A Bit of Honey & Tea in China

by Danuta Snyder

I met Canadian Danuta Snyder in China, where we studied qi gong together. Danuta is my friend for ever. And I’m thrilled that she sent me this story. Many thanks, Danuta. And to Coomi and Jonah!

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Almost every evening during my stay in Kunming, my daughter-in-law Coomi (it’s so much fun to be able to call her my daughter-in-law now) served us a proper Chinese tea.  Coming from a family that values tea, she already had an understanding of it that exceeds a Westerner’s, but now she has taken courses as well and is a tea master.  As an accomplished fashion designer and photographer, she is accustomed to focusing her intelligence and considering style.   A naturally elegant woman, she makes the lovely ritual even more graceful.

A colleague from Coomi’s tea class knew of a place in Jin Dian (Golden Temple) outside Kunming that provides a rustic tea setting.  A group of us drove there for the experience.  The cars went up a narrow alleyway (is there any other kind of alley?).  There were stairs taking us further up a hill.  A casual garden area with outdoor seating neighboured an old building.

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This is when I thought of you, Marian! There were bees buzzing around and flying in and out of holes in the plaster wall!

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An extension of the building had shelves with stacked boxes that served as hives as well.

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There were flowering trees on the property, and I assume the bees feasted on them.  There wasn’t an opportunity to ask for beekeeping details.  I was told the bees are just a hobby.

The place seemed to be a relatively new business enterprise.  Eventually they plan to have a few rooms that will serve as an inn.  The establishment has stations that are fully supplied, but Coomi chose to bringher own bowl and pot.  She also selected from the fine teas she had at home.

We settled in one of rooms with a low table for tea.

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A gentleman host greeted our table.  As Coomi translated his words, he made warm eye contact with each and every one of us saying something to the effect that we meet on a heart level and that even though we do not speak the same language we understand the good will between us.  Indeed, his eyes were saying the exact translation.   Coomi mentioned that at times a Buddhist holy man is here and enhances the place with his presence.  He is known to repeat Buddhist chants to himself (merit is gained with repetitions) in between interactions with guests.

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Coomi regretted that she forgot to bring candies to suck on.  A person who drinks a lot of tea without a bit of food can become “tea drunk”.  We must have drunk for close to three hours.  I did feel a bit light-headed, but it could have been that  I was also getting very hungry for dinner.  The cups are tiny and only70% filled.  This honours the guest by making ensuring the hot tea doesn’t accidentally burn him.  (On the other hand Coomi told me that cups of bai jiu (liquor) are filled to the brim as a sign of respect for the guest.)  Because of the cup size and the pauses between brewing, the tea is consumed at a leisurely pace.    I loved watching Coomi rinse the pot (inside and out), especially when the outer pot gets a gentlewaterfall of hot water from time to time to warm it before receiving a new brewing.

I asked Coomi what type of tea she served.  It’s not easy to answer!  One needs to know the exact region it originated from.  The good Pu erh teas are from specific mountains and villages.  In addition some teas should be aged.  The two teas we had were from Bingdao and Jingmai and came from trees that were at least one hundred years old.  At one point Coomi asked us what part of our tongue or mouth tasted the tea.  I hadn’t given it any thought before.  That particular type of tea’s taste goes toward the back of the mouth.  (She graciously reassured those who had answered “the front” that there is no correct answer.) After a few hours of tea drinking we went to a room downstairs for a satisfying meal.  The downstairs courtyard had a statue of a very happy Buddha.

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We all felt pretty happy ourselves by then.

Gradually various family and friends departed until the last two days of my visit only Jonah and I were left in Kunming.  (His wife left for Lijiang to be with Canadian friends.  He joined her there around the same time that I left for Hong Kong.)  Seeing the bees on the tea house property reminded me of something the professor who taught a course on China Now told us – if we had a chance, don’t miss the opportunity to taste delicious Chinese honey.  I asked Jonah where we could go to get some.  He knew just the shop I was hoping for!  It was a small place with many barrels of honey.  The barrels were labelled with place of origin (all from Yunnan province) and the type of flower nectar.  Some honeys werelight, others dark.  Some were thick, others runny.  Prices ranged from about $7 to $18 Canadian per litre (I believe).

Reasoning that the most expensive must be the most delicious, I bought the $18 honey.   The vendor ladled some of that honey into plain plastic jars – one for me and one for you.  (The jars were smaller than litre size, perhaps holding 700g, but the price was what I thought the litre price was.  I didn’t question the price since it might have been I didn’t understand things in the first place.  I would have liked to take a photo of the place as well, but it didn’t feel right to do so.  Will the meek truly inherit the earth?)  This honey happened to be very light in colour and quite runny.  (It actually looks like a thick urine sample in the unlabelled plastic jar).  I know all honey is sweet, but this one is intensely so.  It tastes perfumed (if perfume tasted good).  These bees feasted on some type of cherry blossom, and the resultant honey is high in iron and other minerals.  It is reputed to be good for the skin.  It only occurred to me now to take a photo comparing it to a Nova Scotia honey.

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As you can see, it is much lighter in colour.  I just smelled the two jars and they smell quite differently as well.  I would term the Yunnan honey as more flowery and the Nova Scotia one as earthier.  (By the way, the Nova Scotia beekeeper’s profile is here.  The photo also reveals how much Yunnan honey I’ve consumed in barely three weeks.

I left Kunming and your jar with my son to await your address confirmation.  Once in Hong Kong you emailed me that New Zealand would not allow the honey to enter the country.  I hastily researched Canadian rules on importing honey.  It did not look promising.  I started to drink honey in my hotel room,but one can only drink so much.  Finally I decided to openly declare it and see what would happen.  It passed!  I don’t think it was supposed to though.  I marked the form to indicate I was bringing foodstuff into Canada.  The inspector asked, “What kind of food?”  I answered, “Honey.”  He asked, “Was it commercially bought?”  An image of the bulk bin style of the shop and its unlabelled plastic jars came to mind, so I phrased my reply with caution, “Well, I bought it in a store.”  Happily the inspector didn’t ask to see the jar.

Every morning since returning home I breakfast on oatmeal with a teaspoon of honey.  Every day I dip brazil nuts into jar to satisfy my sweet tooth and avoid consuming a baked sugar laden pastry. When the honey jar is empty I will be sad because it is such a perfect reminder/remainder of a magical visit to China.

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Niue’s Bee Sanctuary

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Bee sanctuaries interest me more and more, from the 600-year-old hive in a Rosslyn Chapel pinnacle that I wrote about the other day, to the tiny one I’m working to establish in the middle of a city, to Kangaroo Island, a bee sanctuary since 1885 and on Colonsay, a little island off Scotland. So I was excited to hear about another one, on the South Pacific island of Niue, 100 square miles, population 1400 – not too big, not too small. This time, it’s  a sanctuary with an  economic purpose.

The only beekeeper on Niue, Andy Cory, owns and oversees 1000 hives of Italian bees (Apis mellifera  ligustica) brought to Niue many years ago. Thanks to Niue’s relative isolation, its ideal size and its limited ports and tourism, the bees have effectively lived in a sanctuary ever since, in a tropical paradise for bees.

And now Andy wants to formalise his apiary’s status as a Pacific bee sanctuary, so it is internationally recognised. And he needs our help with his crowdfunding campaign, where he provides some lovely details about his beekeeping life on Niue. Like this, which highlights how he doesn’t need to feed his bees supplemental sugar-

Andy nearly lost all the bees in 2004 [in a cyclone]…the French navy …brought him sugar to feed as a supplement until native vegetation recovered. Consequently, to mitigate against the risk of losing all the bees in the aftermath of future cyclones, we now have a sufficient store of organic sugar on Island.

This is what Andy wants to do, with help from Richard Duncan who is organising the crowdfunding, as he further develops healthy and protected stock to draw from in the future-

Phase 1: strengthen and grow the current apiculture operation on Niue and develop export markets in order  to generate revenue, build partnerships and learning. And provide a solid foundation and financial resources sufficient to underwrite the creation and sustain the operation of a Global Bee Sanctuary.

Phase 2: develop the ‘Global Bee Sanctuary’ and begin to export live bee stocks and/or genetic breeding material to other Pacific Island countries, as well as other key food producing countries. This is where the venture shifts to regional and then global in its impact.

Hive numbers will increase to 4000 and local landowners wIll be paid under a hive rental arrangement. According to Richard Duncan, in an interview with Radio New Zealand

People of Niue, they’re custodians of these bees as well and that’s kind of why we’re shifting to this social enterprise model because we want to bring them more into this whole operation and make sure they are benefiting as well. The business grows. They get a return. Therefore they take pride in protecting these bees and being custodians of these bees.

This is a wonderfully ambitious project and I want to support it as well as I can. It would be glorious to have bee sanctuaries all over the world. And even better if they benefit the people who share their environment.

The government of Niue is right behind Andy and has strengthened bio-security measures to ban the import of all bees and bee products. Nosema does exist but, as in parts of Africa, appears to have negligible effect on the health of the thriving bees. There’s been just one case of American foul brood in 8 years. And Andy’s Save the Bee Honey is certified as organic, after passing all the BioGro NZ tests.

But questions and vigilance are necessary. Every time.

For instance, Andy’s bees may struggle to survive in countries he exports too, often because of exposure to disease and pesticides. (Alderney, a European Channel Island, has a similar challenge within a similar project.) How will he be able to help ‘Save The Bee’ in those places?

Andy’s bees may be better able to resist disease than bees who have always lived in another environment. But will they be able to resist the ill-effects of pesticides there? Recent  research shows that ubiquitous glyphosate is probably carcinogenic and that it harms bees. It also shows that when bees forage they are attracted to widely used neonics – neonicotinoids – that will harm them (see the Bibliography tab above for references). Unless those countries’ inherent risks are reduced, it’s likely that pesticide use will compromise the health of any Niuean bees they import, just as nearby glyphosate spraying and flowers grown from neonic-treated seeds and plants may affect the health of the bees I attract to my garden.

And as Monsanto products in particular become outlawed in some places, it’s likely that the organisation is promoting or will promote them more intensively in other markets. Like Niue. Like parts of Africa. So what about glyphosate and neonic use in Niue, which may compromise it as a sanctuary for bees?

Niueans have New Zealand citizenship so Niue has very close relationships with New Zealand, where import and use of neonics is unregulated. It’s also an agricultural nation (taro, organic vanilla and noni, according to one report I found.) A small risk already exists.

I’ve been told, twice, that Niueans do not use pesticides. But they are there. I found a Niuean ground water analysis (2010) that included a list of pesticides imported into Niue. Glyphosate was on that list and was found present in the water at <0.001 mg.L, significantly lower than United States drinking water standards and not considered problematic.

No neonicotinoids I recognised were on the import list perhaps because, as in New Zealand, it is unregulated. Will the Niuean government’s support of ‘Save The Bee’, as well as organic vanilla and noni, extend to outlawing pesticides and investing in alternative agricultural practices, as a world leader? That would make a huge difference.

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BioGro NZ’s practices are also important. It does not yet test for neonics or glysophate, so there’s been no check of their presence in Andy’s honey.

To certify honey as organic, BioGro NZ tests it under the ‘multiresidue suite’ of approximately 200 common pesticides useHd in New Zealand. The organisation told me-

These  suites do not typically cover glyphosate or neonicotinoids… [W]hen we recently requested isolated glyphosate testing for honey, we were advised that this was not yet offered in New Zealand.

It seems that New Zealand laboratories may extend their services to glyphosate and neonic testing soon, which would resolve this issue for the Niuean organic honey, among others.

And another element of BioGro NZ’s process is encouraging because it reduces the risk of pesticide contamination by certifying-

… only operations where we have verifiable landuser statements for land within 3km radius of the hives confirming no prohibited pesticide use.

The ‘prohibited’ pesticides referred to in landuser statements are those listed in BioGro NZ protocols and they DO include glyphosphate and neonicotinoids, though of course bees can forage beyond 3km.

On balance, after this little bit of research I feel confident that, for now, Niue’s close to a true bee sanctuary for honey-producing bees in the Pacific. And deserves our strong support. It may be one of the few bee-related initiatives that can make a long term difference.

And I wonder what you  think, because I may have missed something essential. Or made an error. Please let me know if so.

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Save the Bee on Facebook

Rosslyn Chapel’s Ancient Bee Sanctuary

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Rosslyn Chapel, founded in 1446, is a mediaeval treasure in stone located at Roslin, Midlothian, Scotland.

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Rosslyn Chapel’s pinnacles during an eclipse

Back in 2010,  when the chapel was being restored, workers found surprises among its pinnacles. When they took the  pinnacles apart for repair, two of them enclosed hollow spaces the size of a gas tank. One of them also had an entrance through a carved stone flower on its exterior. And inside that pinnacle was a deserted bee hive. (The other hollow pinnacle had no stone-flower entrance.)

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I imagine that carved flower facing the camera is the entrance

No-one knows why this sanctuary was purposefully built in a place where the bees and their honey are inaccessible.

One stonemason, Allan Gilmour, said that he had seen bees create hives within soft sandstone. They buried into the sandstone and created honeycombs. This weakened the stone. In the 15th century, hives were usually woven skeps. Did the monks hope that if they provided a haven in the pinnacle the bees would not colonise and weaken other stone in the building?

And did the original builders coat the stone in the pinnacle with a substance to protect it from the bees? Local beekeepers were to investigate.

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The pinnacles had been covered for a while and that may be why the bees left.

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In early 2105, on the Rosslyn Chapel Facebook page, it was reported that the pinnacle is now restored “and since the construction work at the chapel stopped we’ve seen the bees return”.

This image of two medieval bee skeps accompanied the report.

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I’ve never visited the Rosslyn Chapel, but am intrigued by images of its ceiling. It looks almost woven. It’s curved. It reminds me of the medieval bee skeps in the image.

Rosslyn Chapel's ceiling

And because of this, and because of the hive with no entrance, I wonder if the pinnacle hives had other meanings for those ancient monks. Rosslyn Chapel featured in the bestseller The Da Vinci Code (2003) and its film adaptation (2006). It seems a mysterious place and the bee spaces remain part of that mystery.

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But as I think about bee-centred beekeeping and about bee sanctuaries, I treasure this kind of mystery. Rosslyn Chapel’s hive inspires me.

With warm thanks to Rosslyn Chapel for images and other assistance.