bees, honey and other sticky subjects

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Tualang -- the king of honey trees?

The caviar of honeys is in short supply in Malaysia this year because of drought. So, the tualang trees haven't quite so many bee nests as usual this year -- a mere 13 to 20 instead of the usual 40 or even 100. The combs are often six feet across.

The remarkable tualang tree grows in SE Asia and can reach 250 feet (80 metres). It's common but not abundant because it grows individually rather than in stands. The tualang's survival may be because it is so hard to fell, and in any case it is highly valued for its honey which is often used for medicinal purposes. It is also heavily entwined with the local culture:
Local people perform a ritual honey harvest with mixed Islamic and Hindu symbolism. Singers chant ancient prayers to cajole, charm and calm the bees. On moonless nights in February and March, honey hunters climb the tualang trees with smoldering torches, banging them on the branches above the nests. This creates a rain of fire, and as the sparks fall to the ground the awakened and enraged bees take off in pursuit of the embers. The bees become disoriented and remain on the ground until dawn, leaving the nests unprotected for the honey hunters to finish their harvest. About 1,000 pounds of honey can be gathered from one tree.
But beware the Tualang at dusk! The Apis dorsata bees may rain on you with golden showers. As the sun sets they evacuate not only their nests but also their bodies for a brief after-work celebration.

These golden showers may even have been the “yellow rain” feared by US soldiers in Vietnam to be biological warfare. Here's the scientist who thinks he identified the bee poo.


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