Urban beehives are a sweet success

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 July, 2011, 12:00am


A snow-covered Scandinavian forest is an unlikely setting for a budding beekeeper to find his vocation, but after one taste of the honey from his Swedish friend's hive, Hong Kong-based interior designer Michael Leung knew he was on to something good.

Now, a year and a half after his first encounter with bees, Leung has set up 11 beehives in another unlikely place - the concrete jungle of Hong Kong. His hives are spread around the city in locations as diverse as a rooftop in Wan Chai, a balcony in Pok Fu Lam, the industrial area of Kwun Tong and rural Tai Po.

Whereas the city's lack of flowers and trees might seem to present a problem, the bees have the answer.

'You would be surprised at the places where bees can survive and thrive,' Leung said. 'They can fly up to five kilometres away from their hives to find pollen. They also have a natural GPS [Global Positioning] system and communication pattern that enable them to share news about where to find food.

'It may take longer for bees [in Hong Kong] to fill their combs, but it's completely possible.' High up on the rooftop of an old building in the heart of Wan Chai, British-born-and-educated Leung showed the Sunday Morning Post his bustling beehive - four 50-by-75-centimetre wooden frames where 10,000 bees build combs and store honey - which he set up in collaboration with independent bookstore and cafe ACO. He harvests his honey once a month, and the hive produces enough for the Hennessy Street cafe's needs.

Apart from providing a natural, healthy source of food, Leung sees beekeeping as a way of spreading awareness of food issues in an increasingly globalised market. He says beekeeping and harvesting taught him the importance of local communities and local production in building a cohesive society.

'Food becomes a means of connecting people,' he said. 'In a busy city like Hong Kong where people are growing increasingly isolated and lost, it's nice to build a community. I'd rather buy an egg from a local egg farmer who I know farms responsibly than one carrying an 'organic' stamp from somewhere far away.

'People also appreciate food more if they see where it comes from and take part in harvesting it.'

Leung's social enterprise, HK Honey, aims to promote local production and spread awareness and appreciation of food. It sells local honey, conducts tours of the beehives and runs workshops on honey harvesting and candle-making.

He said beekeeping and honey harvesting 'changed my perspective on the food on my plate'.

He also believes it is important to respect the bees. When harvesting his honey, he adopts the 'Chinese' way - using no smoke to sedate the bees and wearing no protective clothing. 'If we don't startle the bees, they are harmless and friendly,' Leung said. And he always leaves half the honey behind for the bees to eat.

This is only the beginning for the urban beekeeper.

Leung hopes to introduce beekeeping into schools and even corporations with rooftops to spare. He also plans to apply to keep a dozen or more beehives in the new West Kowloon Cultural District, to promote local culture and farming.