Coconut production remains crucial for the Asia-Pacific region, but coconut yields are dropping with aging as a top factor. Scientists explain that replanting would increase output by 50 to 100 per cent within a few years with a mature palm producing as many as 400 nuts a year. However, governments are more interested in rice and palm oil than in coconut, FAO experts noted. (1)
In the Philippines, one in five people depends on the crop to some extent, this according to the Asian and Pacific Coconut Community. In the Philippines, an estimated 340 million trees cover 26 per cent of farmland, yielding 43 nuts per tree a year, accounting for as much as 5 per cent of the Filipino GDP. By contrast, output is stable in Vietnam at about 100 nuts per tree a year in most areas, up from about 60 a few years ago. (1) (Note that Vietnam appears to have a good pollinator environment and now produces over 400 times more honey than the Philippines.)
There is substantial evidence that the increase in coconut yields in Vietnam and some other areas is largely associated with an improving pollination environment – mainly by having more bees. It is hoped that Philippine agriculturalists properly understand this vital connection. This post lists some of the many sources of this information – most of which come from outside the Philippines.
It is clear that older trees generally produce less coconuts, but there are other factors to consider in order to gain the maximum number of coconuts per tree. Essentially a coconut flower has to be successfully pollinated to start the development of a nut. The coconut plant is monoecious with inflorescences bearing both male and female flowers. The male flowers, which are on the top portion of spikelets attached to the peduncle, are more numerous than the female flowers, which occupy the base of the spikelets. Coconuts are both wind and insect pollinated. (4)
The European honey bee (Apis mellifera) and the Asian honey bee (Apis cerana) or Ligwan are outstanding pollinators of coconut palms (2). Coconuts are wind-pollinated but increased yields (up to double) when beehives are present in plantation (India) (2).
Information on the role of honeybees as pollinators in coconut-based mixed cropping systems in Indonesia is provided. (2) Honeybees are very important in the pollination of coconut. Without bees, the fruit setting of palms, tall or dwarf ones drops drastically. Outstanding pollinators are Apis mellifera (European honeybee) and Apis cerana indica (Asian honeybee or ‘Ligwan’). Apart from coconut and related palm species, the bees visit a wide range of crops including wild plants to collect nectar and pollen. This phenomenon provides an advantage in attracting the bees to coconut-based mixed cropping systems.
The European honeybee is well known as a high yielding species in producing honey and sometimes forages coconut palms besides Mimosa spp. or other crops. The oriental species Apis cerana shows fidelity to coconut palm, but is (comparatively) less productive. It resembles Apis mellifera in behaviour. The honey of these two species may provide additional income for small landholders. (2)
Studies on crops in Malaysia (3) showed that many agricultural crops such as starfruits, mango, durian, watermelon, guava and coconut could be pollinated by stingless bees.
Take a bus journey through the Philippine countryside and observe carefully the numbers of coconuts on the trees. After half an hour of doing this you will most probably realize that some trees in small areas have quite a lot of coconuts and yet there are large areas where most, if not all, the trees have relatively few coconuts. Taking into account the age of trees, and times when and where harvesting may have taken place, a pattern emerges. The trees with many coconuts are around buildings or other structures with old bamboo or wood where the stingless bees make their colonies.
Studies of the foraging ranges of stingless bees have found that they can possibly fly over a kilometer from the colony, but also that they will visit much more frequently good pollen sources which are closest to the colony. Hence, they currently are doing an unsatisfactory job of widespread pollination of coconut plantations.
Antonio Baconawa (5) calls coconut plantations ‘A Haven for Honeybees’ as follows…
More than half of the three million hectares of coconut plantations in the Philippines are bearing. Coconut trees bear flowers and fruit year-round. For this reason, honeybees, particularly, Apis cerana tend to build their colonies in coconut plantations. The amount of swarming (division of colonies) is pronounced during toddy tapping in the plantation. Bees are very much attracted to the taste and smell of coconut nectar. A beekeeper from Tagum, Davao del Norte said a colony of foreign honeybees can gather 8 – 10 kilos of coconut nectar in one day. Beekeeping under coconuts can boost the coconut farmer’s earning by an average of Php 100,000 (about $ 2,000) a hectare per year.
In the culture of honeybees in coconut plantation, the spadix (inflorescent) should be allowed to secrete nectar during the day. Then, this is gathered at night and fed to the bees in the morning. The coconut nectar that cannot be consumed by the bees may be processed into native wine (tuba) or vinegar. Half of the sliced spadix can be opened so it can still produce nuts to be processed into copra, candies, and other by-products.
Studies made by the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) show that half of the length of coconut spadix can be tapped without significant effect on its production of nuts. A spadix has thousands of flowerets in it, but only 10 to 15 develop into nuts. A coconut tree produces an average of 1 liter of coconut nectar, which has 15 percent sucrose and 5 percent or more of dry matter. It can support the nectar needs of two strong Apis cerana colonies. A colony of this species has the potential to produce 15 – 30 kilos of honey from a single coconut tree. Based on this estimate, a coconut farmer can earn an additional income of Php 100,000 a hectare from his honey, pollen, royal jelly and wax.
The above account describes the potential value of combining bees and coconuts, which is recognised in the Philippines (6).
Toddy tapping a coconut spadix.
It has long been noticed that honeybees are attracted to toddy tapping, but also that many bees fall into the toddy and drown. The appropriate use of a gauze or sacking could avoid this problem.
A common crop to plant between coconut trees is sweetcorn but the economic return of sweetcorn is often quite marginal. The ground needs to be ploughed to control weeds and to get reasonable yields fertilizers are needed especially after a few crops have been harvested. If bees are encouraged in the area then inter-planting crops like sunflowers, mangos and coffee may have more potential for sustainable economic returns.
Many Haitian trees are associated with food as much as with timber, e.g. coconut palm, mango, banana/plantain, coffee, and also timber species + food species + agronomic crops often found growing all together (7).
The studies that have been done on the effect of having honeybee colonies in proximity to coconut plantations show increased yields are produced, because of improved pollination. There are many variables in this type of study including the species of honeybee, the stocking densities, foraging ranges etc. Overall it is considered that increases of between 20 to 70% (35 to 50% might be an average figure) in coconut yields can be expected.
Persistent efforts to increase coconut yields using new varieties, salt fertilisers and other techniques are made, but currently the fundemental issue of ‘pollination’ does not appear to merit consideration by the Philippine Coconut Authority(8). Surely this is an ‘oversight’ when there is so much evidence that it is such an important factor in boosting coconut yields, or perhaps it should be viewed as an important factor causing coconut yields to be ‘lower than they should be’ if the issue of pollination was considered.
Whichever way the problem is viewed, the basic facts are that the continuing uncontrolled and needless destruction of native honeybee pollinators is very costly to the millions of Philippine citizens affected by depressed coconut yields. This situation then has widespread negative economic, social and environmental effects. The issues contributing to depressed coconut yields and depressed yields in many other bee-associated crops need to be appreciated at a national agricultural and government level, which should then help to promote awareness of the issues in rural communities.
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1) From India to the Philippines, coconut yields drop – AsiaNews.IT
2) Bee pollination benefits for nut crops – West Australia Dept of Agriculture
3) Conservation and sustainable utilization of stingless bees for pollination services in agricultural ecosystems in Malaysia
4) Coconut – farm and forestry production and marketing profile
5) A Guide to Beekeeping in the Philippines
Antonio D. Baconawa
6) The Tale of Bees and Coconuts forging an Alliance
7) Something a little different: forestry in Haiti
8) Philippine Coconut Authority – Research and Development Branch