The birds and the bees: sweet life making honey in a Chinese village

Andy Boreham
Dong Yufu and Gao Shufen have been married for 52 years, but their life got a lot sweeter after Dong started raising honeybees following his retirement four years ago.
Andy Boreham
Shot by Andy Boreham and Zhou Shengjie. Edited by Andy Boreham.

Dong Yufu and Gao Shufen have been married for 52 years, but their life got a lot sweeter after Dong started raising honeybees following his retirement four years ago.

They were both born and raised in a tiny village called Jielingkou in Hebei Province, a village that’s part of a rural revitalization program to give the locals a higher standard of life. 

Despite improvements in village life over the past few years, Dong, 71, decided to supplement his income by producing honey in the front yard after retiring from the Funing District water bureau where he worked as a hydrogeologist. 

In the beginning he just had a few hives, but now that has grown to dozens and dozens. The bees have quite literally taken over.

When I visited their home this week, I was in for a shock — thousands upon thousands of bees were buzzing around the front yard in a frenzy, blocking the path up to the house. Dong soon appeared behind the storm, a smile across his entire face: “Come in, come in!” he yelled out without a single piece of protective gear on. 

I’ve seen documentaries about honeybees, men in full protective suits using smoke to pacify those tiny, angry soldiers. I wondered if he was joking so I remained frozen.

Then he marched straight toward me, through thousands of buzzing bees without even flinching: “It’s fine,” he yelled out. “They won’t sting you!”

And they didn’t, in fact pretty soon they were buzzing around me and crawling around on my face and arms and I wasn’t bothered at all. Fascinating.

Soon we were inside the storeroom where Dong has thousands of liters of honey in large, ceramic pots. On a table, dozens of plastic boxes filled with honeycomb, dripping in fresh, sweet gold. 

“I have always wanted to try honeycomb,” I bleated out. 

“Then let’s try!” Dong smiled. Gao rushed inside to grab a pile of spoons. 

Delicious.

Dong and Gao sell the honey by the jar locally, and in large quantities to honey companies who sell it under their brand. 

But despite all that honey, Dong and Gao don’t really like to eat it themselves. “Northerners don’t like to eat sweet things,” he told me. Sometimes he will use it to sweeten up his soups a little bit, though. 

I bought a few jars and told him how I like to eat honey: on toast with lots of melted butter (preferably from New Zealand). He said it sounded delicious and promised me he would try, but I think he was probably just being polite. 

The couple have four children and four grandchildren, none of whom remain in the village. They left because of the greater opportunities available for them in nearby cities. “They often come home to visit on weekends when they have time,” Gao told me as she showed me their numerous walls covered in family photos. I hope they like to eat honey, I thought to myself. 

Like many of the elderly people in the village of around 800, Dong and Gao hope that one day Jielingkou will offer enough opportunity for their family to come home. One of the goals of the rural revitalization program is to develop the village, located right at the base of a 600-year-old stretch of the Great Wall, into a thriving tourism destination, ultimately providing more job prospects.

Right in their back yard, together with dozens of beehives, some chickens and two cute dogs, is a huge part of the Great Wall. I had to ask Dong what it’s like having such a famous piece of history right in his own back yard. 

“It’s great,” he smiled. “I proudly protect it like it’s my own.” 

Special Reports

Top