Travel & Life - March 20, 2018 | 07:33 pm PT

Follow the flowers: On the hunt with nomadic beekeepers in Vietnam

Vietnamese beekeepers and their charges chase blossoms all over the country in the search for a sweet natural haul.

Early in January, when the rubber leaves were starting to sprout from their buds, Nguyen Van Chien arrived at one of the endless rubber plantations in the Central Highlands with hundreds of beehives. Inside buzzed thousands of honey bees, ready to fly out to forage in the green landscape.

“This time of the year the honey flows thanks to the extra floral nectar from the rubber trees,” the 64-year-old explained. “It's also the best time for beekeeping.”

Nguyen Van Chien, 64, a nomadic beekeeper from the Central Province of Quang Nam.

In the hunt for genuinely natural honey, Chien and his workers travelled hundred miles with the bees from the central province of Quang Nam to Kon Tum in the Central Highlands, before setting up a bee yard in the middle of a rubber plantation with permission from its owner.

“We are nomadic beekeepers,” he said, standing next to the beehives lined up under the shady canopy. “Wherever the flowers blossom, you’ll find us camped there with our beehives.”

Vietnam’s tropical weather and diverse fauna and flora grant bee farmers like Chien a longer season to harvest the sweet haul, which can go on for six or even nine months a year.

His bee trail stretches across the country. After spending three months at the rubber plantation, Chien will uproot his bee yard to a coffee farm in the neighboring Gia Lai Province and then look for an earleaf acacia plantation back in his hometown to set up camp.

“This method of nomadic beekeeping produces much better honey while saving us the cost of feeding the bees with sugar and pollen,” said Chien.

Transporting the tiny insects, however, is not an easy task. 200 wooden beehives have to be transferred at night, and the place picked to set up the apiary must be a calm, windless spot among the trees.

The honey bees are an Italian breed, a beekeeper said, which was introduced to Vietnam in the 1970s and considered more productive than local breeds.

Yet not every adventure has a sweet ending. “We could lose the whole season's yield if the weather suddenly turns bad, the flowers don’t bloom as they are supposed to, or the bees come into contact with diseases,” Chien explained.

The team set up a honey extracting area in the middle of the plantation, enclosed with nets to prevent the bees from following the scent trail.

“For every 80 honey combs we drain we get about 30kg of honey,” Chien said. “I think we're going to extract more than 700kg today.”

The honeycombs are put into a hand powered extractor, which can take up to 10 frames at a time. 

“If it doesn't rain next month, we can expect two more yields,” he said hopefully.

Rubber honey is known for its light sweet flavor and subtle fragrance. Chien collects and sells the honey to local honey factories at a wholesale price of VND45,000 ($2) per kg.

“We can retail for twice as much, but few people are interested.”

In the broader narrative of Vietnam's honey consumption, the industry finds it hard to make a profit from the domestic market.

Approximately one million honey bee colonies in the country produce between 40,000-55,000 tons of honey a year, the Vietnam Beekeepers Association estimated in 2017. However, most of the honey flows overseas, with 90 percent jarred for export.

A study by the National Bee Research Center (NBRC) shows an average Vietnamese consumes only 40 grams of honey a year, compared to 700 grams by their global peers.

At the end of the harvest, Chien and his workers expect to sell nearly VND100million ($4,400) worth of honey.

"It's not much if you deduct all the expenses, such as transport and labor," Chien said.

Quynh Tran

Map of Dak Ha District, Kon Tum Province in the Central Highlands, one the largest beekeeping regions in Vietnam.