There are two subspecies in the Philippines: Apis dorsata dorsata (pictured above) and Apis dorsata breviligula (which has a black with white stripes abdomen, pictured below).
The foraging bees are over 2 cm long, and fly at quite high speeds between flowers and when returning to or leaving the colonies. The pictures show that they have a ‘furry body’ which helps them gather and spread pollen. On the hind legs are the ‘pollen baskets’ which carries the load of pollen back to the colony. These bees are also sipping flower nectar which will be converted by the bees into honey.
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 honeybees may sting is when the colony is attacked. Honeybees will only sting in defence as a last resort because they will die after stinging. If the Putyokan colony is undisturbed there is no danger to people.
Putyokan honeybees build single large combs in the open, underneath tree branches usually, or possibly underneath overhanging cliffs, or even underneath ledges in buildings. The colony makes a single large comb and the large (each bee is about 2.5cm long) black coloured honeybees cover the outside of the comb. A colony may have many thousands (up to 60,000) of bees and the comb, perhaps a metre in length, hangs in an arc under a branch that is usually at an angle of between 10 and 30 degrees. Honey is stored in the upper parts of the comb just under the branch and furthest out from the tree trunk, whilst the eggs and developing bees (known as ‘brood’) are in the lower area of the comb.
Close-up of the bees covering the outside of the comb.
As can be seen, many colonies of Putyokan honeybees can exist close together in a healthy tropical environment. These bees are native to tropical Asia and do not exist in colder climates. This gives some indication of the potentially rich food sources for the bees in tropical countries such as the Philippines where 75% of plant species (and crops) are foraged (and pollinated) by bees and other insects.
Putyokan (Apis dorsata) geographical distribution (10)
Studies into nesting sites for Putyokan honeybees in Malaysia (1) and India (3) (4) provide quite detailed information about the locations near sea level and up into mountainous areas, plus the preferred nesting heights and the plants foraged on. The studies are in regions at similar latitudes to the Philippine islands, and some comparisons can be inferred. When the first humans arrived in the Philippines about 67,000 years ago Putyokan colonies would probably have been a frequent sight wherever there was forest including down to the lowland and sea level areas. Clearly a lot has changed since then and now Putyokan colonies have been pushed back up into the mountains and remaining forested areas, as a direct result of human activity.
The retreat of Putyokan honeybee populations would have come initially from two factors – habitat loss and honey hunting predation. More recently other factors such as pesticides, the use of motorbikes and other activities have added to the pressures on Puyokan populations. As human populations expand and bee populations shrink the relentless impact on the pollinators becomes ever greater. Without some element of restraint or management this process will inevitably lead to a worsening pollination environment.
A Food and Agriculture Organization publication (9) states …
Nests of the giant honeybee have been hunted by man since antiquity, and today, organized bee hunting exists in many parts of Asia. In Thailand, bee-hunters must pay fees for permits to hunt the bee in state forests, and landowners possessing bee trees sell annual or biennial rights to hunt nests from such trees. Some professional bee-hunters prefer to work at night. Smoke is used to pacify the bees, which are then scraped from the comb. The nest is cut and placed in a cloth bag, which is lowered to an assistant on the ground. This method does not result in all colonies being killed: about a fourth of the colonies in a bee tree that has been worked over are able to reconstruct their nests. The recent intensification of bee hunting has caused an alarm in several Asian countries. There is general concern that the total number of A. dorsata nests all over Asia may be on the verge of declining, partly due to shrinking forest areas, the use of toxic pesticides in foraging farm lands, and bee hunting.
In Ahmednagar, a city of 350,000 in India the study (2) looked at 120 Putyokan colonies within the city boundaries, some on buildings and some in trees. Sadly there is no such situation in the Philippines, not because of the bees but because of the ‘mindset’ of many people towards the bees. There is a relative rarity of Putyokan colonies now in the Philippines, compared to the numbers of colonies there used to be and the number of colonies that there would ideally be in a healthy tropical ecosystem. Hence the pollinator environment has been, and is continuing to be degraded which has contributed to a situation where many crops yields are becoming affected by insufficient pollination.
Putyokan honeybees are supreme pollinators, since the large bees can forage over large distances (several kms) but will usually stay within 500m if there is sufficient pollen and nectar sources (4) (5). The size of the combs that a colony of up to 60,000 bees can produce are impressive (30 to 200cm long) with maybe 15 kg of honey – the typical colony produces about 5 kg of honey (6). If estimates of 4 million flowers visited to produce 1 kg of honey are used – the pollinating capability of the Putyokan is potentially highly valuable to farmers.
Studies of the pollen collected (3) by Putyokan bees include coffee and coconut pollen amongst many others. For example, Putyokan bees are very important for coffee pollination and yields. If there is a higher density of Putyokan colonies in an area then the bees will forage further away from the area to collect pollen and nectar, thereby improving the pollination environment for farmers over a large surrounding area.
Sustainable harvesting of Putyokan colonies
Honey gatherers of India. The video above is from a professional honey company in India (8), and clearly shows how selected parts of the comb can be cut out – to ‘save nature’ as the source states on YouTube.
As the video above shows, in Cambodia there is some effort to train honey hunters to use the simple technique of erecting ‘rafters’ or wooden logs in a certain position near to the ground, and to harvest the honey in a sustainable and more productive manner. In this way ‘honey gathering’ encourages and cultivates Putyokan honeybee colonies.
The use of the traditional honey gathering technique of ‘rafters’ was described in the Vietnam study (6) partly to improve efficiency for the harvesting of the combs … When the Melaleuca flowers bloom [in Vietnam] thousands of Apis dorsata swarms arrive and are lured to build nests on low man-made supports called rafters. Apis dorsata bees are an important part in the ecology of the forests and the income of the local people in Vietnam (Crane et al., 1993; Chinh et al., 1995), as well as in Indonesia (Crane et al., 1993) and India (Mahindre, 2000).
Currently most, if not all, the hunter hunters in the Philippines are unaware of techniques such as rafters. If this simple technique was used in combination with just removing the significant honey bearing part of the comb by honey gatherers, very significant improvements in long term bee populations might be expected. This would provide greater honey yields for the ‘honey gatherers’ and improved pollination rates for crops leading to better yields and incomes for farmers.
It is evident that this resource is very important for rural communities. In the Philippines it appears that neither the government or universities offer advice or training to honey hunters on how the Putyokan colonies can be harvested or managed sustainably. Indeed there are some in the Philippines who currently believe that ‘there are still abundant population of indigenous bees’, and publish ‘steps for harvesting’ (7) describing how the whole Putyokan comb is to be cut down and then – ‘Take the brood away from the nest site. It will attract bees.’ (This is the only reason given for destroying the brood and therefore the colony. It may be that some of the brood is eaten, but this is not mentioned.)
In summary, there is an urgent need to raise awareness of the issues in the Philippines and hopefully to change ‘hearts and minds’, so that positive benefits can be realised for everyone in the rural communities.
Click this link for further information on honey hunting & honey gathering.
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1) Predict Location(s) of Apis dorsata Nesting Sites Using Remote Sensing and Geographic Information System in Melaleuca Fohttp://www.researchgate.net/publication/46179117_Predict_Location(s)_of_Apis_dorsata_Nesting_Sites_Using_Remote_Sensing_and_Geographic_Information_System_in_Melaleuca_Forestrest
2) Observations on altitudinal preference in comb construction by
Rock Bee Apis dorsata (Fabr.) at Ahmednagar (M.S.) India
3) Bee Plants of Apis dorsata during Winter Season from Coonoor Region, Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu, India http://jairjp.com/MARCH%202014/10%20PADMAVATHY.pdf
4) Observations on the dance communication and natural foraging ranges of Apis cerana, Apis dorsata and Apis florea in Sri Lanka
5) Honeybees of Asia
By H. Randall Hepburn, Sarah E. Radloff, 682 pages
6) Biology of Apis dorsata in Vietnam
7) Management of Native Bees – Trigona spp, Apis cerana, Apis dorstata
UPLB Bee Program 2009, 72 pages
8) Bharat Honey – a professional Indian honey company
9) The Giant honeybee Apis dorsata – descriptive document from the FAO
10) Wikimedia information