It was January 2010 when Michael Leung was first stung by an obsession for honeybees. On a trip to Sweden with his then-girlfriend he saw two beehives nurtured by her father. Mesmerised by the 'surreal little homes' and the honey produced, he kept in touch with the Swedish honey farmer. Leung found online articles about urban beekeepers in major cities such as London (where he was born and raised), New York and Tokyo.
During one of his visits to Hong Kong, the 28-year-old met Yip Ki-hok, founder of Wing Wo Bee Farm in Sha Tin, and 'apprenticed' to the veteran honey farmer, capturing beehives in the mountains without protective gear. After four months Leung become a beekeeper: in April, 2010, he established HK Honey, producing the home-grown variety on his Ngau Tau Kok rooftop. He has seven beehives, as well as apiaries, at various other locations and has become a well-known advocate for local honey and sustainable living.
Why do you prefer home-grown honey to the imports in the supermarket?
Supermarkets aren't doing enough to support local beekeepers. There are only one or two Hong Kong brands stocked in supermarkets, and from my experience they always put local honey on the bottom shelf.
I think we should be more responsible about our carbon footprint. It's also unsustainable for any city to import honey when there are local producers who are working hard, supporting local agriculture and creating colonies of bees that help propagate local crops.
Where do the bees collect nectar in an industrial area such as Ngau Tau Kok?
Kwun Tong and Ngau Tau Kok are two of the most industrial areas of Hong Kong. We have Chinese bees that are used to this environment and climate, and having to fly five kilometres to find nectar. So we pulled up a Google map and drew a radius of five kilometres to analyse how much green space is within that radius. And, as with anywhere in Hong Kong, you'll find mountains within that zone. We're certain the bees fly to the mountains behind Kwun Tong such as Ma On Shan, which has plenty of wild flora and fauna. We were also encouraged, walking around Kwun Tung, to see people growing flowers on their balconies. It seemed like one in three apartments had balconies with plants. Along with the herbs, vegetables and flowers grown on our rooftop, there are multiple sources of nectar.
It's been two years and our bees in Ngau Tau Kok seem happy, bringing back nectar and pollen and sustaining themselves. How do you collect the bees - do you hijack hives?
I wouldn't call it hijacking, it's more a case of relocating them from the mountains. Yip is a commercial beekeeper so he goes out to collect beehives to increase production, but he does so ethically. He doesn't use smoke, which most beekeepers use to calm yet irritate bees. He doesn't feed them sugar or flower pollen either, so all the honey harvested is natural and pure.
So other beekeepers feed sugar and pollen to bees?
Some beekeepers feed sugar to bees to increase honey production, and this sugar-fed honey is what you get in supermarkets.
Flower pollen is another way to supplement a colony. Bees bring back flower pollen to feed their larvae, so some beekeepers feed flower to increase larvae production. I don't do it.
How often are you stung?
You won't get stung unless you disturb the bees. Yip doesn't use protective gear and neither do I. It makes you more connected to the bees and mindful of bee behaviour. If they're being aggressive, I back up or harvest another day.
I've captured many beehives, harvested lots of honey, visited other hives, yet I've only been stung 16 times in two years, which sounds a lot but it's very little considering how much time I spend with bees. If I get stung, I put honey there because it's antiseptic, antibacterial and counteracts the poison.
You make your own compost out of scraps you collect from a lady at the wet market. Can you elaborate?
It's part of a project we're launching soon to support the environment by composting instead of [dumping waste] at landfills. I buy fruit and vegetables from a lady at Canton Road street market who supports people helping the community and its agriculture. Restaurants order produce from her and vegetables such as potatoes arrive peeled or chopped, so she generates around 15kg to 20kg of food scraps that would otherwise go into the bin and end up as landfill. So we collect it from her for compost. In return we've offered her a beehive - she sounded very interested.