Hong Kong rooftops abuzz with honey of a trend

HONG KONG Wed Jul 13, 2011 5:22am EDT

HONG KONG (Reuters) - In the corner of a Hong Kong rooftop, amid the shining glass and steel of the city's high rise skyline, stands a humble wooden box on legs -- a beehive, packed with roughly 10,000 honey bees.

Densely urban Hong Kong seems an unlikely match for any form of agriculture, but a few hardy souls have been venturing into the increasingly popular practice of beekeeping.

"Hong Kong's pretty dense -- a dense concrete jungle in the centre," said Michael Leung, founder and creative director of HK Honey, an organisation that seeks to promote beekeeping in the city and keeps the hive on the roof of a 14-storey building in the busy Wanchai district.

"But around the whole of Hong Kong there are actually loads of green spaces, like mountains with trees and flora for bees to pollinate and harvest nectar from."

In reality, Leung said, Hong Kong is an ideal environment for honey bees. The warm weather is optimal for beekeeping, and the absence of a cold winter allows the honey to be harvested year round.

Leung's interest in beekeeping was piqued by the sight of a beehive during a trip to Sweden. After returning to Hong Kong he acquired the tricks of the trade from veteran beekeepers in the city, as well as some in New York and London.

There are now around 11 urban beehives scattered through the city, owned by farmers, organisations and private individuals.

While urban beekeeping is hardly unique to Hong Kong -- the practice is growing in popularity, with bees raised in cities including Tokyo, Paris and Chicago -- there is a uniquely Chinese touch to how they are kept.

The traditional Chinese beekeeper does not wear smoke the bees or wear protective gear, which Leung believes builds a closer connection with the bees.

Leung himself removed a bee frame with bees on it while wearing casual clothing, including a t-shirt, and said it is hardly as perilous as one might think -- although he has been stung 13 times in the 18 months of his beekeeping career.

Even though Chinese bees are more aggressive than their Western counterparts, as long as they are not disturbed they will happily ignore humans, he said.

"We really try to communicate the value of bees being pollinators and really necessary for our food chain," he said.

"They are really resourceful and industrious insects so we want to promote this, and the consumption of local honey."

Among other benefits, Hong Kong honey also helps prevent hay fever, Leung said. The HK Honey hive produces honey with a fresh flavour.

Leung's organization works to promote the value of bees and has made candles for Amnesty International, as well as a short documentary for Nokia. The beehive, one of the group's latest projects, provides honey for a cafe in the same building that serves locally-sourced, organic produce, and is supplemented by a rooftop herb garden.

In Hong Kong, which currently imports 90 percent of its food, eating locally produced honey is also ecological.

"The great thing about eating local honey is that it reduces the carbon footprint and food mileage of honey you would buy from maybe another country," Leung said.

"Honey from New Zealand or France travels roughly 10,000 km to get here, which contributes to a lot of carbon emissions. But in Hong Kong you're not 10 km away from the nearest beehive."

(Editing by Elaine Lies)