Bees in the honey pot

by Setsuko Kamiya

In the nation’s political epicenter — Nagatacho, in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward — cynics might be excused from regarding its most productive workers to be its honey bees.

Every morning since April 2, when beekeeper Seita Fujiwara installed his wooden hives on the roof of the Social Democratic Party headquarters, thousands of the insects have been flying from there across the road to the happy hunting grounds of the Imperial Palace gardens.

There, at this time of year, the nectar they seek is in abundant supply in the yellow and orange flowers of the yurinoki (tulip trees) planted on the sidewalk surrounding the moat. Before they started to bloom, Fujiwara says his bees instead sought out rape blossoms and cherry blossoms around the Imperial Palace, and elsewhere within a 4-km radius of their rooftop home.

Since April, the combs his bees construct in their hives have yielded more than 250 kg of golden honey, says Fujiwara, 46, a third-generation beekeeper based in Morioka, Iwate Prefecture. “They are doing a lot better than I expected,” he said, adding that some of the golden dew from the metropolis has already been sold through Mikio Yoshida, 60, a Tokyo-based honey marketer.

The inspiration for this seemingly unique use of a Tokyo rooftop came to Fujiwara on a winter business trip to the capital two years ago, when he noticed all the tulip trees around the moat. By feeding from tulip tree blossoms, he explained, bees produce a particularly mild, sweet honey that is highly prized by many people. “So, quite simply, I thought it would be great if I could harvest honey from here,” he said.

Half-jokingly, Fujiwara said as much to Yoshida — who at once realized what a good idea it was and began looking for a hive site in the Nagatacho area near the moat.

But he soon found that was no easy task. “Everyone refused because they were afraid that the honey bees might sting. But it’s wasps like hornets that sting and are harmful. Honey bees won’t sting unless you do something to them,” Yoshida said.

Fujiwara added: “Bees are doing good to the environment. They help put pollen onto the pistil, and that’s how plants reproduce. They are serving the cycle of nature.”

In the quest for a hive site, Yoshida visited the Liberal Democratic Party’s headquarters — only to be refused. Finally, though, their Diet opponents in the SDP came to share the two men’s enthusiasm and agreed to let them use the rooftop for free. Until then, that space had not been used at all.

Though Fujiwara had previously located hives on the roof of a four-story building in Iwate, this was his first experience on top of a seven-floor building — and one in the bustling heart of the capital, too. However, a 10-day trial last May was a success, and so this year the Morioka beekeeper has brought 200,000 honey bees to work for him in the metropolis.

Compared to ground level, Fujiwara said that rooftops may be too windy and dry. But partly due to the city’s “heat-island” phenomenon, he’s found that the bees’ hives stay at an ideal temperature for the queens to lay their eggs and so keep their colonies together to feed and raise the young. In fact now, just six weeks into the project, Fujiwara admits to being surprised — and delighted — to have five times as many bees as he originally brought.

So, with the flowers now falling off the tulip trees, Fujiwara is set to return home to Tohoku this week, to set up his hives with their million-plus residents there — just as the fuji (wisteria) come into flower.

But with his first foray to Tokyo’s rooftops such a resounding success, he’s already looking forward to returning with his hives next spring.