Honeybee whisperers

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The white blooms of the cajuput in U Minh Ha National Park signal a busy honey harvesting season from January to June

A local "˜honey hunter' in U Minh Ha National Park prepares a keo, consisting of three dead cajuput trees, to attract bees to build beehive.

The sputtering chug-chug of the motorboat broke through the forest calm of the U Minh Ha National Park in the southernmost province of Ca Mau.

The boat carrying six honey harvesters made its way deeper into the wetland woods, through meandering channels fenced by tangled forests. The U Minh Ha National Park is home to nearly 200 rare species of flora and fauna.

"Let's stop here," said Du Van Kien, the leader of the group, pointing to clusters of beautiful white flowers on cajuput trees at the edge of the water. The mild fragrance of cajuput blooms pervaded the forest air.

"Wild honey harvested in U Minh has a unique flavor of the ubiquitous cajuput flowers. The bees in this region feed mostly on the cajuput's nectar," said Kien.

More than 50 tons of wild honey is harvested yearly in U Minh. This monofloral honey is very transparent and can be stored for years.

The team stepped ashore with a large plastic basin, sheaves of dried coconut husk, protective nets, and a small knife.

Making their way through tall cajuput trees and a path overrun with reeds, the group spotted a meter-long beehive hanging across a keo. A few weeks ago, the men had created the keo using dead cajuput trees. Two slender cajuput trunks are driven into the ground, and a third is tied to the top to form a perfect spot for bees to nest.

Kien, who has been harvesting wild honey for more than 40 years, expertly smoked the coconut husk and gave it to his team members and this reporter.

"The smoke helps to scatter and subdue the bees as they are driven out of their hive," explained Kien. "Do not try and run away when the bees fly out, because they will chase you to the end. Instead, blow the smoke toward the bees to disperse them."

Locals say they have been attacked by large colonies of bees while smoking their nest, and this is a job best left to the professionals.

As the harvesters smoked the hive, thousands of bees flew out, forming a menacing, buzzing screen several meters wide just out of smoke's reach. They left a large yellow honeycomb behind.

Kien used his knife to pierce the bottom of the hive and released the honey. Within minutes, the plastic basin was brimming with amber liquid.

The group then cut the honeycomb, a unique local delicacy often served with fresh honey or made into mouthwatering dishes like grilled honeycomb and honeycomb salad.

Kien left a portion of the hive for the bees to feed on and rebuild their nest. He said, "The idea is to leave a smaller hive so that mature bees are forced to move to other keos to build new nests."

Forest keepers

Ba Son, a well-known "honey hunter" at U Minh Forest Plantation No. 2, says it is not unusual to find beehives two meters wide in keos in this region. If harvested at the right time, the big hives can yield up to ten liters of honey. While large hives with honey are harvested immediately, smaller ones are left alone until they grow bigger.

Du Van Kien, Ba Son and other honey collectors work in teams and strictly follow the rules and regulations in honey harvesting and afforestation.

According to Quach Van Em, 60, who made his first keo at the age of 15, "Working in teams, our jobs are guaranteed since we work in different areas and are not allowed to violate others' lands."

"We are committed to protecting the woods. For instance, in the dry season, we stay in the forest to keep watch and prevent fires," Em said.

Since the big fire in 2002 destroyed about 5,000 hectares of U Minh Ha National Park, or about 17 percent of the forest area, burning beehives to subdue bees has been prohibited. Instead honey harvesters smoke the hives with sheaves of coconut husk.

Em, who like other local honey hunters, can collect more than 250 liters of honey per year, said, "The forest is our source of living; we have to protect it to save our jobs."

Preparing keo

The group followed Kien to a flat clearing surrounded by several cajuput trees in full bloom, an area, the hunter said, is ideal for a new keo.

Since bees live close to their food, the experienced honey collectors always choose cajuput trees which are at least three years old. These trees have more flowers and a longer blooming period.

Divulging a trade secret, Kien said keos should be made in sunlit areas because the honey produced in dank and shaded conditions is sour. "There should be enough space for the bees to fly freely," Kien said as he cleared the dense branches of cajuput trees nearby.

"Making keos is an art but I can't reveal any more secrets. This is, after all, a hereditary profession," he said.

After making the new keo, Kien and his group of honey hunters wait for twenty days before returning to check if the keo has attracted any bees. If bees start nesting, they wait another twenty days before collecting honey for the first time. A beehive can be harvested three times, and produces ten liters of honey on average.

The cajuput honey is prized for its quality and unique flavor and sells at VND100,000 (US$4.8) per liter.

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