Beekeeping in Thailand: Chiang Mai
After six weeks in New Zealand, I traveled to Thailand to visit a second cousin. Tom has been living in Bangkok for the past twenty years, but he visits the U.S. from time to time, and we met once when I was a kid. We spoke on the phone in November. He almost remembered me.
“Maggie! It’s been a while. We met at Denny’s in 2001, I think. You have red hair? Blue eyes?”
I squinted my green eyes and tugged on my brown hair “. . . no.”
Luckily, we were the only two Irish people in the Bangkok airport at 10 p.m. on March 3rd. We found each other easily and became fast friends. We toured temples, explored markets, and drank coconut juice fresh from the shell. The best part was the motorcycle taxis. The weirdest part was the beekeeping.
After a week in Bangkok, Tom and I head to Chiang Mai. It was a ten-hour trip in a bus that looked like Las Vegas. A big screen TV at the front of the bus blasted a quintuple-feature at top volume. The Thai actors proved versatile. Every movie featured the same cast; only their characters changed. For example, when I dozed off, the main character was selling beef jerky to his soul mate. When I woke up, he was staging a heist in a tropical rainforest.
We reached Chiang Mai around 8 a.m. The city was draped in an early morning fog that lasted all week long. In fact, the city had been stuck in a haze for a month. The common farming practice of burning crops to prepare fields for planting usually results in a week of smoke. This season, unfortunate weather patterns trapped the air pollution so that it lingered over the city for months. The haze was mystical and hard to breathe.
On our second day in Chiang Mai, we ventured outside the city to meet Tom’s friend, a beekeeper. P’Gaew (pronounced Pea Gay-ow) met us in his pickup truck and showed us to a small yard of hives. The colonies were kept in single deeps. Our translator explained that due to the tropical climate, bees in Thailand are unable to regulate temperature in multi-story hives. I spent last summer working Minnesota bees in one hundred degrees and high humidity, and those bees handled the heat just fine, so I was a little skeptical of this statement. Maybe it was a mis-translation? Or maybe there is something to this claim? My mind is happy to be changed, so feel free to share insight if you can.
I was also surprised to learn about the harvesting regimen. P’Gaew pulls honey off his hives every six days. Some people do five, but five-day honey is high-moisture, low-quality stuff. If P’Gaew waits six days, he can get moisture levels down to 21%. At this stage, the cells have not been capped, so the honeycomb goes directly to the centrifuge, a portable hand-crank machine that allows him to extract on the spot. P’Gaew explains that this is less hassle.
P’Gaew sends his crop to a nearby packer where a processor mechanically dehydrates the honey, heating it to 55-75 degrees Celsius (131-167° F) to separate off the steam (exact figures may have been lost in translation).
The packer is Taiwanese, and I gather that he is working here because beekeeping is small-scale in Taiwan, and labor is cheap in Thailand. For an even lower labor cost, P’Gaew interjects, commercial beekeepers outsource to the neighboring countries of Laos and Myanmar.
P’Gaew does not need to outsource because he runs this small operation himself. His numbers oscillate between 70 and 200 hives, and he has only been at it for four years now. He learns from manuals, friends, and classes put on by the government agricultural association, which provides considerable resources for beekeepers. We spend twenty minutes in the pickup flipping through a government-issued beekeeping pamphlet, and then we head back into town for the local specialty: eggs fermented in horse urine.
Actually, the weirdest part was the lunch.