There’s been plenty of debate about the global decline of honey bee colonies in recent years, with experts blaming the deaths on factors such as the use of neonicotinoids on crops, the spread of varroa mites and the impact of climate change.

Data compiled by the National Agricultural Statistics Services show that honey bee populations in the United States have fallen from an estimated 6 million hives in 1947 to 2.4 million hives in 2008, an overall drop of 60 percent.

On this side of the Pacific, the Japan Beekeeping Association estimated that tens of thousands of domestic colonies died off between 2008 and 2011.

While the total number of households keeping honey bees in Japan these days is roughly the same as in 1985, newcomers to beekeeping have tended to be small in scale, not commercial operations.

Researchers Ryo Kohsaka, Mi Sun Park and Yuta Uchiyama say while honey production has almost certainly declined in the past 35 years, the production of royal jelly — the gelatinous substance that bees produce to feed queen larvae that is coveted as a health supplement — has fallen from approximately 13,000 kilograms in 1985 to a little more than 2,000 in 2015.

Akitaka Kaihara, a commercial beekeeper in Kumamoto for more than 20 years, says the importance of bees on the global ecosystem can’t be overstated.

“Bees might well be the most important insect on Earth,” Kaihara says. “Experts estimate that as many as one-third of all crops worldwide rely on bees.”

It has been estimated that bees perform about 80 percent of all pollination worldwide. | RICHARD LEMMER
It has been estimated that bees perform about 80 percent of all pollination worldwide. | RICHARD LEMMER

More broadly speaking, it has been estimated that bees perform about 80 percent of all pollination worldwide. From an economic perspective, it’s believed that somewhere between $235 billion and $577 billion worth of the world’s annual food production can be directly traced to bees.

Kaihara was lamenting the decline of bee populations as far back as 2003. Almost two decades later, he says, the situation has only gotten worse.

Kaihara identifies two major issues: the encroachment of mites into domestic bee colonies and the increasing use of pesticides on farms nationwide.

Reiko Mizuno, a researcher and environmental activist, says the use of neonicotinoids (agricultural pesticides that resemble nicotine) has tripled in Japan over the past 15 years. People living in rural areas might sprinkle such chemicals around their homes to kill cockroaches, ants, centipedes and other insects.

For example, Kaihara says, rice farmers frequently target stink bugs, but chemicals drift in the air, contaminating the surrounding environment and killing many honey bees.

“Mites and pesticides are huge problems for beekeepers,” Kaihara says.

The consequences of the use of these pesticides can be catastrophic for nearby bee colonies.

Rika Shinkai, an anthropologist and apiculture researcher at the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature, warns against pinning all the blame on pesticides for declining bee populations worldwide.

However, she notes that the European Union has recently banned three common neonicotinoids and a number of other countries are expected to implement similar restrictions. Japan isn’t expected to follow suit anytime soon.

Naturally, she argues that neonicotinoids should be banned in Japan, highlighting spraying as one of the industry’s biggest problems.

“Some neonicotinoids are sprayed from helicopters in mountain areas to prevent pine wilt,” Shinkai says. “In some areas, pesticides are also sprayed aerially onto rice fields.”

The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries recommends keeping bees away from rice fields during spraying activities.

Honey bees fly around the entrance to a bee hive in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture. | JOHN SPIRI
Honey bees fly around the entrance to a bee hive in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture. | JOHN SPIRI

The attraction of honey

The importance of honey bees to the domestic agricultural sector certainly isn’t lost on beekeeping hobbyists such as Iain Davey, who lives near Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture.

“Bees are extremely efficient pollinators,” Davey says. “They’re essential, really.”

Davey, in turn, inspired Russ Hewick, the owner-operator of Dragonfly Tours Japan, to try his hand at apiculture — albeit for slightly different reasons.

“Bees have always interested me,” Hewick says. “The more I read about the hive culture — a single queen, all workers working toward a united cause — the more I wanted to start beekeeping. They also remind me of one of my favorite aliens — the borg in ‘Star Trek.'”

But most beekeepers, including Kaihara from Kumamoto, probably take up the activity for more simple, practical purposes — the procurement of honey.

Bees produce honey from the floral nectar of plants through a process of regurgitation, enzymatic activity and water evaporation.

Honey is undeniably nutritious in terms of composition, containing simple sugars such as fructose, glucose, maltose and sucrose, as well as a number of more complex carbohydrates.

Whereas refined sugar converts to fat, honey typically converts to energy and, because honey is inhospitable to bacteria, it never spoils.

The exact composition, color, aroma and flavor of any particular batch of honey depend on the flowers visited by bees that produced it.

Kaihara’s honey is produced from nectar that bees have foraged from milkvetch, tangerines and, interestingly, soba (buckwheat). The latter has a dark color and a very distinctive, somewhat bitter taste.

Domestic vs. foreign bees

Anyone with an interest in taking up beekeeping in Japan has the option of working with either honey bees native to Japan or those originally imported from the West.

Japanese bees are essentially wild, so domestic hobbyists try to lure them into hives that they’ve bought or assembled and placed nearby.

Tom Brown, who lives in Kyoto, says he keeps Japanese bees primarily because he is lazy.

“I just leave them alone and they get on with it,” he says, adding that they’re better able to handle the threat posed by common domestic invaders such as hornets and mites. “They’re native, so they’re better suited.”

Western hives typically feature a more complex brood box built to support movable frames where bees build honeycombs that can be removed for inspection or honey harvesting.

A beekeeper examines the interior of a hive. | JOHN SPIRI
A beekeeper examines the interior of a hive. | JOHN SPIRI

Many Japanese brood boxes, however, simply include two thin horizontal sticks on the inside of the compartment that the bees use to build their combs. Such boxes can be constructed fairly easily, with cedar being the most common type of wood, followed by cypress, pine and even cherry.

Over the course of three years, Brown laid out a dozen boxes that he built himself along with lures, purchased for ¥3,400 each, containing odors that attract swarms — the queen with a large group of worker bees.

At first, the lures seemed to work and the box was colonized fairly quickly before a bear destroyed it. A colony was created in his second year but the bees abandoned it a short time later.

However, a colony finally established itself in the boxes early this spring in a location that Brown considered the least likely — inside his garden.

“It’s a bit like hitchhiking,” Brown says. “A million trucks pass and finally one stops for you.”

Western honey bees — apis mellifera, or “bee bearing honey” in Latin — are the most common of the dozen or so species of honey bees worldwide.

Indeed, some have argued that they’re the world’s first domesticated insect.

Domestic apiculturists typically prefer Western bees because they can produce 10 times more honey than their Japanese counterparts.

“Most people who keep Japanese honey bees are hobbyists,” says Takeuchi Takayoshi, who sells Western bees online. “Perhaps as many as 99 percent of commercial beekeepers in Japan keep Western bees.”

One advantage of keeping Western bees is the fact that they rarely abandon their hives en masse — evidence of their domestication. Japanese bees, however, are essentially wild and will often bolt for a new home — most often in a hollowed tree.

A beekeeper points at a queen bee in a hive. | JOHN SPIRI
A beekeeper points at a queen bee in a hive. | JOHN SPIRI

Mite infections

Bee hives in Japan are under constant threat of being attacked by a number of predators.

Of these, the infestation of varroa mites — which causes a deformed wing virus in bees — poses the greatest threat to a colony.

The mites, which are visible to the naked eye, are a leading factor in the global decline of honey bee populations. These small parasites typically nestle into the space between a young bee’s abdomen sections, subsequently affecting the development of their wings.

“Mites are the biggest threat to bees if only because the problem is nationwide. Pesticides are only a problem in certain areas,” says professor Jun Nakamura, a bee expert and researcher at Tamagawa University.

Kaihara agrees.

“Varroa mites can decimate a colony in just 10 days,” Kaihara says. “They’re able to reproduce so quickly.”

However long it takes, the end result of an infestation is almost always the same — the colony collapses.

Once a beekeeper has found that more than 3 percent of a hive has been infected, pesticides are typically employed in an attempt to stem the infestation.

“Only two chemical treatments have been approved in Japan: Apivar and Apistan,” Kaihara says.

However, beekeepers need to be wary of overusing these chemicals in case the mites build up a resistance.

Shinkai says varroa mites are more of a threat to Western honey bees than their domestic counterparts, which can “bite off the mites from each others’ bodies when grooming.”

But Japanese bees, which are smaller in size than their Western cousins, are still vulnerable to an internal parasite called Acarapis woodi, Shinkai says.

The parasite was first identified in Japan around 2009, when a beekeeper in Kyoto with more than 100 hives reported that several of his colonies were mysteriously dying. By 2014, the collapse was nearly complete, with only three hives surviving.

Unlike the varroa mite, Acarapis woodi cannot be detected with the naked eye, as they are smaller and live and reproduce in a bee’s trachea.

While formic acid can help treat the infestation, menthol, which can be purchased online in a crystal form that beekeepers melt before placing in hives — has also proven to be effective in discouraging the parasite.

Aggressive invaders

Compared to mites, the Asian giant hornet is a far more aggressive predator, with some experts suggesting that 30 hornets can attack a hive and slaughter as many as 30,000 Western bees in a single afternoon.

Hewick observed a hornet attack with his own eyes in 2018, watching eight of the fierce-looking insects desperately trying to get into one of his hives.

Fortunately, the metal mesh he had attached to the entrance of the hive saved his bees as the hornets were too large to pass through.

An attack by Asian giant hornets is thwarted by wire mesh that has been attached to the entrance to a hive. | RUSS HEWICK
An attack by Asian giant hornets is thwarted by wire mesh that has been attached to the entrance to a hive. | RUSS HEWICK

“They were even biting at the wire,” Hewick recalls. “Many dead bees carpeted the entrance. It was pretty scary.”

Hewick is so concerned about the veracity of the hornets, he now refrains from lifting the lid on his hive to inspect his colony in autumn.

Davey wasn’t so lucky.

During his trip back to the United Kingdom in summer, hornets attacked one hive and ate the brood. They also severely weakened a second hive.

But as fearsome as hornets appear, they’re comparatively easy to control.

Most beekeepers fill a cup with a sweet-smelling fragrant liquid or apply a sticky strip on the hive to trap a hornet scout. Once trapped, the hornet releases pheromones that attract other hornets and lures them to their deaths.

Domestic honey bees have also developed their own defensive system to a hornet attack, surrounding a scout when it enters their hive and vibrating their bodies furiously until they effectively heat the hornet to death.

While mites are definitely a threat to bee colonies in Japan, black bears do considerable damage as well.

These large mammals are attracted to a hive by not only the honey in the combs, but also a colony’s eggs, larvae and pupae — and even the bees themselves. In one fell swoop, a colony can disappear.

Reports of bear attacks on hives are regularly filed in mountainous regions of the Japanese Alps.

I was unfortunate enough to suffer bear raids on three consecutive nights just a month into my first foray into beekeeping in the Shiga city of Otsu. The long-term survival of my colony is doubtful.


Saving humanity?

Despite being a species much farther removed from humanity than, say, dogs and cows, bees might be more important to us than any domesticated animal.

If bees go extinct, Nakamura says, the planet may “end up eating only grains and yeast.”

While such an argument could perhaps be described as an exaggeration, there’s no denying that bees are fundamentally essential to agricultural production. In that sense, the survival of honey bees might be a bellwether for humanity’s own ability to interact harmoniously with nature.

Beekeeping primer

The websites below discuss beekeeping in Japan, as well as places to purchase bees:






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