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Bees a barometer for Japan’s ills, expert says

by

Kyodo

Mineo Kogenji, a 79-year-old retired honey farmer, has been endeavoring to plant trees across Japan to increase the amount of forests suitable for apiculture, or beekeeping.

For nearly half a century, Kogenji has cultivated bees by traveling with them south to north each spring, witnessing the threats posed to apiculture by changing weather patterns, shrinking forests, and social and political changes caused by events like war.

“I want to plant as many trees as possible so beekeeping will continue in the future,” the native of Miyoshi, Hiroshima Prefecture, said.

Kogenji took over the apiculture business set up by his father in 1924. It saw great demand from the military when Kogenji was born in 1936, the year before the second Sino-Japanese war broke out, because it was believed artillery shells coated with beeswax traveled greater distances. The wax was also used to protect weapons from corrosion and humidity.

After taking over Manchuria, the government initiated a plan in 1941 to greatly increase the supply of beeswax. Kogenji’s father was one of the beekeepers asked to take part. But his father did not talk about his war experiences, except to say the beeswax he provided was used to treat atomic bomb survivors, Kogenji recalls.

Demand for honey soared in Japan after the end of the war due to the acute shortage of sweeteners. But the golden days for beekeepers did not last long as the government removed controls on sugar in 1952, causing honey prices to plunge. The apiculture industry then fell into a prolonged decline in 1963 as honey imports were liberalized.

At 29, Kogenji took over the business, though it was barely surviving. He engaged in “movable apiculture,” in which beekeepers move their hives with the bees.

Times grew tough during Japan’s rapid post-war growth spurt through the mid-1970s, as extensive property development depleted the astragalus fields and forests that were rich foraging grounds for bees.

Kogenji’s eldest son Koji, 51, succeeded his father and says beekeepers are in as precarious a situation as ever due to the changing times.

He said that every spring, he drives his truck over 2,300 km from Kagoshima to the village of Shimamaki, Hokkaido, taking his hives with him.

Koji needs to be able to recognize changes in weather to time the blossoming of flowers to make movable apiculture successful. The temperatures in hives have to be kept at the proper level if the bees are to survive.

“I used to move at almost regular intervals,” Koji said. “But the changes in the weather have become so radical since four to five years ago that I cannot read them. I think they may be related to global warming.”

Widespread use of agricultural chemicals and the scarcity of young honey farmers also pose serious threats.

Given these changes in the natural and social environments, Koji wonders “whether people in Japan have become happy in the real sense of the word.”

Having seen apiculture go through its ups and downs before and after the war, Kogenji said, “War begins because defense contractors and other concerns favor it. We should create an environment that does not require the use of beeswax.”