as generally speaking the colder weather is at a time when plenty of foraging is available.

You might think that the year round conditions would make bee keeping easy but it seems to be much harder to build increase in colonies here, than it is in the UK. Colonies have to be slowly coaxed into expanding. Getting bees to draw frames can be difficult. Putting in too many frames at one time, (a mistake I am guilty of year after year) can result in a rapid weakening of the colony. Maybe these slow increases are due to the queens not laying so many eggs per day or because predation of foraging workers is higher but whatever the reason, to expand colonies quickly requires skill and experience that at the moment I do not seem to have. Perhaps related to the above comment, it is quite rare for colonies to swarm. In 4 years, I have not had a single colony do this and this is not due to my skill as a beekeeper, I assure you.

Although the bees are flying all year, there are some dearth periods for foraging. Nectar is in short supply during the wet season and there are a few other months when little nectar and/or pollen seem to be available. To compensate for this we feed sugar solution and sometimes pollen in relatively small amounts on a weekly basis. If we do not do this, then colonies weaken very quickly. This may be because at the higher temps, bees require more energy for bodily maintenance and keeping the hive cool.
Day length does not change so much here during the year, (+/- 1 hour). This means that the main honey flow does not coincide with the longest days, (which are not that much longer anyway). I have a feeling that this may be an important issue.

The honeybee strains here seem remarkably docile when compared to their counterparts in the UK. I don’t even own a veil or a suit. A puff of smoke and colonies can be inspected in a tea shirt and flip-flops. It’s quite rare to get stung, even when extracting honey, often in the field, right next to the colonies. However, we choose to not inspect colonies in thundery weather, as that does seem to make them more bad tempered.

The varroa mite is indigenous to this region; its natural host is Apis cerana and possibly other tropical bee species. However, although we do see varroa in our colonies and they certainly kill/deform some bees, we never bother to treat for them. Its possible that because the bees are active all year at the higher temps, they control the mite better or possibly there has been some natural selection for mite resistance. I am sure we have some varroa in all our colonies but it seems to be more of a chronic problem and I have never lost a colony to this problem.

In fact, in 4 years I have never lost a single colony. It seems easy to maintain colonies even those in a weakened state. As I have said earlier, the difficulty is in getting weak colonies to strengthen.

The biggest problem with predation is from the hornets, particularly Vespa velutina, which many of you may have read about, as it has now become established on the Continent and looks likely to invade the UK soon. Having read many of your postings about wasps this year, I think it will be less of a problem than the common wasp and probably be more of a nuisance to you all than an invasive species catastrophe. On a less positive note, despite interacting with this predator for 50 years, the honeybee has not yet seem to developed any ways to evade or counter this predator. Other notable predators here are birds; (drongos and bee-eaters) and ants, which can invade and destroy weak colonies.

The actual honey production season here is very short. There is a short season in Dec/Jan with honey coming from wild flowers, and then a longer season in March/April when the Lum Yai trees, (Dimocarpus longan), are in flower. As this year is a bit colder than normal, it is looking like we will not be getting any wild flower honey at all.

This next bit may get some of you ranting but this is how it is. During the peak honey flow in March/April, some commercial producers extract honey from the same colonies every week. This means that a lot of uncapped honey is collected and its moisture content has to be reduced through heat treatment. Obviously, the quality of honey produced in this way is generally regarded as poor but it seems to make economic sense to some larger scale producers to collect honey in this way.

Due to the short honey season, beeks look to collect as much honey as they possibly can, from each extraction. This sometimes means extracting honey from a frame that contains some capped brood. Few producers use supers and if they do, most do not use queen excluders so this is inevitable. As far as I can tell capped brood do not seem to be adversely affected by a few minutes in a radial extractor.

OK then, these are the main differences as I see things, between bee keeping in Thailand and in the UK. I hope some of it is of interest to some of you.

All the best for Christmas and may the new year be a good one for you and your bees.
Thanks for an interesting article. Is there an advantage in using/keeping AM over Asian strains of bees since the latter are presumably more "local" and from what I have been told, have evolved to deal with Asian Hornets and Varroa mites?
Merry Christmas and a happy new year.
Very interesting.

Sounds like a lot of work keeping AM going in Thailand... Interested in the answer to the above - why keep AM over your native honey bee?

I understand the Asian Honey Bee can handle both the varroa and the hornets... And probably the heat too!

Thanks again for the info.
A really interesting post. I spent a couple of years back in Thailand in the 1970's, loved it, I know chaingmai is a lot cooler than Southern Thailand so probably the best place to keep am bees, amazing news about them taking off uncapped honey and then heating it, for the sake of a couple of months waiting it seems an odd thing to do, especially if the bees fly all year! Wonder how many larvae/ eggs end up in the honey,
Really good reading though, thanks
Fascinating....interesting that you don't have such a problem with varroa as we do, maybe because Thailand is warmer year round and the bees don't cluster for months on end?
You seem to believe that by not treating for varroa the bees will behave normally (for Thailand anyway) for evermore. In fact, might that single factor not be the reason for them not increasing as they do in the UK? Just a thought that a treatment here and there might be useful. We have MAQS strips now in the UK which is claimed to be an all year round treatment that doesn't even spoil honey either. Might be worth a shot?
I think this is the sort of commercial operation the OP is referring to.

[ame=""]Bee Farm - YouTube[/ame]
Am glad to hear that some of you found my post interesting and thanks for the comments. Regarding local bee varieties, some people do raise Apis cerana but I have heard that honey production is less than with AM and it has a tendency to abscond. (Its possible that this trait has evolved as a counter to hornet predation). The Giant Himalayan honeybee Apis dorsata, is very aggressive and I have never heard of anyone raising it successfully. There has been a wild colony in a Tamarind tree next to my house until yesterday evening, when they decided to move, (somewhere warmer presumably), leaving a beautiful golden but empty comb hanging there, 30 feet up. I hope they come back, but I somehow doubt that they will.

Regarding increase, the two charts (attached) from Vorlesung's Beekeeping in the Tropics may be of interest. The example from Uruguay is much more the pattern that we see here in Thailand. You can see how brood numbers remain high but the bee population does not grow so much.

I have to agree with the comment that Varroa might be weakening our colonies and that is why increase is difficult. I think that we will have a closer look at this and start pulling more drone larva and counting mite drops. Will let you know what we find.

The video posted is a good example of how commercial producers extract honey here (Thanks Tom, I had not seen this one) and yes, there are bound to be some eggs and larvae in the mix but at least the honey is capped!

Thanks again for the comments
hi can you post some pictures of your hive configuration for us to compare to ours in the uk
interesting post watching with interest
Very interesting.

Sounds like a lot of work keeping AM going in Thailand... Interested in the answer to the above - why keep AM over your native honey bee?

I understand the Asian Honey Bee can handle both the varroa and the hornets... And probably the heat too!

Thanks again for the info.

From what I remember the local bees do not forage as far as our nartive bee, have smaller colonies so produce less honey, so main reason they are getting common in asia. And as stated will abscond if found by hornets or disturbed too much.

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