Where have all Siem Reap’s bees gone?
That’s the question posed by Siem Reap’s Dani Jump, a ‘beekeeping extensionist’ who helps beekeepers get the best honey for their money, and also runs bee tours for tourists.
“The bee situation here now is pretty grave,” says Dani. “I’ve had to cancel countless bee tours in recent years, and haven’t sold even a drop of honey in Siem Reap in the past two years.”
In 2004, Jump and two bee-minded partners set up Bees Unlimited, to train Cambodian beekeepers in sustainable bee management and to show tourists the life of bees in the wild.
The start-up spiel said Bees Unlimited was, “Highlighting the unique and dying tradition of rafter beekeeping of the Giant Honeybee, Apis dorsata, practiced in several villages not far from Siem Reap, in Northwest Cambodia, and the efforts of a three-man team (one, a traditional honey-hunter and rafter beekeeper himself) to turn this dry season activity practiced by a few into a sustainable livelihood to benefit many.”
Later Bees Unlimited became “Bees Unlimited – Your Temple Tour Alternative”, thanks to sage advice from Dani’s wife.
“At one point my wife suggested I abandon my passion for bees and beekeeping, and attempt something else, as she felt that the work with bees was not putting enough food on our table,” Dani says.
“Hence, BU-YTTA was born. Solo travelers, couples, and families are the rule as clients, as I prefer to share a more intimate tour experience.”
Group tours are out, as are temples.
“Just food, culture, daily life in a rural setting, bees, the natural environment, life along the Tonle Sap, local markets, etc – life away from the temples and tourists,” he says. “A winning formula. Given that we’re highly rated on TripAdvisor, we must be doing something right!”
Dani Jump is an unusual man who has led an unusual life, kicking off right from the beginning – he was born in the US, but raised in India.
“I was three years old when my parents decided to abandon their teaching profession in US of A, and ply their trade, as it were, in India, where they worked for 17 years – time enough to leave an indelible mark on my life, to be sure, and to instill in me a life of service,” he says.
That need for service played out with Dani serving several stints in the Peace Corps.
“The US Peace Corps is one of the best things to ever come out of the US,” he says. “The first stint had me training in Sierra Leone for three months, before moving on to Togo, to work on an irrigated rice project.”
His second stint was in Morocco, in agriculture, and his bee passion was born in 1990 during his third stint in Paraguay.
“My first attempt at beekeeping came in Paraguay, where one day, after observing bees sipping honey off my breakfast plate, and knowing virtually nothing about bees, I decided to tempt them into swarming into a make-shift box.
“I dripped some honey in a wooden box, and parked it under a nearby guava tree. The very next day a huge swarm of Africanized (Killer) Bees moved in. I was over the moon. Hence, a passion was born.”
After Paraguay, he moved on to new adventures, arriving in Siem Reap in 1994, as a volunteer horticulture advisor for AusAid.
In 2019, he’ll be celebrating a quarter of a century of living in Siem Reap and he notes, “What a pleasure and privilege it is to live and work in Cambodia.”
But he admits that he was in for a bit of a shock, nine years after arriving in Siem Reap, when he first discovered how wild honey was harvested here.
“Around 2003 I heard that a beekeeping tradition involving giant honeybees (Apis dorsata) was an on-going practice not far from Siem Reap.
“That piqued my curiosity, and I was rewarded one day with a visit to the area with staff of the local Community Forest Department. What I saw was, as a beekeeper, unbelievable.”
He discovered that the wild colonies were being harvested in a slash-and-burn way that simply killed the entire colony.
“I immediately realized that there was work to do here,” Dani says, “To encourage local honey-hunters to harvest their colonies in a sustainable manner. I made it my mission.”
But unfortunately, despite best efforts, it’s mission unaccomplished because the dramatic bee decline is partly due to continued use of devastating harvest techniques.
“What with the quantity of brood comb sold roadside and in local markets, it should come as no surprise that the local bee population is on the decline,” Dani says. “Non-sustainable harvesting is one reason, particularly when many hone hunters kill the bees to get to the comb.
“Habitat loss is one more reason. Cambodia is the fifth most deforested country in the world, and the bees are forest dwellers that depend on trees for survival.”
Dani’s also quick to point out that while local supermarkets are stocked with seemingly endless supplies of honey, most of it is fake honey – but that’s another story.