The bee project of Shangri-la
After two weeks in Thailand, I travelled to Xiānggélǐlā (Shangri-la), a city in the Yunnan province near the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China. The settlement itself is ancient, but “Shangri-la” was born in 2001. Originally called Zhongdian, Shangri-la took on its new title in order to encourage tourism in the area. Several neighboring counties also vied for the name change, but in the end a team of “experts” used geological “evidence” to pinpoint Zhongdian as the precise location of the Valley of the Moon.
English author James Hilton described Shangri-la as a mystical Buddhist retreat in his 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, but the term is most often used to represent a state of mind, a quest, or paradise. In these next few posts, I will tell you about my seven weeks in paradise.
In October of 2011, I contacted a beekeeper running a development project through the Yunnan Mountain Heritage Center. I was planning a semester of travel and wondered if she had advice as to how I might find beekeeping opportunities abroad. She replied that, unfortunately, she would be in the United States for March and April, otherwise I could join her working bees in Yunnan. A few weeks later, she asked if I had solidified my travel plans. Since I was going to be in the area (the hemisphere), would I be interested in running the Bee Project for a while?
On March 16, I arrived in Planet China, took a bunk-bed bus from Kunming to Shangri-la, and spent the next several weeks feeding bees, cleaning sheds, and organizing elaborate games of Varroa mite freeze tag for the Center’s Environmental Champions club.
Having witnessed the calamity of the Apis cerana invasion in Australia, I was initially concerned with the prospect of using European honey bees to forward development in China. Though I had little experience using bees for development, introducing species seemed a shifty business. I was relieved when the project lead explained that the Bee Project was not responsible for introducing European honey bees. In fact, migratory beekeeping and Western methods have long been established in Yunnan. Instead, we experimented with overwintering methods in order to determine whether Western-style beekeeping is a viable enterprise for Tibetan farmers and communities.
This is only one part of the Bee Project in Shangri-la. Other aspects include encouraging traditional beekeeping methods, cultivating Apis cerana in log hives, and providing villages with an efficient way to harvest the honey. To learn more about the Bee Project and the Yunnan Mountain Heritage Center where I lived and worked, stay tuned for more of my (mis)adventures.