Wednesday, Aug 23, 2017, 6:41 AM CST – China

Special Report

Chinese Honey


China’s indigenous honey bee is under threat from both environmental degradation and competing species

An apiarist Photos by CFP

Indigenous Chinese honeybees Photos by CFP

 Qi Xueming, a beekeeper in Beijing, maintains 4,300 Italian honey bee hives. He also keeps four hives of Chinese honeybees for his own personal use. According to Qi, the honey from these four hives “is healthier and smoother-tasting.”

While the jury remains out on just how much “better” Chinese honey tastes, Qi and his family members still choose to raise Italian bees for their economic advantages. Larger, more robust and more productive than indigenous Chinese honeybees, Italian bees have seen an estimated 40,000 colonies of Chinese honeybees recorded in the Beijing municipal area 60 years ago drop to 400 today, with only one percent of the pure honey manufactured in Beijing being sourced from indigenous bees.

Invisible Threat

There are currently nine recognized species of honey bee worldwide. China’s indigenous bees emerged over 700 million years ago, and, unlike European bees, remain productive throughout the winter, during which time they continue to pollinate wild plant life. Chinese honeybees have a 30 percent higher pollination rate for apple trees when compared with their European counterparts, making them crucial to certain agricultural sectors.

Yang Guanhuang, a researcher at the Bee Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences has spent 50 years studying Chinese honey bee behavior. According to Yang, in the early 20th century the number of managed colonies in China stood at about 5 million. He claims that today, while the government continues to crow about the country’s 6 million honey bee colonies, less than one million of these are of indigenous species.

In the past century, the range occupied by Chinese honeybees has reduced by over 75 percent and population has fallen by 80 percent, as hardier and more economically viable European species have been imported en masse to fuel market demand for cheap honey. Wild populations have almost disappeared altogether, with the country’s handful of remaining wild colonies barely surviving in remote areas of the southwest.

“Generally speaking, when the total population  of  a species dwindles to less than 10 percent of its initial number, it can be defined as threatened. Now, the Chinese honeybee is facing this situation,” Yang told NewsChina.

Deforestation, excessive use of pesticides and environmental pollution has devastated biodiversity in China, and wild honeybees have been among the least well-documented casualties of the country’s relentless march of development. Moreover, the wholesale introduction of European species, which allegedly began as far back as 1896, has forced out colonies which might have escaped habitat loss.

In his article “Harm caused to the Chinese honeybee by introducing the Western [European] honeybee and its ecological impact,” published in 2005 in the bilingual monthly journal Acta Entomologica Sinica, Yang Guanhuang called attention to the plight of China’s indigenous honey bee species.

Yang claimed that Italian bees in particular are aggressively territorial, and routinely destroy and occupy Chinese colonies, as well as spread the Sacbrood virus (SBV) to queens, a virus which then spreads to entire regional populations.

According to Yang’s data, from 1972 to 1976, a SBV epidemic erupted in Fogang County, Guangdong Province which wiped out 90 percent of local Chinese honey bee colonies, one million hives in total.

In August 2007, beekeepers in Puwa village found that queens in their Chinese honey bee colonies were inexplicably being found dead in their nurseries. After examining the affected hives, Yang Guanhuang found Italian honeybees had simply flown into the hives and stung the queens to death, destabilizing the colonies. Yang claims this is because, as the wing vibrations of both species are almost identical, Chinese bees cannot distinguish Italian honeybees from their own species.

His research results have been recognized by the domestic academic circle. Researcher Peng Wenjun from Chinese Academy of Agricultural Science agreed with Yang’s conclusion and said that the widely introduced European honeybees including Italian honeybees have exhibited aggressiveness towards their Chinese counterparts.  There are also exceptions. Safi Malik, owner of Shangrila Farms, a honey producing company in Yunnan Province, told the reporter that his family-operated bee boxes in Shangri-la, Yunnan Province had never encountered such problems, even though they kept Chinese honeybee and Italian honeybee boxes in the same courtyard.

Yang also points out that Italian honeybees are more highly evolved than their Chinese counterparts. “Within two to three kilometers of the range of Italian honeybees, it is hard for Chinese honeybees to survive,” he said.

Yang warns that, as Chinese honeybees disappear, a chain reaction is triggered which affects biodiversity, the food chain and could ultimately impact humans.

Chain Reaction

While on the face of it, a spate of fatal hornet attacks in central China’s Shaanxi Province might have little to do with the plight of the domestic honey bee, in reality, some claim, there is a direct causal link. 1,640 people have been injured by hornets in Shaanxi this year alone, 42 of them fatally. Chongqing, Sichuan, Hubei and Guangxi also reported increased incidence of life-threatening hornet attacks in July and September.

According to wildlife biologists, widespread deforestation in these areas has forced hornets into closer proximity to large populations. Moreover, the decline in plant diversity due to the reduced role of Chinese honeybees in cross-pollination has led to a decline in insect populations, in turn decimating bird populations – the main predators of hornets. Yang Guanhuang argues that the worst affected areas are all former ranges of now-extinct or threatened Chinese honeybee colonies.

“Increasing the number of Chinese honeybees would be a fundamental way to resolve the hornet problem,” he said.

So far, two major Chinese honeybee nature reserves have been established in a bid to protect the species from extinction - one in Beijing’s Fangshan District and another in Raohe, Heilongjiang Province. However, while habitat loss and competing species remain a problem, a new threat to all honeybees is also emerging – the marketplace.

Decaying Industry

Honeybee populations are in decline worldwide. Since 2006, commercial beekeepers in the US started to notice that their adult worker honeybees would suddenly flee hives en masse, ultimately destroying their colonies. This so-called colony-collapse disorder (CCD) has plagued the international honey industry ever since.

Despite years of study, no exact cause for CCD has been pinpointed by scientists, and a recent report released by US Department of Agriculture (USDA) speculated that various culprits might be to blame – the Varroa parasitic mite, several viruses, a bacterial disease called European foulbrood and the use of neurotoxic pesticides, called neonicotinoids, in agriculture.

In China, neonicotinoids are widely used on farms, yet Chinese honeybees are seemingly resistant to CCD. However, Yang Guanhuang attributes this more to the minor role Chinese honeybees play in agricultural pollination (10 percent, compared to 30 percent in the US), rather than some inherent genetic advantage.

Of greater concern to China’s honey industry is general rural depopulation over the past half-century. Beijing beekeeper Qi Xueming admitted to our reporter that the younger generation is unwilling to take up beekeeping, a trade which, at best, will earn barely 50,000 to 100,000 yuan (US$8,201 to 16,402) per year. In the past decade, the average age of Chinese beekeepers has increased by 13 years. As of 2007, almost half of the beekeepers in China were over 50 years old.

Moreover, the chaotic honey market in China, rife with counterfeit products, is a further handicap to the domestic industry. It is reported that at least half of the 400,000 tons of honey products manufactured annually in China are adulterated, with a large proportion entirely fake. Chinese consumers are increasingly turning to imported honey from New Zealand, Europe and the US.

“The market price for honey is only 20 yuan (US$3.28) per kilo. But our work is far more labor-intensive than other agricultural sectors,” said Qi Xueming, adding that if the government cannot step in to effectively regulate the market, the industrial chain might collapse altogether.

A recent TIME magazine report on the honeybee industry in the US used a quote often attributed to Albert Einstein: “If the bee disappears from the surface of the globe, mankind will have no more than four years left.”

As Yang Guanhuang told NewsChina: “The disappearance of the honeybee might not lead to the extinction of man, but it will definitely have a huge impact on our living environment.” 


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