'Crazy Young Woman' Defies Expectations, Sets Up Flourishing Beekeeping Co-op in Chinese Mountains
Shen Qing|Kim Taylor
/SOURCE : yicai

(Yicai Global) Aug. 7 -- The March weather was cold and misty. Zhou Shihong, a young woman in her twenties, was pacing up and down with worry. "These days the four seasons are not clearly demarcated. The bees are afraid of the chill and damp and won't start work until the weather warms up. This affects our honey harvest," she sighs.

The poverty stricken county of Ningshaan is one of China's primary apiculture regions. Resting on the gentle southern slopes of the Qinling mountain range that traverses central China, Ningshaan county is 90% forest. It is home to aspen trees, lacquer trees, gallnuts, Chinese chestnuts, all of which are a paradise for nectar-seeking bees.

Legend has it that traditional beekeeping methods were handed down by the mythical Chinese deity Shen Nong's mother who domesticated the bees when she moved with her clan to live in the mountains.

Nowadays, almost every family in the county has bee hives at home, and the sweet taste of honey brightens the otherwise mundane everyday lives of this isolated community.

Zhou Shihong's path to beekeeper was not a direct one. She was forced to find employment at a young age after her father passed away in 2009 due to cancer, and the family was left destitute. Her dreams of going to university were dashed and in order to look after her young brother and disabled mother, she found a job as a waitress at a local hotel. The job was poorly paid and she was unable to save any money.

In 2011 she was watching TV when she saw a program about a young female farm worker who had become rich by bee farming. She decided to also try her hand at it. Her family had always kept bees and her father would each year give herself and her brother a slab of honey to suck on. It was so much sweeter than candy.

The villagers thought she was a fool to try and turn making honey into a viable business. They dubbed her the 'Crazy Young Woman' but her resolve did not waver. She bought ten bee hives and began to learn the techniques of beekeeping. Once she started to produce her own honey she was delighted to find out that her honey tasted almost the same as her father's did.

In 2013 Zhou Shihong founded the Pear Orchard Beekeeping Co-operative. Her aim was for this to be a communal effort and for all profits made to be split between the members, thus benefiting the community as a whole. 

"It is not enough for one person to eat and feel full. Everyone must eat and feel full," she said.

Zhou Shihong joined forces with 30 large beekeeping households and 72 impoverished families and together they harvested, packaged and distributed their honey under the brand name 'Crazy Young Woman'.

However harvesting a living product is always subject to the whims and forces of nature, and bees in particular are very susceptible to disease.

Two years ago, Zhou Shihong's bees suddenly started to die. They were for some reason unable to find their way back home and great piles of dead bees accumulated outside the hives. The infection spread rapidly, and within days the bee colonies in 200 hives had been wiped out. 

At a cost of USD 150 per hive, this was a devastating blow for Zhou Shihong. It hit her hard and she seriously contemplated cutting her losses and selling the business. But with the encouragement of her family and friends she regained her determination and drive. There was still time to prepare the hives for the next honey harvest season. This irrepressible 'Crazy Young Woman' borrowed USD30,000 and started again.

In line with the Chinese government's directive to accelerate the development of specialty products from the rural areas, real estate developer Country Garden Holdings Co. Ltd's poverty relief teams reached Nanshaan in May 2018. They instantly saw the potential in marketing the region's honey. Their experts estimated that each year there was potential for at least 10,000 hives, which would produce at least 1,000 tonnes of honey with a retail value of over USD14.8 million.

It is entrepreneurs with a motivation and vision similar to Zhou Shihong's who are currently driving the revitalization of China's countryside. Zhou Shihong not only achieved her dream of helping her family out of poverty, she also greatly improved the lives of the 263 members of her co-operative. 

In many ways, the 'Crazy Young Woman' resembles the bees she breeds, never worrying about how difficult or long the journey is, rather just concentrating on working hard and bringing home the pollen.

Among the rolling mountains and river valleys of the Qinling Mountains, there are many other entrepreneurs who will bring resources and knowledge to the region, shining a light of hope for villagers in need of better opportunities.

Editor: Xia Ruirui, Chen Juan

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Keywords: On The Way Home , Bees