Sydney scientists create a buzz about beekeeping across Southeast Asia

20 September 2016

A project to encourage the spread of beekeeping in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos is helping local communities to expand their farming industries and protecting vital bee populations from extinction.

Beekeeping is useful both for honey production and to help pollinate a variety of local crops, including sunflower, longan, lychee, cashew and mango. “The unsustainable harvesting of honey from wild bees has become a major problem, causing the extinction of some native bee colonies,” one of the researchers, Associate Professor Daniel Tan, says. “Harvesters also run a high risk of stepping on unexploded mines while looking for bee hives in the Cambodian forests.”

Researchers from the Faculty of Agriculture and Environment joined world-leader in Asian beekeeping, Professor Pham Hong Thai of Hanoi University of Agriculture, to teach the basics of beekeeping at five universities in Southeast Asia as part of a project led by Professor Bill Rathmell, Professor Peter Sharp and Associate Professor Daniel Tan from the University of Sydney.

As a result, beekeeping courses have sprung up at universities across Cambodia, and hundreds of new hives have already been developed.

The project is also proving to be the foundation of an active network of Southeast Asian universities and other institutions focused on catalysing the uptake of innovative techniques in all aspects of practical smallholder agriculture.

“The University of Sydney’s main role was in catalysing the formation of a network of universities engaged in self-help, train-the-trainer courses to enhance the practical curriculum for the education of small-scale farmers and their families – three Cambodian universities, one Laotian university and one Vietnamese university were involved in cascading train-the-trainer courses into communities,” Associate Professor Tan says.

“There has been terrific progress since the project began in 2012. Our colleagues in Cambodia continue to develop their beekeeping skills and there are now practical beekeeping courses in several universities across the country.

“Through its courses and through a micro-enterprise offering sophisticated beekeeping training for local growers and smallholders, Mean Chey University in northwest Cambodia has developed more than 400 hives of Apis mellifera [European honey bee], and has retained five hives of Apis cerana [native Asian honey bee]. It has become the largest beekeeper and training provider in Cambodia and the University’s Vice-Rector, Dr Yorn Try, has even written a multilingual textbook on beekeeping for universities.

“Learning to manage honey bees not only helps provide an income through honey production and improved quality and quantity of agricultural produce through pollination, but it also helps protect the amazing diversity of bees in Cambodia from wild harvesting,” says Sam Malfroy formerly from Plant Health Australia, a collaborator on the project who is also a University of Sydney alumnus.

The University of Sydney project is also building on the practical curriculum and train-the-trainer model to introduce improved mushroom and crop agronomy practices to boost the income of farmers in northwest Cambodia. Cambodian rice production, for example, employs more than 50 percent of the workforce and contributes 10 percent of gross domestic product, but yields are well below that of neighbouring countries.

The University of Sydney team is studying which rice cultivars and techniques offer the best yield, taking into account seed cost and availability. The team has obtained financial support from the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture (based in Basel, Switzerland) and from the Crawford Fund in Australia to do this. The team is now in the final stages of an application to the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research aimed at studying how uptake of innovations in practical agriculture can be promoted by using and extending the model and networks that have been developed.

Researchers are working to connect local universities and public and private sector organisations to present their areas of expertise and enhance the uptake of innovative agricultural practices among farmers.