Sustainable honey gathering methods

Traditional beekeeping for the Ligwan and other ‘hive bees’

‘Hive bees’ are those bees that naturally make their colonies inside holes in trees or in the ground, and so can be kept inside a hollowed out tree trunk or basket or box or pot of some kind that can be made from many different materials. (There is Egyptian art of around 4,500 years ago that shows some form of beehive being used.) In some countries of Africa, Asia and the Middle East bees may be kept inside cavities built into house walls. This keeps bees safe from predators and protected from extremes of heat or cold.

The purpose of a hive is to encourage the bees to build their nests in such a way that it is easy for the beekeeper to manage and maintain them. The honeybee is only concerned to have a safe place, large enough for the whole colony (the bees’ family) and its stores, and protected from the weather and predators. The type of hive the honeybees live in has no effect upon the quality of honey made. Honeybees always store clean and perfect honey regardless of where they are living: it is the handling by humans that leads to a reduction in the quality of the honey (1) (2).

The volume of honey harvested from a colony is decided by the forage for bees that is available in the area, and the strength and needs of the colony. As long as the hive has a large enough volume, the bees will store as much honey as they can to support the colony for when the weather means they can’t collect nectar and pollen. The beekeeper however can learn skills to understand the bees better so that the beehive is managed well to increase the honey harvested.

Currently most, if not all, the hunter hunters in the Philippines do not use or are unaware of techniques such as ‘bait hives’. If this simple technique was used, there would be less destruction of wild colonies and 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.

‘Swarm traps’ and ‘bait hives’ for obtaining colonies

Ligwan honeybee colonies naturally reproduce by creating ‘swarms’ of maybe 500 – 2,000 bees together with a ‘queen’ bee (who will lay all the eggs in the new colony). The swarm is looking for a suitable cavity in which to settle, and the ‘swarm trap’ is intended to attract the bees to settle at least for a while. The ‘bait hive’ is generally intended to allow the bees to settle and start making new comb for the new colony. These would need to be placed in the general vicinity of existing colonies.

Swarm traps may just be planks of wood coated with beeswax hung on trees, or parts of a destroyed nest. Passing swarms would pick up the scent of the beeswax, and are often attracted to it. When the swarm settles the bees are gently lowered into a box or the new beehive, the top put on and transported to the desired location. A bait hive is an enclosed weather proof box of a suitable size with an entrance hole (or a re-used beehive) with wax inside as an attractant for swarms.

Other traps can be made by digging rectangular holes on cliffs or near river beds, then sealing them with stones. Clay or earthen ware (using wax as lures) are also used. Log hives made from tree or palm trunk cut at lengths of 33cm and sealed at both ends with wooden slabs can be used, with an entrance of about 1 cm by 4 cm. Coconut, Anahaw (Livistona species) and Buri (Arenga species) trunks are commonly used. (3)

Another method is using simple box hives made from plywood or wooden pallet scraps. The hive can measure about 33cm high, 22cm wide and 20cm deep with removable side panels. Harvesting is done only when needed, and the colonies are rarely disturbed. If only the outer honeycombs are removed the colony may continue to occupy the hive and produce more honeycomb.

Fixed comb beehives

The bees attach their combs to the inside upper surface of the hive. This means that combs cannot be removed without being broken when the beekeeper harvests the nest. Bees may or may not be killed during this process, depending on the care of the beekeeper. If the colony is destroyed, the hive will remain empty for a while. If there are plenty of honeybee colonies in the area then a migrating colony or swarm may settle in the empty hive and start building a new nest.

Log hives made from tree or palm trunk cut at lengths of 33cm and sealed at both ends with wooden slabs can be used, with an entrance of about 1 cm by 4 cm. Coconut, Anahaw (Livistona species) and Buri (Arenga species) trunks are commonly used. (3) Another method is using simple box hives made from plywood or wooden pallet scraps. The hive can measure about 33cm high, 22cm wide and 20cm deep with removable side panels. Harvesting is done only when needed, and the colonies are rarely disturbed. If only the outer honeycombs are removed the colony may continue to occupy the hive and produce more honeycomb.

Because the tropical Ligwan (Apis cerana) is more likely to abscond (leave the hive) and migrate, it can be a better strategy to have a large number of low cost hives, only some of which will be occupied at any time. The bees are more likely to abscond if they are disturbed for some reason, so careful placement of the beehives and clear ownership markings should be practised, and ideally also respected by the community.

Movable comb beehives

‘Top bar hives’ have the advantages of movable frame hives (no need to break combs, standardisation, manageability, efficient honey harvest) without the disadvantage of high cost manufacture. The bees are encouraged to construct their combs from the undersides of a series of top-bars – instead of attaching comb to the ceiling of the hive (as in a fixed comb hive) or building comb inside a rectangular, wooden frame (as in a frame hive).

Apis cerana top bar hive in India

This is a picture of a Ligwan colony in a top bar hive in India (6)

Top-bars allow individual combs to be lifted from the hive by the beekeeper. The combs can then be replaced back in the hive, removed for harvest, or maybe moved to another hive or colony. The only items that need construction with precision are the top-bars, with about 30mm between the centres for Apis cerana.

‘Modern’ frame beehives (Langstroth beehives)

Frame hives must be constructed with precision. The spacing between frames must achieve the same spacing as in a natural nest. Frames are contained within boxes and each hive may consist of a number of boxes placed on top of one another. The frames can allow more manipulation by the beekeeper with the aim of increasing the honey produced, and these ‘Langstroth’ type beehives are used by most of the commercial honey producers.

Traditional beekeeping for the Putyokan or ‘wild bees’

Honey gatherers of India. The video above is from a professional honey company in India (4), 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 (5) 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 do not use or 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 and Ligwan 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’ (3) 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.

Offer your opinion in the ‘Leave a Reply’ form below.

References …

1) Honey Hunting and Beekeeping
Food and Agriculture Organisation
ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/012/i0842e/i0842e06.pdf

2) Bees and their roles in forest livelihoods
Nicola Bradbear, Food and Agriculture Organisation 2009, 242 pages
http://www.fao.org/docrep/012/i0842e/i0842e00.HTM

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

4) Bharat Honey – a professional Indian honey company
http://www.bharathoney.in/index.php

5) Biology of Apis dorsata in Vietnam
http://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/docs/00/89/22/51/PDF/hal-00892251.pdf

6) The Hive Trust,’Samskruthi’, Rangaiahna Bagilu, Chitradurga, India
http://thehive-trust.blogspot.co.uk/2009_12_01_archive.html

About Julian

Julian Wright is a British agricultural scientist married to a Philippine teacher, who has a house and some land planted to coconuts and other crops near Dumaguete in the Philippines.
This entry was posted in Apis cerana (Ligwan), Apis dorsata (Putyukan), Beekeeping, General posts, Honey hunting. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Sustainable honey gathering methods

  1. Edwin D. Araña says:

    Good day, Julian!

    I find your site when I was searching about wild honey. I got interested in this when I got raw wild honey from the Iraynon Tribe in Northern Antique. They gather their honey from the North Western Panay National Park.

    This Sunday I’ll be meeting some of the Honey Hunter and the Tribal Chieftain to talk about honey with some information I have from your site. Through site I was also able to advocate about preserving the honeybees.

    I appreciate your passion for the honeybees! Keep up the good work!

    God bless!

    Edwin

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