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The Bee Tree

The Malaysian Star

Telling the hunter’s tale
The indigenous way of honey-gathering is immortalised in a beautiful children’s book.


"They are the honey hunters, rural folk who climb the tall trees on which the bees nest, to harvest the sweet honey and beeswax. They brave vertigo-inducing heights of up to 70m and colonies of 40,000 to 80,000 bees with deadly stings. But they are armed with precious knowledge, techniques and rituals, which have been passed down for generations.

'I fell under the spell of the rainforests, the bees and especially Pak Teh'—DR. STEPHEN BUCHMANN
These fascinating hunters are the basis for a beautiful new children’s book published in the US called The Bee Tree.

The book is about the passing down of the honey-hunting tradition to the younger generation, which, among other things, involves climbing a giant Tualang tree (Koompasia excelsa) – the bee tree.

Taking almost a decade to be actualised, the book is the result of a coming together of extraordinary people from different backgrounds. Authored by Americans Dr Stephen Buchmann, 54, entomologist and environmental consultant, and Diana Cohn, 48, an award-winning children’s book writer and hobbyist beekeeper, it features wonderful artwork by scientific illustrator Paul Mirocha, 52.

A key collaborator in this venture is Datuk Dr Makhdzir Mardan, professor of apiculture and pollination biology at Universiti Putra Malaysia. It was at an international bee conference at Tasik Pedu organised in 1994 by Prof Makhdzir that Dr Buchmann was introduced to Salleh Mohammed Noor (Pak Teh). The octogenarian head of a honey hunting clan, Pak Teh has been honey hunting since 1964. One of his credos is that 'as long as there is the rainforest, there will be bees, and as long as there are bees, there will be honey, and as long as there is honey, there will be honey hunters.'

Realising this relationship of honey hunting to rainforest conservation, the two scientists therefore decided to write a scientific book on Pak Teh's clan. This evolved into a children’s fiction book because 'we need the people in the Pedu Lake area to protect the forest, and children are the best people to whom to get the message across,' said Prof Makhdzir.

Children must recognise these honey-hunters as local heroes and emulate the respect the men have for the rainforest. This is especially important in light of the impending threats to both the rainforest and traditional honey hunting. 'They (children) are the future custodians of the rainforest and the honey gathering culture.'

Dr Buchmann added that The Bee Tree was his way (with Cohn and Mirocha) of 'immortalising' the honey hunting experiences, which affected him deeply. 'I fell under the spell of the rainforests, the bees and especially Pak Teh, who was the first traditional Apis dorsata honey hunter I had ever met.' Like Prof Makhzdir, he believed conserving the honey bees involved keeping large tracts of forest and their food plants intact as well as by spreading knowledge of this through education and eco-tourism. Dr Buchmann has authored or co-authored 150 scientific papers and eight books and is active in international pollination research, conservation and policies to protect the world’s pollinators and the plants they pollinate.

To illustrate the book, Dr. Buchmann roped in Mirocha, who enthusiastically bought into the project after experiencing a honey hunt. After producing the first few drafts of The Bee Tree, Dr Buchmann sought editorial advice from Cohn, with whom he had set up an organisation on public education about pollination ecology and indigenous beekeeping practices.

Cohn, who had produced three other children’s books at that time, recounted, 'Steve’s skills were in writing for adults and the story needed so much attention in terms of structure, story arc and character development that it was clear that the story needed to be transformed with a different ‘voice’ and that collaboration was necessary.' She began by reading as much as possible about the Malaysian honey hunters, at the same time feeling her way into what a believable character would be for a young audience.

When she had a manuscript close to completion, she visited Pak Teh and the honey hunters, witnessing 'the deep reverence of the honey hunters and the ceremonies associated with the honey hunt. I was graced with being able to see this ancient tradition.' She thereafter rewrote parts of the story. Cohn’s agent then set them up with a publisher with whom she had worked, Cinco Puntos Press, who agreed to the very unusual step of accepting a manuscript with an artist. The final product, is proud testament to the hard work that went into it.

Last month, Dr Buchmann, accompanied by Prof Makhdzir and Mirocha, presented a copy of the book to Kedah’s Sultan Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah at the Anak Bukit Palace in Alor Star. Certainly, the effort has pleased both Pak Teh and one of his grandsons who had inherited the tradition, Nizam Mustapha, 28.

'Seronok jugak (I feel happy),' cackled Pak Teh in his thick Kedah accent.

'I’m glad that people are doing this research,' chipped in Nizam. 'If people don’t know about this, who knows, in 10 years, all this will be gone.'"
- S.L. Wong, March 4, 2007 

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