Apis cerana honeybees (Ligwan)

animated_gif_bees_06  The Asian honeybee (Apis cerana) has several native names in the Philippines which include Ligwan, Laywan and Alig. In this website the Ligwan name is used.

Apis cerana bee

The foraging bees are about 1 cm long, and fly at high speeds between flowers and when entering or leaving the colonies. The picture shows they have a ‘furry body’ which helps them gather and spread pollen, and thereby pollinating plants. On the hind legs are the ‘pollen baskets’ which carries the load of pollen back to the colony. The bee is also sipping flower nectar which will be converted by the bees into honey.


Apis cerana make their home in enclosed areas which includes old trees, holes and small caves in the ground or possibly in human dwellings such as roof spaces etc. These honeybees are quite small in size (each bee is about 1cm long) with brown striped bodies. Apis cerana colonies build possibly 5 to 9 parallel combs, each up to about 20cm long. The outer combs and the tops of the combs will contain honey whilst the central combs will mainly contain the eggs and developing bees (called the ‘brood’).

Apis cerana nest

Honeybees are focused on obtaining nectar and pollen from flowers and then taking this back to the colony. They have no interest in harming humans or animals. The only time a honeybee may sting is when the colony is attacked. Honeybees will only sting in defence as a last resort because they will die after stinging.

Click on this link for details of the history of the Ligwan in the Philippines.

Apis cerana distribution

When humans first arrived in the Philippines about 67,000 years ago, Ligwan colonies would have been abundant on most (if not all) the islands, from sea level right up into the mountains.  They occupy the same ecological environment as the Putyokan honeybees and the Stingless Kiwot bees, and do not appear to conflict with each other.

On a single foraging trip, Ligwan foragers tend to collect either pollen or nectar from a single species of plant, continuing to collect pollen or nectar from that plant throughout the day (1).  Foraging ranges of the Ligwan are mostly (95%) within 500 to 900m of the colony, with maximum ranges of 2,500m.  Studies of the A. cerana incursion into Australia indicates that they will make new colonies in a wide range of habitats.

There are few studies that estimate nest density in Apis species in general (1) and in A. cerana in particular. One single study (2) on A. cerana nest density found it to be 22 nests per square kilometre in Padand Sumatra, with a mean distance between nests of 104 metres – it is unknown whether density saturation had been reached.  Ligwan colony sizes vary a great deal, from 2,000 to 34,000 bees.

Fire and smoke is used to drive the Apis cerana bees away. Accessing the combs is usually very destructive since digging etc is needed, and if (the hole in the ground can collapse burying the colony) and when the combs can be reached then all the combs are taken which results in destruction of the colony. The amount of honey yielded in this operation is often quite small.

This video shows the combs of a Ligwan colony being collected in India. The process is similar in the Philippines, although it is unlikely that such a large harvest would be obtained. (This video appears to be in a cooler mountainous region of India, whereas much of the hunted Ligwan colonies in the Philippines would be in a hotter climate and within underground holes.)

‘Honey hunting’ & ‘Honey gathering’ provides more information.

Initial feedback from the majority of about 30 ‘reviewers’ to the initial study before this website was created indicated that there was a problem with increasingly scarce Ligwan honeybees in a number of regions.  There is a lack of up-to-date population data of how abundant or scarce Ligwan colonies are in the wide range of environments, regions and islands in the Philippines, and that is why a Post to Post Links II error: No post found with slug "honeybee-survey" is part of this website.

Sustainable harvesting & management of Ligwan colonies

A number of studies (3) (4), and others have confirmed that Ligwan honeybees are effective and important pollinators for crop and non-crop species. Partly because of this and also because these honeybees can be cultured for honey, there is a variety of methods for hiving the bees.  Although the European honeybee has been the main international focus for commercial honey production for the past 20 years or so in the Asian region, there are indications (for a number of reasons, one of which is CCD) that more interest is again being shown in commercial Ligwan production.

In the Philippines there is currently some advice available on the cultivation of Ligwan – although this is difficult to obtain. The UPLB book (7) is not obtainable from The National Bookstores, and no advice is available on a website from the UPLB or government. This is unfortunate since there is a good account of traditional rearing techniques in the UPLB book (7) which could be very helpful to encourage ‘honey gathering’.

Currently it would be necessary for interested farmers, honey hunters (who were aware of the issues) and other people to search the internet themselves and try to obtain sufficient information from other sources. This is partly why this website has been created, in addition to raising general awareness. A discussion of various ‘honey gathering’ and rearing techniques will be posted, and it is hoped this can help honey hunters to act more sustainably as ‘honey gatherers’ – this would reduce the digging out and destruction of ‘wild’ Ligwan colonies.

More Ligwan colonies in the wild would provide more swarms for ‘honey gatherers’ who can re-use their hives, and harvest more honey more easily than they did as honey hunters. In addition the farmers would benefit by have more bees to pollinate their crops leading to increased yields and incomes.

In countries such as Vietnam (5), India (3) and Sri Lanka (4) the cultivation of Ligwan colonies have been part of the farming environment for many years.  In the Philippines Ligwan cultivation is limited (about 2,000 hives) and the recorded contribution in 2011 of this species to the honey production figure is only 3.5 tons, with an average yield of only about 1.8 kg per colony. It is striking that average honey yields of about 18 kg per Ligwan colony are recorded in countries such as Vietnam and Sri Lanka which have similar climates and the same variant of bee. There appear to be several reasons for this tenfold disparity, but detailed discussion of these issues go beyond the limits of this post. It is important that appropriate beekeeping techniques for Ligwan in the Philippines become established (the author has started some trial beehives).

Apis cerana top bar hive in India

This is a picture of a Ligwan colony in a top bar hive in India (8)

In another post more detailed advice is offered for ‘honey gatherers’ who can create simple hives for Ligwan swarms to occupy.

References …

1)  Ecology, Behaviour and Control of Apis cerana with a focus on relevance to the Australian Incursion

2) Estimating the density of honeybee colonies across their natural range to fill the gap in pollinator decline censuses. Conservation Biology 2009, 24, 583 to 593.

3)  Asiatic Honeybee Apis cerana: Biodiversity Conservation and Agricultural Production by Abrol, Dharam P. Pub: Springer August 2013, 1019 pages

4)  Beekeeping for Honey Production in Sri Lanka: management of Asiatic hive honeybee Apis cerana in its natural tropical monsoonal environment
Punchihewa RWK (1994) Sri Lanka Dept of Agriculture, Peradeniya Sri Lanka & Canadian International Development Agency, Quebec, Canada. 232 pages

5) Apis mellifera and Apis cerana in Vietnam – 1992 study

6) Farmer sets model with integrated farming – in Kerala, Southern India with Apis cerana

7) Management of Native Bees – Trigona spp, Apis cerana, Apis dorstata
UPLB Bee Program 2009, 72 pages

8) The Hive Trust,’Samskruthi’, Rangaiahna Bagilu, Chitradurga, India

2 Responses to Apis cerana honeybees (Ligwan)

  1. xaven says:

    Hi! Can i have permission to use your bee pictures for my school project? Thank you!

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