Bee hives may conjure images of angry swarms and nasty stings but they also produce a delicious elixir – honey. Known for its anti-inflammatory properties and the uncanny property of never spoiling (perfectly preserved honey was found in Egyptian tombs by modern-day archaeologists), it’s an important foodstuff in many cultures, including Chinese.
In regions with cold winters, bees will hibernate. In balmy Hong Kong and the wider Pearl River Delta region, however, honeybees never take a break. Honey production continues through the drier winter months, particularly from hives around ivy trees, known in Latin as Schefflera heptaphylla or Schefflera octophylla and in Chinese as “duck foot tree” (aap3 goek3 muk6 鴨腳木). Ivy tree flowers blossom in cooler weather and they are a common sight in Hong Kong’s country parks. Most winter honeys from Hong Kong’s apiaries are ivy tree honey. The bees are reportedly attracted to the delicate fragrance of the plant.
Interestingly, the bark of the ivy tree is one of the ingredients in the Cantonese medicinal tea (loeng4 caa4 涼茶) known as 24 Herbs (jaa6 sei3 mei2 廿四味), which is believed to lower internal heat and rid the body of toxins. Many people therefore believe that honey from ivy tree blossoms has similar effects as the herb itself.
Po Sang Yuen and Wing Wo are two of the city’s most developed bee farms, the former having been around since 1920s, and the latter since the 1980s. Highly recognisable from their label with a picture of a man with a beard of bees, Po Sang Yuen is located in Fanling, although it no longer exclusively produces honey in Hong Kong, as it also maintains apiaries in Mainland China and Thailand. Wing Wo is purely local, with apiaries in Sha Tin and Tai Wai, as well as hives dotted around the hills surrounding Shing Mun Reservoir. These spots are close to protected country parks, where wild ivy trees grow in abundance. One relative newcomer to local honey production, Bee’s Nest, is based out of Tai Tam, another location dominated by ivy trees.
Unlike environments further away from the equator, colder winters are in fact beneficial to honeybees in Hong Kong. Wasps — which attack bee hives — hibernate when it’s cold, giving bees a chance to remain productive without being threatened by predators. During the rest of the year, Hong Kong’s bees harvest their nectar from other sources, the most famous being from lychee flowers, which produces a distinct lychee-inflected summertime honey.
Aside from making delicious honey, bees are essential to pollination: as they extract nectar, they unknowingly carry pollen from one flower to the next, which for many plants is the first step in producing fruits and vegetables. Some farmers hire apiarists to bring hives to their farms for this very reason, while other fruit and vegetable farmers have been known to keep their own bees and hence produce honey as a side business.
For hives not situated near any single species of plant, we have floral honeys, where bees have taken nectar from various flowers in the vicinity. This is particularly common in urban beekeeping, which has gained some traction in densely populated cities, including Hong Kong, although here, it is still in the stages of experimentation and exploration rather than commercial production.
Where to buy Hong Kong honey
Wing Wo Bee Farm
Why we like it: One of few local beekeepers producing a nunber of honeys all year round, from two main apiaries as well as hives in the mountains spanning across the New Territories.
Where: 136 Pai Tau Village, Sha Tin, New Territories (+852) 9186 4398.
Why we like it: A boutique neighbourhood organic grocer, stocking a good range of spices and other pantry items, including local producers like Bee’s Nest honeys. Online order and home delivery also available.
Where: Shop K, 72 Third St, Sai Ying Pun (+852) 2568 2728.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.