Published in 7th International AFAS Joint Symposium between Korea and Japan

Some observations on the behavior of Apis cerana japonica in Fukuoka, Kyushu, Japan, and considerations for research in crop pollination

Layne J. Westover1)

1) Global 30 Project, International Education Center, Faculty of Agriculture,
Kyushu University, Hakozaki 6-10-1, Higashi-ku, Fukuoka city 812-8581, Japan

Honey bees are a very important component of agricultural production as well as the environment in general because of the pollination services they provide. In many parts of the world , including Japan, there has been a dramatic decrease in the numbers of honey bees because of the many problems they face, of which Colony Collapse Disorder is currently one of the worst. A possible solution to this problem in Japan might be to encourage the success of the native Japanese honey bee to supplement or substitute for pollination services where western honey bees are not available. Towards this goal, a swarm of Japanese honey bees was obtained and installed in a hive on the roof of the main agriculture building of the Hakozaki Campus of Kyushu University in Fukuoka, Japan. Problems maintaining the bees were encountered and resolved, and plans are being made to use them in future research and educational efforts. Research of the native Japanese honey bee provides a unique opportunity to have a positive impact on both public attitudes and the environment at the same time.

Keywords: Apis cerana japonica, Japanese honey bee

* Corresponding author
Layne J. Westover
Address : Global 30 Project, International Education Center, Kyushu University
Tel and Fax : T) 81+92-642-7087, F) 81+92-642-4348
E-mail :

Honey bees are currently faced with many severe problems, of which Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is among the worst. Other problems include parasitic mites, small hive beetle, and viral and bacterial diseases. Bees can also be negatively affected by stress factors such as hives being moved by beekeepers, artificial diets, medications, and agricultural chemicals used both inside and outside the hives. Also, fewer bees are available for a use in agricultural pollination for the production of fruits and vegetables because there are now fewer beekeepers than there were in the past. The work is hot and difficult and many younger people are not interested in it. The cause or causes of CCD have been elusive to researchers, but recently a team of bee scientists and military researchers have announced the discovery of a possible cause in a combination of a virus and a fungus that have both been found in bees dying from this syndrome. (Bromenshenk, et al., 2010)

People in Japan generally have negative attitudes towards bees. The word “hachi” in Japanese covers a great variety of stinging insects, some of which are quite dangerous. People die from the stings of “suzumebachi” or giant Asian hornets (Vespa mandarinia) every year in Japan, so fear of them is very justifiable. Honey bees are also stinging insects, so many people lump them into the dangerous category along with every other stinging insect. Some people have allergic reactions to bee venom which results in anaphylaxis, but there are generally very few people who fall into this category. Even so, most people feel that all bees are dangerous and need to be killed or “removed” when found in close proximity to people. Because of educational efforts and news articles about the current loss of honey bees in the world, including in Japan, there also many people who understand that bees are important for pollination in nature as well as in agricultural food production, but most people still feel that bees should not be around people.

Native Japanese honey bees (Apis cerana japonica) have been kept by traditional methods in Japan for hundreds of years and are still being kept by those methods in some places in Japan. Tsushima Island is one example where native honey bees are still being kept in this way, but most agricultural pollination by honey bees in Japan is accomplished using the western honey bee (Apis mellifera). Western honey bees (which are known as European honey bees in America) and western beekeeping methods and equipment were introduced into Japan in 1876 and they have been kept in Japan since the Meiji era. They are more efficient pollinators and produce more honey than the native Japanese honey bees and will outcompete the native bees when both are found in the same area. Japanese honey bees are gentler and less inclined to sting than western honey bees. Parasitic Varroa mites are not a problem for the native bees, but generally cause severe problems for western honey bees. Hives that are not treated with miticides generally do not survive, and the mites have become resistant to many of the chemicals used for their control. Western honey bees will take more abuse (such as moving and disturbing hives) without absconding, while Japanese honey bees will more easily abscond if disturbed. Western honey bees are larger and more yellow in color and are also generally slower and more deliberate in their flight and actions than Japanese honey bees, whereas the native honey bees fly much faster and erratically (more “wild”). The giant Asian hornet is an enemy to honey bees and can quickly destroy unprotected colonies. Japanese honey bees can defend themselves against the hornets, but western honey bees have no defense. The native bees form a cluster of a hundred or so bees around the hornet and raise their body temperature until the hornet is cooked alive (since they can tolerate a higher temperature than the hornet can), but western honey bees are quickly destroyed by a hornet attack.

At the present time there are some successful projects in Japan involving honey bees. Currently honey bees (both western and native) are being kept in crowded downtown Tokyo on the roofs of buildings in the Ginza shopping district. They have proven to not be a hazard to people at all, and have also provided not only honey that is used in confections and drinks by Ginza businesses, but have apparently also had a positive effect on the biodiversity of the local environment. Trees which were previously barren are now bearing fruit, and living creatures are becoming more common. There are fewer pesticides used in the city than in the agricultural countryside, so the city appears to be a healthier place for bees than the country. Native Japanese honey bees seem to be making a comeback where they are not disturbed in a number of cities whereas in the past they were mostly relegated to the remote countryside and mountainous regions because of competition from western honey bees and the widespread use of agricultural chemicals as well as the efforts of people to exterminate them when they are found in populated areas. Attitudes seems to be slowly changing in their favor as people discover their relative safety and gentleness and their importance to the environment and the food supply. An increase in the number of colonies of native Japanese honey bees might be a solution to the problems caused by the decrease in the numbers of western honey bees.

Apis cerana japonica was chosen as a research subject for a number of reasons, many of which have been enumerated above. Other reasons include the fact that no one at Kyushu University is studying them, they are already a part of the local native fauna in need of preservation, and they also provide a unique opportunity to make a positive impact on both public attitudes and the environment at the same time.

Prior to obtaining Japanese honey bees, a swarm catching box was first prepared. Such a box is simple to prepare and very utilitarian. It consists of a cardboard box that is taller than it is wide or deep. The top of the box is cut off, leaving a lip of 10 or 15 centimeters that can then be adjusted so it will telescope over the top edge of the lower part of the box. A trap door is cut in the lower center of one end of the box and can be opened from the bottom to allow bees to enter or leave the box, and then easily be pushed down to close it so bees cannot escape once inside the box. With the top tightly in place on the box, the trap door becomes the only entrance after the lid is closed. Vertical slits were cut into the sides of the box to allow air circulation, but narrow enough so bees could not enter or exit through them. Figure 1 shows the appearance of the swarm catching box. A blade of a pair of scissors or a pocket knife makes a good tool to use in cutting or punching the slits.

After the swarm catching box was completed, top bar hive boxes were made from inexpensive and easily obtainable materials. Since Apis cerana build their comb at 29 mm to 30 mm center to center in nature, 30 mm square poles were purchased at a local home center store from their lumber department. These poles were then cut into the lengths needed to make the top bars. The hive boxes themselves were made from circular wooden planters (1/2 barrel shaped) into the sides of which entrance holes were drilled or cut. Entrance holes were made not larger than 1 cm diameter so giant Asian hornets would not be able to enter the hive, while the bees would have no problem entering or exiting. The total expenditure to build one hive was approximately 15 USD.

In April and May of 2010, foraging Apis cerana japonica workers were located visiting rhododendron blossoms on the Hakozaki campus at Kyushu University. Efforts to locate the colony they had come from were subsequently made, but without success. A bee-lining box was constructed and used to try and locate a nearby colony, but again without success. A trip was then made to Tsushima Island during the latter part of May, 2010, local beekeeping by traditional methods was observed, and beekeepers were consulted for information about keeping the native Japanese honey bee. A traditional log hive constructed by a local carpenter 3 years previously was obtained and shipped back to the Hakozaki campus in Fukuoka, Japan, where on June 3, 2010, it was set up on the roof of the main agriculture building with the hive entrance facing east and situated in such a way as to receive morning sun and afternoon shade.

The following day, on June 4, 2010, a telephone call was received by Professor Osamu Tadauchi, head of the Entomology Department at Kyushu University from a Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper journalist regarding a large swarm of bees located in Kego Koen (Kego Park), in Chuo-ku, Fukuoka. The journalist wanted to know why the swarm was there and what was happening. He answered his questions and the journalist mentioned that a company had been called to remove the bees. Professor Tadauchi asked that the removal request be cancelled and we would go pick up the bees to use for a research project at the university. We immediately left for Kego Koen and when we arrived there, we were greeted by not only the journalist but also a television crew from NHK (Japan National Broadcasting Company) who were there filming the event. We were interviewed and answered a number of questions about bees and beekeeping and about this particular swarm of bees. The bees in question turned out to be Japanese honey bees and not western honey bees.

After the camera crew finished filming, collection of the bees went smoothly. The swarm box was held below the bee cluster, and a bee brush with soft bristles (previously purchased from Walter Kelley Beekeeping Supplies, Kentucky, U.S.A.) was used to knock the cluster off the limb of a plum tree into the box. The lid was securely placed on the box immediately, and the box was set on top of a short ladder directly below and in front of where the swarm had been hanging. I explained that if the queen bee is in the box, the remainder of the bees which had not fallen into the box on the first try would soon join the bees that were already in the box. Remaining bees that were still on the branch of the plum tree were gently and carefully removed by the handful and placed in front of the open trap door of the swarm box, where they quickly entered the box to join the bees that were already inside. Bees that were flying in the area also joined the bees in the box, and within 15 minutes to ½ hour, all but a very few bees had entered the box. At this point, the trap door on the swarm collecting box was closed and the box was placed on the back seat of the car for transport to the university. The television crew wanted to film us putting the bees into the hive at the university, so they followed us back to the university.

The swarm was installed into the traditional log hive at about 1:30 p.m. simply by taking the lids off the hive and then the swarm collection box and then dumping the bees into the hive and placing the lid back on the hive. At this time, a large number of bees flew into the air, but they soon joined the bees in the hive. There was some concern about whether the bees would stay in the hive or abscond, but by the end of the day everything looked like a normal established hive of bees so our fears were alleviated. The entire procedure was filmed by the NHK camera crew and appeared on the local television news that evening . An article with a photograph was published in the local Fukuoka edition of the Yomiuri Shimbun the following day. The head of the camera crew asked to do a follow-up story about the bees later on.

In the weeks that followed, a number of manipulations and modifications were made to the initial hive setup. At first, the hive was sitting on a cement slab and the bees could only exit and enter through the entrance slits that were cut in the hive front near the bottom. Many bees were fanning near the entrance to cool the hive and bee were also bearding (clustering) on the front of the hive, so some wooden wedges were placed under the bottom front edges of the hive to allow the bees access to enter and exit from the bottom of the hive as well. A hornet trap was constructed from a clear plastic PET bottle and baited with a solution of orange juice, shochu (alcoholic rice drink), and sugar and hung from a pole nearby. A swarm catching board (Sugahara, 2006) was also constructed and installed nearby.

Also living on the roof of the building were a large number of small black sugar-loving ants which showed a great interest in the bee hive. They became very active in the shade of the afternoon. As the temperature on the roof increased as the summer progressed, more bees began to cluster on the front of the hive during the day. In the latter part of August, honey was observed running out of the bottom of the hive onto the cement, and the whole face of the hive was covered with bees from the top to the bottom. There was also a lot of ant activity. A bottle crate made of plastic was inverted and used as a platform to raise the hive up off the cement slab. A piece of hardware cloth was placed on the stand with mesh large enough to allow bees to pass through it and provide more air circulation, but not allow hornets to enter the hive from the bottom. Some of the comb had fallen to the bottom of the hive apparently because of the heat, and some honey was harvested from that comb. The hive still seemed to be too hot, so a bamboo screen was leaned against the wall covering the hive to provide constant shade. These steps appeared to solve the overheating problems.

The screen mesh under the hive was a tight fit for the bees, so many bees were losing their pollen loads when they returned to the hive. A large number of pollen balls had fallen onto the cement under the hive stand. This area attracted a very large number of small black ants which also appeared to be entering the hive to obtain honey, so a commercial ant bait station was placed under the hive in an attempt to control this problem. The ants were attracted to the bait and carried it into their nest, and soon no more ants were observed under the hive, so the ant problem was resolved in this fashion. The hardware cloth mesh under the hive was also replaced with a larger sized mesh so that pollen would not be knocked from the returning bees’ legs, so problems were resolved with high temperatures, ants, loss of pollen by foraging bees, and hornet problems were anticipated by providing a hornet trap.

A number of interesting behaviors of Apis cerana japonica were observed during this time. Almost all of the native Japanese honey bees leaving the hive would expose their Nasanov gland right before flying off to forage. It was also observed that many of the returning foragers also exposed their Nasanov gland right before re-entering the hive when they returned. When the temperature became very hot, there were many bees fanning near the entrance of the hive, and many bees also formed a “beard” outside on the face of the hive. Bees leaving the hive to forage did not fly off in a direct line, but flew in a zigzag pattern before flying off. The speed of flight was very fast for both departing and returning bees and their flight path was very difficult to follow by eyesight. Their flight and actions could be described as “wild” rather than “domestic.” Although on a number of occasions I stood or sat very close to the hive, I never observed any threatening or defensive behavior from the bees, and I was never stung by any of them. None of the visitors or observers were ever stung either—even those who sat on the cement in the flight path directly in front of the hive entrance. When the hive was placed on the stand with mesh on the bottom so the bees could use the bottom as an entrance and exit, the majority of bees chose to use the bottom entrance rather than the entrance slits that were cut into the front of the hive when the hive was constructed. Perhaps the population of foraging bees was such that it was more efficient to use the bottom of the hive—it allowed for more traffic. It was also observed that the bees completely ignored the honey that was spilled when the comb fell due to the heat and also ignored honey that was earlier placed in a dish near the hive entrance. Western honey bees would have been cleaning that honey up very quickly, but the Japanese honey bees did not. That was a very surprising observation to me. Lastly, not a single drone bee has been observed this season. Because of that observation, swarming behavior is not expected at the present time.

Future plans include keeping native Japanese honey bees in top bar hives for easier manipulations and to also be able to split them to increase the number of hives so some hives might be available for pollination experiments. In order to have sufficient biological material for future research and experiments, more than one colony is necessary. Hopefully the present colony will throw one or more swarms this coming Spring, and other colonies or swarms might also be located during the coming season of 2011. A media event is being planned wherein the public will be informed of the need for more colonies of nihon mitsubachi (Apis cerana japonica) for use in research at Kyushu University. When a sufficient number of colonies have been obtained or propagated, plans are being made to use them in experiments pollinating strawberries locally. These experiments would help determine whether or not it would be feasible to use Japanese honey bees in this manner for crop pollination services. Since absconding is a major problem with Japanese honey bees, experiments are also planned to help develop management techniques to reduce this problem.

In addition to doing scientific research with Japanese honey bees, keeping them also provides an opportunity for public education and social activism. Media exposure is a vehicle for public education, and experience with the bees will show their gentle nature and relative safety. There is an opportunity to change the public’s attitude toward native honey bees to where they may be considered more of a valuable resource and treasure rather than a problem to be solved. Rather than call a pest control company when honey bees are found, I hope people will be more inclined to call the university, to let them be, or to provide them a place to live. Similar to providing bird houses so more birds can successfully reproduce, people can easily and inexpensively provide places for the Japanese honey bee to live and reproduce, encouraging an increase in biodiversity through pollination as well as providing a fascinating hobby and educational opportunity, not to mention the possibility of obtaining honey and wax.


1. Bromenshenk, JJ, Henderson CB, Wick CH, Stanford MF, Zulich AW, et al. ( 2010) Iridovirus and Microsporidian Linked to Honey Bee Colony Decline, PLoS ONE 5(10): e13181. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0013181
2. FreshPlaza: Global Fresh Produce and Banana News (2009): “Honeybee shortage threatens fruit and vegetable producers in Japan,” a website visited on October 8, 2010.
3. Ginpachi (2010): The Official Site of Ginza Bee Project (in Japanese), a website visited on October 7, 2010.
4. Japan for Sustainability (2009): “The Ginza Honeybee Project—Urban Development Inspired by Beekeeping,” JFS Newsletter No. 86 (October 2009), a website visited on October 7, 2010.
5. Japan Times (2009): “Tokyo bees make honey high over Ginza,” a website visited October 7, 2010.
6. Johnson, Kirk (October 7, 2010): “Scientists and Soldiers Solve a Bee Mystery,” New York Times online, a website visited on October 10, 2010.
7. Sasaki, M. (1999). “Wonders of the Japanese Honeybee: Biology of northernmost Apis cerana,” Kaiyusha, Tokyo.
8. Sugahara, Michio (November 26, 2006): “Japanese Honeybee Apis cerana japonica,” a website visited on October 7, 2010.
9. Tokyo Foundation (2009): “Japanese Honeybee,” a website visited on October 7, 2010.
10. Tokyo Green Space (2009): “Ginza Honey Bee Project,” a website visited October 7, 2010.

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One Response to Published in 7th International AFAS Joint Symposium between Korea and Japan

  1. Marline Bashore says:

    Thank you for another wonderful post. Where else could anybody get that type of information in such a perfect method of writing? I have a presentation next week, and I am on the search for such info.

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