Whenever beekeepers run into Uncle Lee, they tend to bring up pesticides and ask when he's planning to spray. That's because Uncle Lee's honeysuckle field is located right next to a bee farm, and bees are highly sensitive to pesticides. As the bees are most active in the day, Uncle Lee only applies pesticides to his crops after six o'clock and tries to do so away from the beehives.
A farmer applies pesticides to his honeysuckle field. Stream Village, Pingyi County, Shandong. © Simon Lim / Greenpeace
Uncle Lee has been planting honeysuckle for as long as he can remember - it's a practice that extends back generations in his family. It is a perennial plant, and every year he applies pesticides at least twice: once at the end of March when the plants are beginning to sprout and again in May when the flowers bloom. He commonly uses the pesticides omethoate and carbendazim, and the amounts grow more concentrated when the flowers bloom. This is also when the bees will be more active around the plants, and thus risk being more exposed to these harmful toxins. Less than one week after this, he will pick the honeysuckle.
There's little point in trying to discuss the dangers of pesticides with Uncle Lee. He's convinced that rainwater will simply wash away any residues, or that after two or three days the residues will disappears on its own accord. When we showed him a mask and gloves he reacted with ambivalence, telling us farmers are already accustomed to working with pesticides without special protection. Doing so would simply feel cumbersome.
Close to where honeysuckle is being grown, bees are raised. Stream Village, Pingyi County, Shandong. © Simon Lim / Greenpeace
When discussing the honeysuckle of his hometown, a look of pride swells up in Uncle Lee's face. He tells us that the country's largest pharmacies all source their honeysuckle from the area. And that only here is production most authentic - the Southern part of the country can't even compare.
But big traditional Chinese medicine companies like Tong Ren Tang don't buy from Uncle Lee direct. They would acquire his honeysuckle through middlemen which means Uncle Lee can't be sure exactly where his goods end up. And these middlemen have no interest in pesticide usage; they only look at the honeysuckle colour and quality when deciding whether or not to buy.
Uncle Lee beams with self confidence, but we can't help but wonder how he would react if he knew the results of our testing. If he knew that the honeysuckle from the village, that he is so proud of, tested positive for high levels of pesticides and that many of these products are being sold with dozens of different kinds of pesticide traces.
This story is part of our investigation: "Heal the Herbs" that reveals a cocktail of pesticide residues on Chinese medicinal herbs.