Miyajima island is well known for its floating shrine, maple leaf cakes and oysters, but many visitors may not know about its honey. I had the chance to visit the Hatsuhana Bee farm located far across the island from Miyajima’s famous Itsukushima floating shrine to learn about local bees.
Hideki Matsubara has an interesting background. He studied Biology at a university in Tokyo and took a job with IBM as a salesperson, but a few years ago decided to change his life and career to become a Beekeeper entrepreneur on Miyajima. I met Matsubara-san at Miyajima-guchi for an early start at 8:30, but soon realized that on a typical Beekeeper’s schedule, he would have already had been up and working for 5 hours by then!
As we discussed his background, passion for Beekeeping and the importance of understanding Biology in farming to be able to balance nature with a modern lifestyle, we passed through many narrow, windy sections of road. I was impressed by the long white-sand beaches, but as we got closer was not surprised to see the coast covered in plastic pollution. It dawned on me that the declining bee populations and the increase in plastic pollution in the ocean were two serious environmental issues that have only recently gained public attention.
The Hatsuhana Bee Farm is located on a sleepy side of Miyajima most visitors never see and I had to admit there was a balance of appreciating the quiet and thinking of ideas of ethical, sustainable tourism lodging and facilities which might attract more visitors.
Once we arrived at the first gate to the property which hosts an organic farm, we chatted with the friendly farmer as thinned out the sweet potato patch and commented affectionately about Matsubara-san’s lovely bees that were enjoying the tall sunflowers. The organic farmers and beekeepers are perfect collaborators.
It had only taken us 30 minutes to drive to the spot, but it felt as if we were many miles away from the souvenir shops and throngs of camera-clad tourists. Here it was blue sky, sunshine, forest, ocean and the sounds of nature.
After the 3rd gate, we arrived at the Bee Farm and Matsubara-san prepared his smoker and started suiting up. I was glad I had a long-sleeved top and trousers as well as the protective hat and gloves that he provided me with. He told me that he had been stung many times and it doesn’t bother him much on his arms or legs, but he still dislikes being stung above the neck. As a soft, novice first-timer, I was glad to be completely covered from head to toe.
Matsubara-san told me that this Hatsuhana Bee farm on Miyajima has an impressive 60 hives with anywhere from 20~30,000 bees in each hive. Matsubara-san showed me how he checked the hives for Dani mites which infect the hive, needs to kill predators like Susume-bachi, has to destroy some eggs to keep the hive healthy, as well as maintain the temperature and humidity of the hives. He told me that Hiroshima has a lot of raccoons which attack beehives, but luckily there are none on the islands.
I learned so many things about bees and beekeeping on this trip. The bees on his farm collect Kahun pollen from across Miyajima island and hydrate from the clear waters coming down from Mt.Misen. Water is important, but heavy rains are not- making rainy-season in Japan a difficult time to take care of bees. I didn’t realize that bees stay in small areas and don’t like to fly over the ocean. One Queen Bee is kept in each of the lower hives and lays around a thousand eggs a day. Worker bees only live for two months, but the Queen lives for around 4-5 years. Bees are very sensitive to smell for self-defense as well as to distinguish their own hive and queen from the others.
On Miyajima, Etajima, and Kamagari, where the 3 collaborating bee farms of the Hatsuhana Honey Company are situated, there are luckily no Arai-Guma honey-seeking raccoons. There are also no rice fields which pose a danger to honey bees due to the heavy pesticides used. Hatsuhana is also the only Bee farm on these islands, so everything seems to be in perfect balance for the hives to be kept in the most efficient and healthy condition.
Life of a Beekeeper
Matsubara-san admitted that he feels he doesn’t have a great lifestyle-balance. The Beekeeper’s year runs from March to November. During this time, they have to remain diligent come rain, sickness or injury- they must check the hives 3 times each week. He says it is difficult to train someone to be an effective Beekeeper and like the rest of Japan, good workers are hard to find.
The commute is also rough as he doesn’t live on Miyajima island, so he has to get up around 3:30 and heads out the door at 4am to get to the hives in time to check them all within a day. He told me it takes at least 20 minutes to carefully check each hive and his Miyajima farm has at least 25 hives. He says he usually finishes work around 4pm and heads home to hang out with his family, have an early dinner and then has to go to sleep by 10pm to maintain his schedule. On his ‘off’ days, he helps run the business side of things with his wife or goes out to Kamagari or Etajima to help one of the other bee farmers in the Hatsuhana company.
Everyone Can Support Pollinators
As in many parts of the world, bee activity in Japan has been estimated to contribute to a whopping third of all food products, as well as keeping wild flora and fauna healthy. Of course, honey is not for everyone. International travelers may find their home country has restrictions on bringing home non-pasteurized honey. Honey is also a no-go for Vegans as many feel that the bees are exploited as they are not allowed to make honey only for themselves.
If you are not comfortable buying honey, you can also support the honeybees and other pollinators by planting a variety of native flowers, flowering trees, and plants anywhere you can.
Sustainable Business Design
There are a few key examples of sustainable business practices in action at the Hatsuhana Bee Farm. For one, Matsubara-san puts considerable care and kindness into caring for the bees to maintain healthy and well-maintained beehives. Matsubara’s Bee Farm collaborates with the adjacent organic vegetable farmers, creating a symbiotic relationship where their businesses help the environment, themselves as well as improve profitability. Matsubara-san also reuses waste materials from local carpenters such as canvas bags and sawdust in the smoker and as dry barriers against rain. The company does not use any plastic packaging, the honey is only sold in glass bottles. Glass is easily recyclable and reusable in Japan. In terms of future endeavors, we also talked about the beeswax and its possible application as an alternative to plastic wrap. He has heard of a Hiroshima entrepreneur who is making the reusable wraps and hopes to start collaborating soon.
My biggest takeaway from the experience was an overwhelming feeling of respect for beekeepers and a much greater appreciation for honey. As Matsubara-san says in the video, “Beekeeping is hard, hot and heavy!” But at least the end result is sweet!
Scientists warn of declining bee populations worldwide because pollinators are essential for all life on earth including our own. Beekeepers like Matsubara-san play an essential role in protecting beehives as they manage infestations of Dani mites, supply the bees with food or medicine when needed, and protect the hives from predators or natural disasters.
This experience highlighted how much care, patience, and diligence is necessary to maintain a bee farm and harvest honey as a business. After this experience, I have a deeper appreciation of the trade as I now appreciate the focus on sustainability, as well as the diligence and hard work needed to successfully manage a bee farm.
— jjwalsh / InboundAmbassador (@jjwalsh) June 25, 2019