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Beekeeping in the Himalayan Highlands

If you recall from earlier posts, Maggie is a student at the University of Puget Sound who spent a semester abroad learning about beekeeping in various parts of the world. Back in August, Maggie introduced us to the Bee Project of Shangri-La. In today’s post, she picks up her story from the cluttered and cold bee shed where she worked as the substitute manager of a sustainable beekeeping project. Thanks, Maggie, for this newest installment. –Rusty
[line] When last we left off, I had just arrived in Shangri-la, a city in the Yunnan Province, near Tibet. Now that I have time to write again, I’ll do my best to catch you up. I spent seven weeks in Shangri-la working on a sustainable beekeeping project. One of our goals was to determine whether stationary beekeeping (as opposed to migratory) is feasible in the high, dry Himalayan Highlands. The Bee Project also strives to teach beekeeping to local farmers and to encourage environmental stewardship in the community. As substitute manager of this multifaceted endeavor, I served as shed-cleaner, bee-feeder, teacher, and spaghetti expert. Here is an account of my adventure.

Part 1. Under the Weather

The Handicraft Center is based in a traditional Tibetan building in Old Town Shangri-la. Its structure includes space for livestock (or library) on the ground floor with bedrooms and a kitchen up above. Its design is authentic enough to convince the occasional cow that our center is her home, and every so often a neighborhood animal wanders through our front gate. When I arrived in March, I felt similarly lost.

Shangri-la sits in the Himalayan Highlands, where the high, dry altitude is Colorado-cold. Snow was falling when I arrived and my nose was running for its snivelly life. I was anxious to open the beehives, but the weather was far too cold. So instead I puttered around the shed and gathered pine needle smoker fuel from the foot of the 100 Chicken Temple. I repaired tar paper winter wrappings and, in the evenings, I practiced Tibetan line dancing.

There was plenty to clean and sort and organize, but although the project manager had asked me to sort through her supplies, there is something rather awkward about cleaning someone else’s shed.

At first I was hesitant to throw things away, so I kept anything with marginal promise of eventual utility. Pack rat that I am, this meant tossing the mouse droppings and sorting everything else into tidy piles: boards with protruding nails, screwed up old hangers, straw . . . It wasn’t quite that bad. I knew the straw was useful.

For a while, the space seemed only to get messier. But as I coughed up some dirtballs and brushed off my coat, I realized that at the very least I was relocating the enormous amount of dust that I carried on my person. My hair turned from dirty-blond to dirty brown. Shed floor brown. Then the sun came out, and it was time to feed.

Part 2. The Old Town Apiary: Where I feed the bees, and Hat-san eats them.

It’s March 25, 2012 and I’m at the apiary in Old Town this afternoon, sitting with the bees beneath the old cherry tree. Well, I’m sitting. The bees are flying and walking and working. When weather arrives, so do the foragers. They pile inside the hive, satchels thick with pollen.

This apiary belongs to the founder of the Handicraft Center, but her dog is the only one home. The Chinese volunteers introduced Hudson as “Hat-san,” so that is how I call her. I’m trying to teach Hat-san not to eat the bees. She snaps at them just like my dog, Vegas, does.

Feeding bees in Washington meant placing an inverted mason jar with a perforated lid on top of the inner cover and replenishing its sugar water once a week. Feeding in China is a whole ‘nother matter, a relentless choreography of heating, mixing, and lugging. I spend mornings squatting beside large plastic containers, stirring syrup with a wooden stick. I spend afternoons carrying one container in the basket on my back, hugging the other to my stomach, and scrambling up cobblestones to the bee yard in town.

Up at the apiary, I construct straw rafts in the metal feeding bowls, pry off the hive covers and slip the syrup inside, sending warm thoughts to the humming bees down below. The bees drink everything down with insatiable appetite, so I start over again and again. I heat water. I pour sugar. I spill syrup. As days turn to weeks, I develop an exoskeleton of crystallized sugar water.

I must be something of a spectacle, waddling around town with sugar water and a bee basket, but I don’t mind. In fact, I rather enjoy the routine. Feeding the bees at the apiary in town is one of the few things in China that I can do on my own. And in a place that is so strange to me, this routine is comfortable; it helps me feel at home.


The beekeeper's shed before I started to sort.

The beekeeper’s shed before I started to sort.

A colony wake-up call.

A colony wake-up call.

Removing and rolling  tar paper winter wraps.

Removing and rolling tar paper winter wraps.

An early forager, pollen baskets full.

An early forager, pollen baskets full.

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  • Do you know if any work has been done to instrumentally inseminate virgin A. dorsata laboriosa, The Himalayan honey bee with A. mellifera with the goal of producing hybrid vigor? If a species complex, it may be possible and of interest due to the dorsata’s cold tolerance and genetic novelty.

    Any information would be greatly appreciated

    • Gregory,

      It seems I’ve read something about this but I don’t remember where or when. Sorry.