A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Friday, October 19, 2012

In Search of BJ's Elusive Bees

It’s just as well that bees don’t have to rely on Google maps to find their way back to their hives. If they did, I seriously wonder if the species would become extinct over night!
Regular fans of your favourite blogger will know that I’m trying to work my way around Beijing’s 130+ museums. So when I heard about the China Honey Bee Museum (中国蜜蜂博物馆), there was no question that I should make my own pilgrimage to this shrine dedicated to the “simple” bee!
The problem is finding the blessed place. And once again looking it up on the web, everyone appears to have copied everyone else’s entries and I seriously wonder if anyone who has written about it has ever been there!
Google Maps, I find after trying three times to locate the place, has it marked at least 500 metres off course. Worse still they haven’t even got the local roads going anywhere near where they purport to go – as I can testify, having walked for two and a half hours, Google map in hand, and never finding the place. (Mind you, I do in the process get some spectacular views of Beijing from afar.)
Depending on whom you are wont to believe, the Bee Museum is located inside the Botanical Gardens, to the west of the Botanical Gardens, to the northwest of the Botanical Gardens, and to the north of the Wofo Temple (inside the Beijing Botanical Gardens). Do we see a pattern emerging here? We sure do!
I head on over to the Botanical Gardens with my friend Xuefei (well, that’s to say, I headed over to the Gardens on a previous blog visit) and she asked on my behalf a couple of staff at the Botanical Gardens Conservatory where we could find the museum. They had never heard of it!
She asked her friend Songkai, who works in the Academy across the road from the Botanical Gardens where it was. Sorry; he’s heard of the Bee Research Institute, but knows nothing about a museum there.
I make another journey out to the Gardens one morning, and ask two gatekeepers in my best Mandarin if they know where it is. One “thinks it is over there somewhere”, waving a grubby finger vaguely in the direction of the west gate, from where I have just come. Not much help there then.
I consult some of the notice board maps, liberally stuck up around the Gardens. No mention of the museum on any of them.
I am almost on the point of giving up believing that such a museum exists, when I get an SMS from Xuefei. Songkai, bless his cotton socks, has manfully made his way across the road into the Gardens (I presume he gets free entrance, being a researcher at the Academy?) and finds there is a museum after all. Go to Wofu Temple, I am reliably informed, and then go due west where I will see a sign for it. Hmmm. I wonder.
But now, full of hope, and with a song in my heart, I head on back to the north western most reaches of the capital.
One little trick I have learned from my last foray to the Gardens is that if you eschew the southeastern, the southern and the western entrances, and head instead to the northwestern entrance – which acts as a staff gate – and ask with a little-boy-lost-look for the Bee Institute (not very difficult to do if you really are lost!) you get waved through.
And sure enough if you keep your eyes peeled, you will eventually be rewarded with the sight of a notice board pointing to the “Institute of bees”. The only problem is that if you follow that direction, you end up in a building site and have bored looking workmen shouting at you asking what you want.
I put on my little-boy-lost look again (hey, I’m getting good at this!) and mutter out Mifeng bowuguan ma? at them. There is a hurried discussion and their leader points down a hill and goes into a torrent of incomprehensible Chinese. But I get the general idea and with a smile and a Xiexie, Zaijian I’m off in the general direction in which he points.
I come to a rather nice bridge over an expanse of water, realise I must have come too far by now, but stop to take some pictures before finding another park attendant on whom I once again can practise my pathetic rendering of Mandarin.
This time he points to a sign as if I’m daft or something. How could I have missed it? OK, it has faded badly in the sun over its lifetime of probably 19 years, but there as plain as plain could be are what look like the remains of some eyes and a striped body. Could this be what I am looking for?
I start walking up a hill. Is that a bouncy castle ahead of me? No! it’s a blow-up honey bee looking for all the world like an oversized sex toy. Is this how they entice the Chinese youngsters into their museum?
I find myself in the Bee Institute. But no sign of a museum anywhere. Now that my Mandarin has passed muster on more than a couple of occasions, I approach an old woman sweeping the path and ask yet again Mifeng bowuguan ma? Hmmm. Am I thick or something? Muttering under her breath she walks me round the corner and points at a low slung building. 中国蜜蜂博物馆! I’ve arrived!
Perhaps I should explain at this point that, according to a website, the museum was set up in 1993.
Not so, says another web site. It was set up in 1997.
Admission is 2 yuan says one site. Another says “Price: Cost money” without being overly specific. Yet another says it is free.
Opening Hours are from 08:00-16:30; or from 09:00 AM to 05:00 PM; but they all agree it is closed from November 15 to March 15.
This popular science educational base, located in the Hai Dan District, is all of 150 sq feet” says one American web site, which can’t even get the spelling of Haidian correct. Another site puts the size at 150 square metres, which I’m more inclined to believe.
See bee-keeping accoutrements and spend your afternoon engrossed in apicultural studies,” says another, forgetting that we’re talking about a micro-sized museum here. Anyway, I’ve come in the morning.
This bee kingdom possesses three exhibition halls,” gushes yet another web site that has been copied ad nauseam by others too lazy to go find it for themselves. “Little bees and their labor fruits contain endless knowledge.” I walk inside and count four rooms, though each one is hardly any bigger than my bedroom.
A museum guard is sitting in his chair fast asleep. Obviously no one expects visitors in this place, and I feel almost guilty when my muttered ni hao wakes him with a jolt. He smiles expansively, and I can imagine him going home later to his wife. Do you know we actually had someone visit the museum today, he will say. And can you believe it was a Laowai!
Stuck onto a wall is an introduction to the honey bee, translated into impeccable English. It starts by reminding everyone that “famous” quote of Albert Einstein, who once said “If the bee disappeared from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live.” (Except that according to my research, Einstein never said any such thing, the quote first originating some 40 years after his death. But let’s not allow the facts to get in the way of a good story!)
Someone has gone to a lot of trouble to pin a whole load of these unfortunate animals to a board and label it中华蜜蜂, or 'zhonghua mifeng' – Chinese honey bee.
That’s about as far as the English explanations go. After that, one is on one’s own, working out with the aid of some English headers, loads of pictures and diagrams (well, 475 according to the official blurb) and over 600 specimens the life and times of the common Chinese bee.
The main theme of the exhibition is 'Bees are friends of human beings', I read. The exhibits tell you everything you could possibly want to know about the origin and fossils of bees, the history of bee culture, the cultural links between bees and human beings, Chinese bee keeping resources, the biology of bees, bee pollination, bee products, and bee venom therapy… among others!
On entering this bee wonderland, one grows quite excited and feels as if he is wandering in the ancient world afar. All the bee fossils and specimens are vivid and great in style, expressing the history and life of the bee in every possible way. After learning the ins and outs of the interesting and particular kinds of bee dances, one may well understand the mystery of the insect world.” … or rather perhaps one would if one could understand Chinese.
Stuck up on another wall is a distribution map of nectar plants in China, from which I can only deduce that large swathes of the Middle Kingdom have no flowers at all.
There's a section on collecting honey, with a drawing of a woman being lowered down in a rope basket to raid a bee's nest, circa 500BC. “When entering ‘the kingdom of bee’, you will find yourself wandering in ancient times. Before your eyes are bee fossils and rock drawings which record the scene that people living 6,000 or 7,000 years ago are climbing the cliff to get the wild honey.”
Did you know that the word ''mi' (honey) was discovered in the inscriptions on bones and tortoise shells of the Shang Dynasty (16th-11th century BC), which demonstrates that China has a long history of bee culture. Mind you, why anyone would want to inscribe the word Honey onto the back of a poor tortoise beats me.
Ah, here we come to an explanation of the dance of the honeybee. And also something about pheromones. And about swarming. But apart from that I’m not much the wiser.
My friendly doorman comes up to me at this point and with a lot of tsk-tsking and waving his finger in the direction of the camera I am led to believe that photos are not allowed. I wait until he is nodding off again before grabbing a pic of stamps around the world featuring… what else, but the honeybee!
Finally, I come to a model of honeycomb being put to good use. OK, so the worker bees may look like a South African rugby team, and the ones dressed up as Red Guards are, I think, meant to represent wet nurses feeding their infants, but at least we learn how they mix up the feed in plastic bottles and cart the bee-brats away on wheelie-cradles. You see, there is always something you can learn from these museums!
After 15 minutes I feel I have learned everything there is to know about Apis Cerana. The time has just flown by – in truth it feels like I came in only 14 minutes ago; and with tears in my eyes, I bid a fond farewell to my new doorkeeper friend and step out into the sunshine once more.
I stroll once again through the Botanic Gardens, finding the time to visit the public conveniences for a quick pee. Over the taps are signs in simple, plain Chinese and English. If only Google Maps were this easy to understand!