Steve Buchmann and I both wrote letters to the editor after reading The Star’s article “Honeyman feels the sting” of March 22. Steve’s letter was printed in the Opinion page of The Star, largest English newspaper in Malaysia, last Wednesday, March 28, 2007.
I’ll quote it here:
The buzz about Kedah’s bee trees
IN FEBRUARY, I spent two weeks in Malaysia, including several days in a special place, a steep rainforest hillside above the Pedu Lake in Kedah.
This place, incredibly far from my Arizona home, has become more than an eco-tourism or scientific destination. This trip was my eighth to see a giant tualang bee tree (Koompassia excelsa) and share camaraderie and bee tales with friends “Pak Teh” (Salleh Mohammed Noor, from Jitra, and colleague and fellow bee/pollination scientist Datuk Dr Makhdzir Mardan of Universiti Putra Malaysia.
My travelling companion was Arizona artist Paul Mirocha. Regrettably, my co-author and long time bee collaborator Diana Cohn of Sausalito, California, could not come this time due to other commitments at home.
She travelled with Paul to see the bee tree and witness her first honey hunt at Pedu Lake in 2004.
Part of our February trip was spent in the pleasant company of Wong Siew Lyn, a freelance journalist who wrote about the honey hunt (Sunday Star, March 4).
Together, Diana, Paul and I researched the writing and illustration of The Bee Tree over a period of several years.
Ours is a children’s book about Pak Teh and his grandsons, following the millennia-old traditions of Malaysian honey hunters. It is a coming-of-age story, a tale of moonless nights spent 36metres above ground in the gentle yet strong embrace of the bee tree.
The allure of the sweet rainforest tualang honey from the native Asian bees (Apis dorsata) is strong.
We knew that Pak Teh had climbed and been harvesting honey from this very tree annually since 1965. Each time I stand under a tualang tree, I am caught up in its spell, dwarfed by its size and trying to understand its crown from ground level – an impossibility. These are forest giants, the tallest trees in all Asia, rising to neck-craning heights of 75 metres to 84 metres!
During the February trip, it was our high honour to travel with Pak Teh and Makhdzir to Alor Star where we were introduced to the Sultan of Kedah. We presented the Sultan with copies of our book and Paul’s artwork.
Our raison d’ etre for the trip was to launch The Bee Tree in Malaysia ahead of its official publication date (April 1) from Cinco Puntos Press (El Paso, Texas).
Along with Paul and Diana, I was shocked to read “Honeyman feels the sting” (The Star, March 22) by Tunku Shahariah about recent threats to one or more of Pak Teh’s bee trees in Kedah.
Two weeks earlier, just after our departure from Malaysia, he visited one of his bee trees. It bore a wicked 15 cm deep cut from an axe. We had heard during past trips that even in areas being selectively logged, that tualang trees were usually spared because the honey crop was so valuable to the local community. Maybe things had changed now.
I’ve seen expressions on the faces of people witnessing their first Apis dorsata honey hunt at Pedu Lake, heard them gasp in awe at the pyrotechnic display of falling embers, and sounds of tens of thousands of beating bees’ wings.
For many, that experience becomes a tipping point, a life-transforming event as it was for Diana, Paul and myself.
I’ve spent my career working with European and Africanised honey bees, but nothing could prepare me for the physical strength and courage of the climbers, nor the roar of the bees leaving their nest en masse chasing the “falling stars” the rain of sparks floating lazily to the ground.
“Tak kenal, tak cinta” (you can’t love what you don’t know) is a lovely Malay proverb. The value of all bee trees should be considered in the context of cultural Malay bee craft traditions, age-old ones, recalled in the legend of Hitam Manis, descriptions dating back as far as the Rig Veda.
These magnificent trees, and the honey hunters, should be valued in terms of their aesthetic and cultural attributes, not solely dependent upon short-term monetary gain and lumber calculations.
Bee trees attract bee-loving tourists, birders and scientists, generating sustainable revenue over many human generations.
They bring income to local communities.
Tualang trees are keystone species, literally “Trees of Life”, providing food and homes for hundreds of rainforest plant and animal species.
Without tualang trees, Malaysian rainforests would be much diminished places, with rips in the bio-fabric of forested nature, ones that might never be repaired.
The trees, and the honey hunters themselves, should be considered Kedah state, even national, treasures and heroes; at least they are to me, a bee scientist from a faraway place.
I look forward to the spectacle of future Kedah honey hunts as told in our tale of The Bee Tree for children and their parents.
Co-Author, The Bee Tree
and Letters from the Hive,
Tucson, Arizona, US.