Modern beekeeping methods help pull southwestern township out of poverty

By Li Qiao Source:Global Times Published: 2019/5/14 19:23:14

Bee barrels are arranged on a wall of a local resident's yard in Yangla township, Deqen Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Southwest China's Yunnan Province. Photo: Li Qiao/GT

Special geographical conditions have hindered economic development of Yangla township

The independent living environment and traditional cultivation style make Yangla township a rare paradise for bees in China. However, traditional apiculture has not brought locals large incomes

Modern apiculture industry supports poverty alleviation in Yangla township

Dolma, a 53-year-old mother from the Tibetan ethnic group in Yangla township of the Deqen Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Southwest China's Yunnan Province, who lived in poverty for decades, now lives a better life through beekeeping and supports her daughter who is in graduate school.

"I started beekeeping in 2012 with only two barrels of bees. Now, I have raised more than 20 barrels, which bring more than 10,000 yuan ($1,453) to the annual income of my family. Apiculture is very profitable. The more bees I keep, the more I earn," Dolma told the Global Times. 

Dolma is raising a child on her own, so every bit of extra money means a lot to their family. She used to go up in the mountain to dig for caterpillar fungus and matsutake, and brought in some income selling them. However, those revenues are decreasing. At Dolma's age, she can't work as hard as she did in her youth.

Beekeeping requires comparatively less manpower and is much easier, Dolma explained.

Dolma is not the only resident in Yangla who has taken up beekeeping. The modern apiculture industry supports poverty alleviation efforts in Yangla township.

History of poverty

Yangla means "yak horn tip" in Tibetan, a name reflecting the area's terrain.

It is located in the northeast of Deqen Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, and is the only township in the region where members of the Tibetan ethnic minority group live in Yunnan Province bordering the Tibet Autonomous Region and Sichuan Province. 

Because of its high altitude, Yangla township is mainly suitable for planting highland barley and corn, which are crops of low economic value, and developing characteristic industries is difficult, Du Fachun, a professor at Yunnan Agricultural University (YAU) who studies poverty alleviation in Yangla, told the Global Times.

These special geographical conditions hinder the economic development of Yangla. Transportation to and from Yangla is extremely difficult.

Zhou Danyin, a professor at the Eastern Honeybee Research Institute under YAU, told the Global Times that honey is a specialty product in the Deqen Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, and offers people a way to escape poverty.

Yangla is rich in nectar-producing plants. Local farmers use traditional farming methods that rely less on pesticide. As a result, the nectariferous plants here are mostly wild and almost uncontaminated. The eastern honeybee, a hardy species with a comparatively low risk of contracting diseases, is the dominant bee species in the area, Zhou said. 

The relatively independent living environment and traditional cultivation style that characterizes beekeeping in this area make Yangla a rare paradise for bees in China, as there is no exogenous gene invasion and no pollution from chemical pesticides. This forms a strong foundation for the production of high-quality bee products, Zhou said.

Ajiang, who runs a honey processing plant in Yangla township, is showing local honey product. Photo: Li Qiao/GT

Dealing with losses

However, Du said that despite these environmental advantages, beekeepers in Yangla township have yet to obtain a considerable economic income. 

Du said that the apiculture in Yangla township is still dominated by individuals and families instead of industrialization. Their traditional beekeeping methods and decentralized production make it difficult to implement standardized technology on a broad scale, which largely restricts the development of professional and standardized apiculture.

The income of beekeepers is not stable, and is often at the mercy of nature. Locals first take part of the honey they produce for use at home, or send some to relatives and friends as gifts, thereby limiting their profits when honey production is low, Du told the Global Times.

 A lack of scientific methods also prevents local residents from earning more money from beekeeping. 

"At night, wild animals come and make holes in the wall of the bee barrel and steal the honey inside. Not only do we lose our honey, but when the barrel is mended, the bees will not fly in as they did before, which results in losing a bee barrel worth 300 yuan," Ajiang, a resident from Jiagong village under Yangla township, told the Global Times.

These honey "thieves" are generally state-protected animals, so it is illegal to set traps to catch them. Ajiang said he has no choice but to grin and bear such financial losses.

Kuang Hai'ou, a professor at the Eastern Honeybee Research Institute under YAU, came to help. He taught Ajiang a method to avoid his losses - burning the

hole slightly before repairing it to eliminate the smell of the wild animals will help bring the bees back into the barrel.

Kuang was invited to Yangla to give lectures on apiculture to local residents, under a project run by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, which helps poverty alleviation efforts in Yangla. 

Kuang said it is generally brown bears that come down from mountains to steal honey.

Kuang suggested that beekeepers preserve evidence of destruction caused to their livelihood by wild animals and report it to the local forestry and grassland administration. According to regulations, the State will compensate beekeepers for the economic losses caused by protected species at around 200 to 300 yuan per barrel, depending on the circumstances.

Wandering around Jiagong village, it is not difficult to spot the bee barrels arranged horizontally in almost every family's yard. 

Zhou encouraged local beekeepers to place the barrels vertically, which makes it easier to clear up bee wax residue and increases honey yields. 

Kuang told the Global Times that placing bee barrels vertically can reduce the damage done to the bees during nectar harvesting. This also respects locals' Tibetan Buddhist beliefs about not killing living things.

Zhou Dangyin, a professor at the Eastern Honeybee Research Institute under Yunnan Agricultural University, is giving lectures to local beekeepers. Photo: Li Qiao/GT

Direct selling

In the past, the honey produced in Yangla was mostly for people's personal use. As they lacked both the processing technology and marketing methods, it was difficult for them to make profits. 

"In the past, we just waited for people to come to our home to purchase honey. However, we now sell our honey directly to the honey processing plant at 150 yuan per kilogram. We no longer have to worry all the time that perhaps no one will come to buy from us this year," Pema, whose family has kept bees for over 10 years, told the Global Times.

Ajiang runs the honey processing plant in Yangla township, which was founded with the support of the state-owned enterprise Yunnan Copper Company Limited (YCCL). YCCL donated a honey processing machine worth 400,000 yuan and purchases processed honey from the plant at 320 yuan per kilogram, he explained.

Now, with the help of a targeted poverty-relief enterprise, beekeepers are not worried about sales and can make some money, Ajiang said. 

In 2018, the plant paid 1.9 million yuan to local beekeepers to purchase raw honey.

Apiculture is an ecological poverty alleviation industry supported by the Yangla township government. Households in poverty that keep bees can receive subsidies of 500 yuan per bee barrel, with an upper limit of five barrels. 

Other households, rather than people in poverty, are also encouraged to engage in apiculture. They can receive the maximum subsidy of 1,000 yuan for three barrels from the local government, Ajiang told the Global Times.

Vacant bee barrels heap up in the yard of the honey processing plant of Yangla township, Southwest China's Yunnan Province. Photo: Li Qiao/GT

Du told the Global Times that the national poverty rate was 3.1 percent in 2017, but the number in Yunnan Province and Yangla township is 7.5 percent and 21.8 percent respectively. Its remote location and inconvenient transportation left Yangla in deep poverty in the past. The highway to Yangla was not opened until 2014.

Yangla gives full play to its geographical advantages, and upgrading traditional industries to alleviate poverty is an important model for poor villages in the three neighboring provinces, Du said.

Thanks to the national poverty alleviation policy, Yunnan Province has helped 3.74 million rural poor people out of poverty, reducing the poverty rate to 5.39 percent in the past three years. The number of impoverished villages has decreased to 5,068, according to Yunnan government.

According to the Jiagong village committee, 171 people in 26 households are economically sustained by apiculture. One household of six people that was previously classified as being 'in poverty' has successfully been lifted out of poverty.

Du said that labor skills training and education will be key points for the sustainable development of Yangla after they escape from poverty.

National support and stable incomes give local beekeepers confidence in the future of apiculture in Yangla township. Pema told the Global Times that he would like to learn more about the scientific side of beekeeping and is planning to raise more bees in the coming year.

Newspaper headline: Life sweet as honey

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