Migratory beekeepers have existed around Japan since after the Taisho period (1912-1926), but over the years the number of beekeeping families has dropped due to an aging populace and fewer nectar-producing plants.
This is known as translocation beekeeping, where a beekeeper has hives in various parts of the country in different seasons so the bees can enjoy foraging on specific plants for the nectar and pollen. This results in high-grade honey.
This partnership between bees and beekeepers has worked well for one hundred years. The bees enjoy amazing nectar and pollen and live a stress-free life compared to many other bees these days. The migratory beekeepers are nomadic, moving from one part of the country to another when certain flowers stop blooming, as the seasons change. They have a constant supply of flavorful and superior honey products.
The Nishitarumizu family has traveled Japan for many years. The parents now stay home and run the Nishitarumizu Bee Garden in Minamikyushu, Kagoshima Prefecture, and sell their prized honey. Now their 26-year old son, Eita, is the honey wanderer. This is something he grew up with, having traveled with his parents the length and breadth of Japan since he was in kindergarten. He travels from their home in the south of Japan to Bifuka, Hokkaido in the north.
Eita’s 82-year old grandfather, Tadashi, started their migratory beekeeping business in 1960 after he trained with a local apiarist in Kagoshima.
The year begins with hives they set in Satsumasendai, Kagoshima in April, before they begin their northern migration. Then they follow the blooming special plants, like mandarin oranges in Isahaya, Nagasaki Prefecture, acacia in Odate, Akita Prefecture, and thistle in Monbetsu and Bifuka, Hokkaido.
This year the family cycle changed, due to the coronavirus. Eita, his 72-year old grandmother and his 20-year old brother Jun were the only three to journey to Hokkaido. It was Eita’s first time in charge of the sites, and it has left him in awe of his father and grandfather.
He says one of the bonuses of this lifestyle is that he has friends in many parts of the country and gets to see them when he travels. He once went to school for a year in Bifuka. He arrived there in late July and lined up his beehives, happy to see his bees glistening and healthy. When they glisten, there is usually a lot of honey inside the hives.
Look how rich the honey is in this unrelated 4-minute video by Japanese Natural Beekeeping:
The family usually uses four trucks in an average year to transport bees. While Jun takes several routes to scattered destinations, Eita travels from Kagoshima to Bifuka with four million bees on board. The bees enjoy the breeze because it keeps them cool, and they don’t like high temperatures.
This is just one of many migratory beekeeping families, but according to the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, there has been a substantial decrease in applications from migratory beekeepers. In 1985 there were 4,270 applications, compared to 2,477 in 2018. At the same time, nectar-producing plants dropped by two-thirds, from 370,000 hectares in 1985 to 120,000 in 2018.
Evita seems unconcerned and believes there is a lot of uncharted territory for migratory beekeepers. He says that in recent times people perceive beekeeping as demanding, dirty and dangerous. He wants to connect with the younger generation over social media because he’d like to have more colleagues who understand how fascinating it is working with honeybees.