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See Portland's Bee Whisperer Hunt Giant Bees in Cambodia

Adventures in the honey trade.

Bee Local's Damian Magista
Bee Local's Damian Magista
Bee Local

Bee Local is the fine local honey producer that also builds custom beehives for places like Vitaly Paley and Doug Adams's Imperial, and owner Damian Magista recently returned from hunting the giant Asian honeybee, Apis dorsata, which is over an inch long and builds massive hives often nine-feet across, in the lawless wilderness of the Siem Reap province in Cambodia. Magista says Cambodia is on the tipping point of losing its bees—mostly because jungles are being destroyed, but also because people traditionally harvest honey by whacking down and destroying entire hives. As you can see in the photo essay below, Magista's hunt turned into an adventure.

—All photos by Damian Magista

The day after arriving, Magista took off on a 110CC motor scooter at 6 a.m. to journey a rough 100 miles from the city of Siem Reap into Cambodia. Stopping for breakfast at a roadside curry stand, Magista said, "I want the one with congealed blood." The room-temperature curry came with huge chunks of pumpkin with basil and hyacinth flowers.

Magista stayed with a family of rice farmers in a "fucking gorgeous" part of Cambodia, and two of the family members were in the honey business. In Cambodia, no one raises bees, so the people who bring you honey are called honey hunters.

To harvest honey, honey hunters go in search of the giant honeybee hives, often risking serious bee attacks. Magista says the giant Asian honeybee has amazing defenses, which allows the whole swarm to flex its muscles, sort of like the wave seen at sporting events, to warn enemies to get out of dodge.

To do his part to help protect Cambodia's native bees, Magista explained the importance of bees to the honey hunters he met, saying, "You can't have mangos and guavas without them." He worked to explain that honey can be harvested week by week if you don't destroy a whole hive all at once.

The giant Asian honeybee is actually migratory—it follows the blooming of local flowers. Magista aimed to time his visit with the bee's arrival in the lowlands.

Magista easily accessed another bee, the dwarf bee, Apis florea, a tiny, colorful bee that has been around for 14 million years.

The giant Asian honeybee was harder to find because the flowers in the lowlands hadn't bloomed, yet. The honey hunters told Magista of a massive hive wrapped around a tamarind tree inside of the ancient Banteay Chhmar temple complex. Should we ask for permission to chop it down, they asked? Magista politely declined. Here are some pictures of frogs butchered for dinner.

Despite a bad reputation, the quality of Cambodian honey is high, says Magista. It's "deep, ripe, and clean" with tropical fruit flavors and more liquid. "It's a culinary snapshot of time and place," says Magista. "A photograph you can smell and eat."

Magista believes Cambodia's Apis cerana bee is the best for honey production. Here's a picture of weaver ants, which Magista says taste like lime. "I'd put them on anything," he says, though he admits there's a gritty finish.

For Magista, the big takeaway was that different bees all over the world share core behaviors, and understanding these behaviors now seems to be the number-one duty of the beekeeper, he says. Here's a picture of a seafood market in Siem Reap.

Unlike most countries, Cambodia only has native bees, and colony collapse disorder doesn't exist in Cambodia. Also, because the bees haven't been breed, they do not suffer from many common health issues, like mites. Here's a picture of some more food.

"I want to seek out the most amazing, flavorful honey in the world. That's what's it's about," says Magista.