‘Honey hunting’ & ‘Honey gathering’

Honey hunting

Over many years in rural areas of the Philippines a small but significant proportion of the population have traditionally obtained honey from colonies of native honeybees. The two main targets are the ‘Wild honeybee’ or Putyokan (Apis dorsata) and the ‘Asian honeybee’ or Ligwan (Apis cerana).

Putyokan make their home in the open usually under the branches of tall trees. 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 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 are in the lower area of the comb.

To drive the bees away from the Putyokan comb a fire is lit under the tree and the smoke is directed at the colony. Once the comb is free of bees the comb will be cut down. There is a choice here: either the whole comb can be cut down which means the colony is destroyed, or just a portion of the honey bearing comb can be cut out meaning that the bees can return and the colony can recover to carry on producing more honey. Sadly in the Philippines the common practice is the former, even though in the longer term the latter practice will produce far more honey. (In other south eastern Asian countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia, research indicates that honey hunters are more understanding and commonly use the latter practice.)

Honey hunters of the Philippines – note that the whole comb is removed.

Honey hunters (Honey gatherers) of Cambodia – note that comb is left for the colony to recover.

Honey hunters of India – note that the whole comb is removed.

Some honey hunters in other countries such as India, apart from the Philippines, also remove the whole comb and these videos do not represent fully the practise in each of the countries of course. The important point is that it is not necessary to remove the comb that does not contain much honey and which will have living brood (eggs and developing bees) – this can be left to give the bees the opportunity to return and recover the colony. If the whole comb is removed, the stress of the loss that the bees suffer means that the colony most likely will be unable to recover and hence the colony is needlessly destroyed.

Honey gatherers of India. This video is from a professional honey company in India (1), and clearly shows how selected parts of the comb can be cut out – to ‘save nature’ as the source states on YouTube.

The practice of ‘harvesting’ the whole comb of Putyokan in the Philippines seems to result from 3 factors: lack of understanding, lack of discipline, and a mistrust of other honey hunters. (Having discussed the practice of ‘harvesting’ Putyokan colonies with honey hunters, at some point the case may be given that ‘if we don’t get the whole comb then other people will’.)

This link gives more guidance on Sustainable harvesting of Putyokan colonies.

It is intended to produce an information leaflet for honey hunters which will make the case for leaving part of the comb to allow recovery of the colony. Such a leaflet ideally would need to drafted with the help of experienced Putyokan honey hunters and bee scientists in the Philippines so that the most realistic advice can be offered, with a version in the local dialect. Some honey hunters rely on this trade for most (or maybe all) of their income and so interference may be regarded with understandable suspicion.

Ligwan 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. Ligwan 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.

Fire and smoke is used to drive the Ligwan 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.)

Other posts provide further information on Ligwan colonies and methods for sustainable and more productive harvesting of Ligwan colonies.

Honey extracted from the combs may be consumed by family and close friends. Some honey hunters will dilute honey with large amounts of brown sugar and water to be cooked up into a sugary brownish syrup, which is then put in old rum bottles to be sold as ‘pure honey’ (sometimes with a bit of wax and a dead bee inside to add some credibility that the contents are actually honey). Sadly, people buying this may be hoping that honey will help with some medical problem (which it might if the contents were genuine). With so much of this fake honey around (sold by honey hunters and available in ‘sari sari’ stores) many people are deceived and confused as to what honey actually tastes and looks like.

It is difficult to assess or measure ‘honey’ obtained via honey hunting as a ‘honey production’ figure, but whatever is obtained is done so in an uncontrolled, destructive and unsustainable manner. (It is recorded that about 37 tons of Putyokan honey is obtained each year, but the actual figure may be quite different. This honey has distinctive qualities and does not seem to be generally available in supermarkets for sale to the public.)

From discussions with honey hunters and rural people it is evident that they do not have sufficient understanding of the biology and role of these bees to appreciate the damage that is being done to their own agricultural environment and their own future and the future of their children. If they had such an appreciation then it is likely that the community would be urging the honey hunters to stop, or at least to change their methods and act as ‘honey gatherers’ which would be more sustainable. It is critical therefore that effective education is needed in the essential concepts of what role the bee performs, both at schools and in the communities.

Given the increasingly dire situation with static and falling crop yields, the relentless continuing degradation of this key native resource (bees) needs to be addressed with some urgency. As fewer honeybee colonies remain the same number of honey hunters have a relatively greater impact on the bee populations. Because of the biologically complex way in which reproduction operates in bee colonies, the collapse in numbers of colonies in an area is affected by the number and genetic diversity of the colonies. When only a few colonies remain ‘in breeding’ occurs and the remaining colonies die out quickly.

Honey gathering

A ‘honey gatherer’ could be defined as having a more sympathetic approach, whereby only the honey bearing portion of an Putyokan comb is removed. Another simple technique is the use of ‘rafters’ as a move towards a more sustainable harvesting of Putyokan colconies.

Ligwan honey can be obtained by providing simple hives for the bees to occupy, which means the making of simple re-usable boxes of a suitable size with suitable entrances put in suitable places. This avoids the destruction of wild colonies which could be left undisturbed for the most part.

These honey harvesting methods have been practiced for centuries in some other regions of the world. The evident damage currently being done to the rural environment by reckless un-informed honey hunting means that unless behaviours start to change, the bee populations in some areas may not be able to recover. Insufficient up-to-date information on bee populations is available to assess which regions or islands are under most stress and hence people are asked to help with a simple survey of bee populations.

Instead of destroying bee colonies, honey gathering allows bee populations to be maintained and even increased. Bee colonies which are now being ‘cultivated’ increases the total number of bees in the local area, and crops in the local area increase their yields due to improved pollination rates. Importantly the honey gatherers are also then able to harvest more honey than acting as honey hunters. Honey gathering would have a long term sustainable future which contributes to their local community, whereas honey hunting is just killing off the increasingly rare resource on which it depends and is damaging the local community.

To promote ‘honey gathering’ would be in the best interests of all the rural community since everyone can benefit – the farmers, the enlightened honey hunters, their children and other people dependant on rural incomes. Such simple changes could dramatically slow up the negative effects of bee loss, and hopefully help to change attitudes which in the medium to longer term may lead to an improving situation, with a more resilient and guaranteed food supply for an ever increasing human population.

For example – if honey hunters were ‘informed’ or ‘advised’ or ‘instructed’ by the Department of Agriculture to leave part of the wild honeybee comb intact, this in itself could lead to significant improvements in important crop yields and also long term improvements in the amount of honey the honey hunters can harvest !

A further development of honey gathering would be ‘beekeeping’ which would yield even more honey plus also wax, propolis and other money earning products. Hence it can be a rewarding employment option for anyone who is prepared to learn the skills needed. (For example, a honey hunter could become a honey gatherer or beekeeper, or employed by a beekeeper so that bees are ‘kept’ not killed.)

Increasing the number of honey gatherers and beekeepers around the Philippines and building up a good national stock of bees in beehives, in addition to allowing the native bee population to recover, would have major positive effects on rural incomes and resilient food supplies into the future.

References …

1) Bharat Honey – a professional Indian honey company

About Julian Wright

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.
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