The sweet lives of bee hunters

April 15, 2017 - 09:00

Natural honey "hunters" in the southern regions of Việt Nam are flirting with injuries and potential death every day to get their hands on the golden nectar, all for a pittance.

A farmer harvests honey bee in Hậu Giang Province. - VNA/VNS Photo Trần Quốc La
Viet Nam News

HẬU GIANG – Natural honey "hunters" in the southern regions of Việt Nam are flirting with injuries and potential death every day to get their hands on the golden nectar, all for a pittance.

However, what seems to others a last resort at earning a livelihood has become something of a passion for these daredevils.

Lê Văn Khả, 42, from a hamlet in Long Thạnh Commune of Hậu Giang Province started his day early. On an old motorbike, he roamed from orchard to orchard, hamlet to hamlet, looking for wild bee nests. Luck only smiled on him when it was already high noon and an orchard owner required his services.

After the price has been negotiated and money was paid, Khả donned protective clothing and rubbed ointment on exposed skin to protect against stings. According to Khả, when smoked, a swarm of bees will spill out to chase the "enemy," and they are really committed to this chase.

“You could run from the beehive one kilometre and they still wouldn’t give up once they identified your smell. Those on the ground without protective nets might also be stung,” he told Tiền Phong (Vanguard) newspaper.

Khả then fastened a bucket onto his hip, one hand holding a torch, and started to climb the tree. The orchard owner’s family and some neighbors as well have already left the place, fearing the bees’ wrath. Seconds after the smouldering torch billowed smoke into the nest, a black cloud started buzzing angrily around Khả, who was still dangling precipitously from a tree branch and simultaneously using a knife to carve out the honey wax and collecting it in his bucket.

His mission was completed in a short time and he was already back on the ground, quickly driving the motorbike away. The bees only gave up chasing Khả after one or two kilometres.

Later he revealed the secret to his daring - the specifically made ointment that is effective in warding off furious bees. Khả, however, demurred on sharing the ingredients.

“When I was still a novice, even though my ‘teacher’ has already taught me the ointment recipe, aggressive bees still found their way past the protective nets, but I tried to forget the stings, suppressed the panic, and kept on collecting honey,” Khả reminisced.

“My whole body was covered in red hot swollen stings when I got down from the tree. However, I think the bees have got used to my odour by now so they’re getting less aggressive,” he added.

Nguyễn Văn Chính, a sixty-year-old honey collector from Phụng Hiệp Commune, has become quite well-known in the province. A seasoned veteran in the business, he still sometimes can’t avoid dangerous encounters. The most memorable one, he said, took place three years ago.

“I climbed a curtain fig that locals said was 100 years old. The tree’s canopy was indeed really large, and I spotted five big bee nests hanging on its branches. Hardly had I climbed three metres when the bees started to fly out trying to attack me,” Chính recounted.

“I had little choice but to jump down to the ground and dive into a nearby pond. The bees kept swarming around me every time I surfaced,” he added. This went on for nearly two hours until the bees left.

According to Chính, honeybees generally are not aggressive and only attack humans if they feel threatened. Even if they attack, the stings are generally more uncomfortable than deadly. However, if a queen bee is present, the other bees will defend their nests ferociously, even making pre-emptive strikes as they did with him, Chính said.

Also a professional honey hunter, Nguyễn Văn Lộc, 37, from Phụng Hiệp Commune, was once stung 20 times after he had gathered some three litres of honey. “My skin was like on fire. I ran a fever, I couldn’t eat. Thankfully, those inexperienced days are way behind now that I have all the knowhow of the trade,” he says.

Bee life

Before getting into his risky profession, Khả spent nearly 20 years trading in bamboo wood. When he cut down the bamboo trees, he used to get stung by bees whose nests were broken. Then he started to seek ways to minimise the stings and harness the bees for additional income from selling honey. Practice makes perfect, and the income from honey was better than what he made from bamboo, so he decided to change careers.

He harvests about a dozen bee nests a month, and might get four to five litres of honey from a hive, which could fetch VNĐ 400,000-500,000 (US$17) per litre, but it’s not unusual to come back empty-handed.

Chính and his wife depend on the honey. He said that last year, in just five months, he earned nearly VNĐ 70 million ($3,100), but now, when many others have joined in, his income has dropped by half.

“When I’m short on cash, I borrow some from relatives and neighbours to pay for gas, then I go looking for honey, and I pay them back with the money I make from selling honey. But there are times when honey is not easy to come by,” Chính said. In the last two years, his health has not allowed him to travel far.

“It’s a hard job, but I’d feel restless not doing it for a few days. I really enjoyed it when the bees swarmed around but couldn’t do a thing to me,” Chính laughed heartily.

According to Chính, honey from Hậu Giang Province and neighbouring localities boasts a noticeably darker shade of yellow since the bees collect nectar from numerous flowers of fruit trees, while honey from the southeastern Mekong region looks paler, due to the prevalence of industrial trees like rubber.

“It might look rough, but actually we have an easier time compared to honey gatherers in the deep south forests like U Minh forest in Cà Mau Province. There’s no complicated gear needed,” he said.

With many years of experience, honey collectors can immediately know whether the bees in a nest are aggressive or not, whether the nest contains much honey, where the bees are likely to gather, just by observation.

The most important thing, he said, was to leave a part of the nest attached to the tree’s branch, so the bees will come back to rebuild, ensuring a semi-constant source of honey and livelihood. – VNS