November 11, 2003


The Japanese Honeybee In Step with Farming: The Beekeeping Families of Inadani

* This article is under copyright protection.

Manabu Akaike
Universal Design Intelligence Inc.

Traditional Beekeeping Was Closely Tied to Farming Cycles

A community of beekeepers still practice traditional beekeeping at Inadani in the Shinshu region, keeping alive methods of cultivating the Japanese honeybee (apis cerana japonica) that have been in use since ancient times in Japan. The bees gather nectar from the fruits and flowers of broad-leafed trees like the horse chestnut (tochi), false acacia or honey locust (nise-akashia), and dogwood until it comes time to build a hive and reproduce. When the swarm within the hive grows too large, the next generation queen is born and the colony divides, with one group of worker bees swarming off with the new queen to find a new home, in the hiving process known as "natural division." During this time, the beekeepers of Inadani place hollowed-out logs under the trees or ledges nearby the old hive, and wait for the new queen and her workers to move in. This is the most ancient method of beekeeping, known as "hachi-hiroi" or "picking up bees."

Eventually this method advanced to "artificial division" where beekeepers do not wait for the colony to divide on its own. Prior to the natural division stage, there is increased activity of worker bees flying in and out of the old hive, and around that time there can be found the beginnings of a new swarm in a group of workers that have left the hive and gathered on a tree branch nearby, known as a "hachi-tama (bee clump)." In artificial division, the beekeeper sweeps up this hachi-tama in his hands, together with the new queen, and deposits it in a log or wooden tub that he has set aside to become the home of the new hive.

In the past, it was the custom for Inadani farmers to keep wooden tubs of honeybees under the eaves of their homes or barns, practicing beekeeping as a sideline to their regular farming activities. Honey was utilized as a precious substance of high nutritional value, something hard to find in the gorges and ravines of this mountainous region. From the flowering of the ume (Japanese apricot) trees in February, to the making of the soba noodles in November, the farmers tended to their land and crops, while the honeybees worked alongside them, engaged in their own "farming" as they gathered nectar and prepared to propagate. Farming and bee cultivation are thus strongly linked in the cyclical nature of their enterprises.

Traditional methods of beekeeping persist along the ancient roads of Japan's mountainous regions. From the 8th century on, honey was a precious battlefield supply, and historians guess that honey-cultivation was encouraged starting around this time. The story of Japanese beekeeping is like a hidden oral history of ancient Japan. Moreover, it is a traditional regional industry that can be put into active use today as a valuable resource for regional economic stimulation as well as for research on nature-based manufacturing methods, something highly desirable today.

Beekeeping Suggests Future Directions for Environmental Planning

An important characteristic of ancient beekeeping methods is the enormous amount of time and effort given to the cultivation of bee swarms. Over the generations, members of these traditional beekeeping families have grown to have a calm nature from living intimately with bees, and faithfully guard their inherited bee-gathering powers. Ancient beekeeping tradition seems to harbor several suggestions for future directions in nature engineering.

First, the genetic enhancement of worker bee honey-producing genes represents a future direction of technological research into defining the potential of naturally occurring genes, and in time developing techniques for combining, controlling and manipulating genes.

Secondly is the renewal of cyclical links between forest preservation and agriculture. The beehive boxes standing in the forests around Inadani seem to make this appeal. In the bee products industry, research at the Chinese Academy of Forestry has shown that commercially produced royal jelly and propolis are extremely ineffective medicinally. In contrast to bee products made with synthetic nectar or nectar from a limited variety of fruits and flowers, natural bee products grown from a wide variety of tree nectars are much more effective pharmacologically.

This fact is related to the life cycles of forests and the substances and microorganisms that reside within their soil. Not only do we need to cultivate our forestry industries for the sake of our social and economic systems, we must also try to realize a comprehensive boosting of both forestry and agriculture through the analysis of complex interrelated forest and soil systems.

Thirdly is the interrelation between agriculture and commercial insect culture. Not just the honey and propolis products mentioned earlier, but beeswax, made from the beehive structural material, is now used as a building material and also as an industrial die cast releasing agent.

JAPAN CLOSE-UP, May 2002, published by PHP

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