One of the best perks I get from the wild woods is honey. Mr. Matsuki, our forester up here at the Afan Woodland Trust in Nagano Prefecture, is a beekeeper who prefers to encourage wild Japanese bees — whose honey has a very delicate taste — rather than raise foreign varieties better-known for their honey production.
Japanese bees also have a uniquely effective way of dealing with marauding hornets. When a hornet attacks their nest, the bees form a living ball around it, raising the hornet’s body temperature until it dies. Foreign bees can’t or don’t do this, so a big hornet can go on killing bees as there is little they can do to defend themselves. Other factors aside, this alone makes it difficult to keep foreign varieties of bees in a Japanese wood.
Another problem is, of course, bears — it is certainly no fable that they really do love honey.
To protect our hives, Mr. Matsuki enclosed them in steel cages reinforced with thick boards and even barbed wire. Although he was confident this would keep bears out, it failed. This summer we had a very determined and large male bear who simply ripped the cages apart.
A couple of years ago, I erected what I believed to be a bear-proof beehive platform. It has four strong legs made of smooth steel pipes, and stands 3 meters high. With nothing for their claws to dig into, I was sure no bear would be able to climb up to raid the hives.
Fearless and determined
For the first couple of years my platform worked a treat — until a big, fearless and determined ninja bear I nicknamed “Jackie Chan” appeared on the scene early this summer. I had positioned the platform so that there were no overhanging tree branches. This ninja bear, however, climbed 12 meters up a tree that stood 5 meters away from the platform. Then he went out on a branch so slim that he broke it — but not before he was able to leap 9 meters down and across to the steel platform and totally destroy the beehives.
We had a motion-sensitive camera trained on the platform, but for some reason or other it didn’t capture this extraordinary leap. We reckoned that the bear would weigh at least 100 kg, and possibly up to 120. I weigh 100 kg (well, maybe just a bit more . . . ), and if I’d jumped 9 meters down onto a steel platform I’d probably be dead.
We have another bees’ nest in our woods in the hollow of an elm tree. The entrance to the nest is very small, and is set into a fold in the trunk. The ninja bear had been visiting every night, biting and clawing to get in, without success. Hoping to get some pictures of him, we set up a camera by the tree — but for some reason, he never came again. Mr. Matsuki thinks he got himself into trouble raiding a corn field (the corn, or maize, grown around here is the sweetest ever, and a single bear can eat up to 100 ears in a single night). Several bears have been trapped and shot in our community this year.
I’ll miss the ninja bear if he has gone to that great honeyed beech forest in the sky. But at the same time, I’m a little relieved. This bear had become so unafraid of people that he was sleeping in the bushes in our woods during the day. We were worried that some of the children who visit on our special programs that I’ve written about here might stumble on him and wake him up. We were planning to get a permit to trap the bear and fit him with a radio collar so we could keep track of his whereabouts. Now that he has vanished, his place has been taken by a cheeky little cub, just separated from his mother, who is very curious about anything we leave around, but wary about meeting humans.
Another problem for us, the trees, the bears and the squirrels, has been the depredations of what Mr. Matsuki quickly identified as a “chokkiri mushi,” which I translate as a “snickety bug.” Yes, I know, there’s no such word in the dictionary — and if you look up chokkiri it has a different meaning, too — which makes the bug something like “cutting insect.” Be that as it may, when Mr. Matsuki uses the word “chokkiri” to describe a bug, he means a creature that snips off the end of an oak twig and lets it fall to the ground. The reason for this is that the bug (a beetle actually) drills a hole in a green acorn and deposits an egg inside. It then snips the twig so that it falls — leaves, acorns and all — to lie on the ground. The maggot eats the inside of the acorn, then goes into the soil to pupate. The following year it will emerge and fly up to the top of the oak tree again.
Results of depredation
The forest floor was littered with the results of this depredation, which will mean leaner pickings this autumn for the other creatures that rely on ripe acorns.
I’d never seen this snickety bug, but on further inquires I was told it was a kind of “zo mushi” — “zo” as in elephant. My mind boggled. Imagine flying elephants in the trees! You wouldn’t want to be standing below! Then my staff showed me some pictures they’d found on the Internet, and I saw that the beetle is very tiny, but has a proboscis that sort of looks like a minuscule elephant’s trunk. In English, this beetle has various names — curculio, billbug, snout beetle among them. There are apparently many versions of the creature. I tried to get some photographs myself of the ones that are destroying our acorns, but as they stay way up in the high and slender branches of the oaks, I was unable to do so.
Meanwhile, in the marvelous, unending pageant of life in our woods, Mr. Matsuki is making charcoal again in a very old kiln we found and he rebuilt. We have increased the acreage of the trust, and have had a lot of thinning out and pruning to do, so most of the trimmed-out wood will become charcoal this year.
The additional woodland will become a very beautiful place, but it had been neglected for more than 30 years, and many of the young trees had been strangled by vines which made them top heavy. Consequently, the burden of winter snow bent or broke a lot of those skinny trees. We will replace them with new saplings next spring. Also, as our thinning out lets more light onto the forest floor, all kinds of plants, trees included, will seize the chance to spring up and take their share of the sun.
As the productivity of the woods improves, we’ll no doubt face new problems to go along with snickety-snouty elephant bugs and Jackie Chan ninja bears, but as far as I’m concerned, it beats going to the office. That is, except on days like today, when it is cold and gray and pelting with rain, and I have a party of trust members — all keen in their waterproofs and wellies, grasping umbrellas and cameras — who expect this old bear to traipse around in the wet, pontificating about woodland conservation. Me, I’d far rather be huddled in front of the fire, nursing a whisky toddy. Garn, doncha luv nacha?