The Settan Japanese honeybee association demonstrates how to collect honey in front of new members, as more people engage in beekeeping for pleasure. (Video by Hiroyuki Kobayashi)

Taking up archery or ikebana flower arrangement is one thing, but making your own honey?

It's not as difficult as one might think, thanks to a species of bee native to Japan that is relatively easy to cultivate.

An increasing number of retired people, company employees in urban areas and others are taking up the hobby, spurred by growing awareness of the benefits of natural foods.

And the reward is pretty sweet.

On a mild summer day in late August, members of the Settan Japanese honeybee association gathered in the garden of a private home in Sanda, Hyogo Prefecture, to give a honey-collecting demonstration.

The session was organized for beginner apiarists to learn how to collect the sweet stuff in the run-up to the autumn harvest season.

When a veteran member cut open the top of layered boxes revealing a hive full of honey, cheers erupted from the participants.

EASY TO KEEP

The group's secretary-general, Masaharu Sasahara, 63, noted that the Japanese honeybee species is not difficult to handle."All that needs to be done before collecting the honey is checking the hives and bees occasionally for trouble. We've simply kept watch, without moving or opening the hives," said Sasahara. "The creature does not need help from humans, and excessive care could cause stress and result in the bee going somewhere else."

The indigenous honeybees kept by the group were wild ones lured to the hives by the smell of flowers and beeswax. After they settled in, little upkeep was required, unless problems emerged.

Professional beekeepers culture Western honeybees, a species first imported to Japan during the Meiji Era (1868-1912) for honey. As the foreign bees cannot fight off Japanese hornets that attack their hives, apiarists have to provide careful assistance on a daily basis, such as protecting them from predators and providing sugared water and other food.

VARIATION IN FLAVOR

Japanese and Western honeybees differ in the amount and flavor of the honey they produce.While a cluster of Western honeybees improved through breeding can generate more than 50 kilograms of honey a year, the annual output for its Japanese counterpart is between several kilograms and 5 kg.

Beekeepers open Western bee hives more frequently so that honey of various tastes, such as that from acacia and lotus, can be harvested in different seasons. As the hives of Japanese bees need to be treated only once or twice a year, the honey features complex flavors derived from various flowers.

With the increased popularity of keeping easy-to-handle honeybees that produce moderate amounts of honey, in part thanks to the spread of information over the Internet and through other means, the Settan beekeeping group has seen a rise in membership from 40 to more than 60 over the past two years.

According to the group, a company employee in Kobe has come to love beekeeping so much that the individual keeps bees at the group's communal bee farm in Sanda.

GETTING STARTED

Tools to help people get started in beekeeping have become more readily available, and many inquiries have been made to related entities.A group of amateur Japanese beekeepers in Ayabe, Kyoto Prefecture, makes and sells hives, tools to lure honeybees with aromas and other products.

While about 300 or so hives were bought annually five to six years ago, sales more than doubled to 700 last year. Of last year's sales, 300 units came with a DVD and other materials designed to help users start beekeeping.

As more people take up the culturing of honeybees, apiarists and others have started efforts to establish a nationwide beekeeper network.

Tomoyuki Yokoi, 40, an assistant professor of ecology at the University of Tsukuba’s Lab of Conservation Ecology in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, and others organized their first Bee Summit in 2017.

The biennial meeting of honeybee lovers, professional beekeepers and researchers is scheduled for December this year at the International Congress Center in Tsukuba.

According to the summit's steering committee, there are nearly 80 groups keeping Japanese honeybees across the country, with the number increasing by two to five each year since 2006.

"Methods for keeping Japanese honeybees differ by region," said Yokoi. "I'd like participants from across the country to use the summit as an opportunity to meet other beekeepers and exchange knowledge on the structure of hives and how to better keep bees, so that more people will engage in the practice."