One man has for over 20 years been raising bees in one of the world’s most densly packed cities – Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is a cosmopolitan city, often described as a concrete jungle of skyscrapers. While most people think of shopping malls, investment banks and crowded streets when they think of Hong Kong, few are aware of the city’s rural side – let alone the fact that Hong Kong’s countryside is home to a beekeeper whose locally produced honey is increasingly found in the city’s drug stores.
A short walk beyond the Sha Tin train station in the New Territories, past malls and an Ikea furniture store, sits Pai Tau Village. Elderly people fan themselves to pass the time, while others sell Buddha figurines from small street stalls. After a 15 minute hike up the nearby hills, the buzzing of bees welcomes visitors to Yip Ki-hok’s Wing Wo bee farm.
Yip is one of the few beekeepers in Hong Kong. Now in his 50s, Yip has been operating Wing Wo for over 20 years. The bee farm doubles as his home – he keeps about 30 beehives in his front yard and extracts the honey in his small house. Yip himself is like a bee as he moves around his farm, talking excitedly about his bees while his wife shouts at him to get on with his work.
Yip started keeping bees at the age of seven. During the Chinese Civil War in the late 1940s, food was rationed, and Yip’s family did not have any sugar. Yip began catching bees and keeping them in boxes to make honey. By the time he graduated from high school, he had over 100 boxes of bees. When he and his wife came to Hong Kong from Guangzhou in 1983, he carried on his honey business in Sha Tin. He and his wife now run the small company, along with their eldest son, Hugo.
Surprisingly, Yip says Hong Kong is actually a good place to make honey. Its hilly terrain is home to an array of wildflowers that produce honey with a strong floral taste. Summer affords three weeks of florescence, while the winter florescence period is three months. Summer honey is produced from longan and litchi nectar, while winter honey is made from sweet olive and ivy trees, which produce thicker honey. “People like buying imported honey from the West, but Hong Kong honey has a stronger floral taste,” says Yip.
Without wearing any netting or other protection, Yip demonstrates how he collects honey. He opens the lid of a bee box slowly and carefully. “Fast motion will irritate the bees,” he cautions, as he takes out a rack on which thousands of bees are working. He blows away the bees and shakes the rack. “It is heavy with honey and larvae that only knows how to eat honey. Ha! One is coming out.” Yip points at one of the closed cells in which a small bee bites away at the cover, struggling to get out.
Yip then cuts away the coverings of the honeycomb, and places two racks into a manual centrifuge. “Electronic centrifuges will kill the larvae,” he says. Honey extracted from two racks can fill up to six bottles.
The biggest challenge for Hong Kong beekeepers is the city’s unpredictable weather. This year’s long and cold winter has delayed florescence. Although the honey supply is relatively stable, Hugo says there have been six or seven years in the past decade where harvest has been affected by the weather. “Raining also disperses flowers’ nectar, and the bees cannot fly with wet wings.”
Yip’s bee farm attracts tourists, and locals and expat residents also make the hike for some quality honey. “Many many people come visit,” says Mrs. Yip. “The Frenchmen just love the bees, they come all the time!” Tourists from Mainland China also buy boxes of honey to take home with them. “They don’t trust their own products, everything is fake in China nowadays!” says Yip, as he washes the centrifuge in the kitchen.
Making honey in Hong Kong is not just for the traditional beekeepers. Product designer Michael Leung began beekeeping in January 2010, and in July of that year, he established HK Honey, a socio-cultural organization that promotes local eating. He organizes beehive tours and beeswax candle-making workshops, and introduced the idea of rooftop beekeeping.
It is nothing out of the ordinary for Leung to put beehive boxes packed with ten thousand bees in a taxi to deliver to those interested in keeping bees on their rooftops. “There’s not really that many green spaces inside the city,” he says. “It is a challenge to see if bees can survive and harvest in the city. [HK Honey] is not a money-making project. It’s really about connecting local people with local beekeepers, and supplying them with local honey.”
Hugo believes Hong Kong’s continual development will not affect his family business. “We are on the hills. The government wants flat land,” he says. “They would reclaim land but they won’t tamper with the hills.”
Jaqueline Png, Melanie Leung, and Janet So are students in the Journalism Program at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.