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Bear facts about honey traps

by C.W. Nicol

Twenty years ago, in arguments with officials of the Forestry Agency, which was clear-cutting great swaths of old mixed forest and selling off much of the timber to be turned into wood chips, I tried to stress the individual value of various trees. In those days, a 150- to 200-year-old horse chestnut tree would fetch less than 10,000 yen for wood chips. Bees feeding off that same tree could, however, produce 10,000 yen to 15,000 yen of honey each year — and that’s not to mention the tree’s value in producing oxygen, protecting the watershed, providing food for wildlife and so on, that was not taken into account back then.

Whereas in Britain you find any number of big horse chestnut trees in parks, along rivers, in private gardens and estates, here in Japan you’ll only find big ones in national parks or national forests that the government has for some reason not yet gotten around to destroying. In those forests you are most likely to find bears — and bears, including the 1.2- to 1.8-meter-tall Asiatic black bears (Ursus thibetanus) found in Japan — really do like honey.

We don’t have any really big trees in the 18 hectares of our Afan Woodland Trust here in Kurohime, Nagano Prefecture, but we do have plenty of flowering younger trees. As a result, we often find nests of wild Japanese bees — which usually end up being raided by the bears. To give the bees a break (and us some delicious honey), I decided to build a bear-proof platform on which hives could be left out in the woods during the flowering season — and it must have frustrated the hell out of the bears, because they couldn’t climb it.

We didn’t get an automatic camera up there in time to catch them, but every night we found a muddle of bear tracks all around the platform. As a beekeeper who likes honey in morning tea, and who is most sympathetic to bears (even though they have raided our hives left in orchards or fields), I felt I had found an answer. Maybe I have, but . . .

Our bees are mostly imported stock, and we really want to encourage the native Japanese ones to use our hives but, as is the way with the natural world, I guess we’ll just have to be patient. We have, however, got one working hive of Japanese bees in the roof over the charcoal kiln, which the bears haven’t yet found.

We had another nest of Japanese bees in the wooden wall of the headquarters of our ranger college close by. We had been watching that for eight years, trying to encourage a queen from there to take a swarm into one of our hives — but with no luck. A bear got to that nest one night this summer, ripping the boarding off the outer wall and helping itself to all of the nest — honey, grubs, the lot.

But the bears didn’t manage to climb my platform. Perhaps in revenge, though, they climbed the chestnut trees I planted nearby 16 years ago, eating almost all of this year’s crop of young chestnuts

Did I get some honey from that platform? No. Not even a lick. The hives were raided by the great big hornets I call “B-29s” — o-suzume bachi in Japanese. They killed or drove off the bees, took all the grubs to feed their own, gorged on the honey — and left us with nothing but empty hives and shredded combs.

Had the hives held Japanese bees, we might have had a chance as they can kill a raiding hornet by making a ball around the predator with their own bodies, thus raising the temperature to the point that the hornet dies. Foreign bees haven’t evolved to do that — and neither have humans. Please don’t ever try to smother a hornet with the heat of your love, for they do have a formidable sting.

A couple of summers ago, I was walking in the woods with my Canadian son-in-law, a big, strong chap, when a B-29 hornet stung him on the back of the neck. Less than 3 minutes later he collapsed, and was having trouble with his vision and difficulty breathing. I managed to carry him out of the woods, and we drove him to our local hospital. Immediate attention saved his life, but the doctor said that if we’d arrived 20 minutes later, we could easily have lost him. So please, if you, or anybody around you is stung by a hornet in Japan, please get them to hospital immediately. Every year people are killed by these creatures.

However, both that time and this time, I had my revenge. Our forester, Matsuki-san, located the underground hornet nests, smoked them dopey, dug them out and killed most of the adults. The big fat grubs he cooked in a frying pan with a little sesame oil and soy sauce, and shared them with me.

You see, I really am sympathetic to bears. I love honey and very much enjoy ground wasp and hornet grubs, a traditional delicacy in Nagano. No, it’s not a pretended liking either, and neither will I eat or serve them in order to shock guests and have a bit of a giggle. What do they taste like? Oh, a bit like a cross between cashew nuts and well-cooked abalone. Much better than the other local insect dish of grasshoppers, whose little legs tend to get stuck between your teeth.

You’d rather have honey? That’s all right, we understand.