by Horst Wendorf, Bacolod City, The Philippines
The indigenous honeybee species of the Philippines include Apis dorsata, Apis cerana and Apis andreniformis: the latter present only on Palawan Island. Honey hunting has long been practised in the tropical forest, which is increasingly threatened by human encroachment and destructive activities including charcoal burning and illegal logging. The forest cover has been reduced to less than 50% of the land area. On some islands like Negros, only 7% of forest-cover remains. In many Asian countries beekeeping with Apis cerana in traditional hives has been very common, yet such techniques have never been practised in the Philippines. Honey gathering, mainly from Apis dorsata, still takes place in woodlands and local honey can be found for sale along the roadside. Modern beekeeping emerged in the 1970s with the importation of European races of the honeybee Apis mellifera together with associated frame hive technology. Earlier random attempts to introduce Apis mellifera had failed for various reasons. In 1987, 2,000 colonies of Apis mellifera were counted; today 3,800 colonies produce 76 tonnes of honey. It is estimated that an additional 24 tonnes are yielded from indigenous bees. It is asserted that few beekeepers use Apis cerana. Almost all the honey sold in the supermarkets is imported from the USA. Local and imported honey fetches the same price: US$4 per kg. Most beekeepers are semi-commercial private beekeepers, with few hives, who often give up after a few years. Beekeeping development projects have been started in different islands but few have survived for a long period.
The Multi-Sectoral Alliance for Development (MUAD), a registered NGO working on Negros Island has been implementing various development projects in co-operation with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources of the Philippines, supported by the CPPAP-World Bank programme. Most of those projects are associated with the protection and conservation of natural resources of the remaining forest in the natural park around the volcano Mount Kanla-on. Target groups are poor communities, whose members are organised in Peoples Organisations (POs). More than 3,000 households are occupants of the park and depend for their livelihood on its resources. MUAD staff together with some PO members had visited beekeeping projects and asked the German Development Service for technical assistance to start beekeeping. The major objectives were to provide an alternative income opportunity through sales of bee products and to reduce unsustainable honey hunting practices in the protected areas. Beekeeping was to be introduced in villages along the buffer zone and would help protect the natural park by winning beekeepers as custodians of nature.
Success in beekeeping development projects depends first on the prevailing bee flora and available species of bees, and also on the technology being used. Negros Island (203 x 70 km in size) is the ‘sugar centre’ of the Philippines. Suitable bee forage may be found only in the remaining tropical forests and in the villages, gardens and fields near the protected areas. The pollen and nectar value of rainforest plants and of many Asian fruit trees are hardly known. Other common bee plants and crops are scattered and do not provide mass forage opportunities. Apis cerana, like most other bees, is almost extinct on Negros. In two years of fieldwork only two colonies were seen and one of these was drone laying.
Despite widespread poverty, most people in the Philippines are very familiar with western lifestyles and ideas. The project participants visited commercial beekeepers and were stunned by the opportunities for export to Japan of cosmetics and bee venom. It was decided to work with Apis mellifera because all organisations and beekeepers involved advised against Apis cerana with its low yield, absconding habits and rare occurrence. The first 24 colonies were purchased from a commercial beekeeper on the main island of Luzon and brought to Negros by plane. Local carpenters started manufacturing Langstroth frame hives and other equipment. The breakeven point was calculated based on the harvest of 20 kg of honey per colony annually. At this rate, beekeeping would pay after two years. The major problem is the high price for three frame nucleus colonies, which cost US$40-50. Hives made from alternative materials were considered. However, experiences during monsoons revealed that only well made wooden hives can survive the extreme weather conditions. Top-bar hives were also suggested, but dismissed for various reasons. To guarantee the financial sustainability of the project it was decided that 50% of honey sale revenue should be paid into an account until the capital investment was repaid. This money would then serve to buy feed and honey jars, and also for continuation after the pilot project ended. A one-week training course for beginners that included practical bee management was conducted and followed by weekly training visits and guidance in all management steps.
The first year of tropical beekeeping
Hives were established in three apiaries, in different areas to test distinct forage habitats. A major constraint for beekeeping is the long monsoon season from June to December, in which hardly any pollen and nectar are available. Unfortunately, the first monsoon season was the wettest and longest in ten years. Trials revealed that it would be better to keep bees in the lowlands during the monsoon to keep them strong. Even so, significant amounts of honey were not generated there throughout the year. On the hillsides (400-800 m) colonies decreased to 2-3 brood combs soon after the end of the summer. They became very weak, the permanent high air humidity led to mouldy combs and chalkbrood, and the bees were unable to build new combs. Excessive supersedure attempts by the bees led to queenless colonies because of non-availability of drones. Although sugar feeding was constant, no improvement was detected. Pollen feeding was expensive and ineffective - all the pollen went mouldy after one day and was abandoned by the bees. In two out of the tested four areas, the bees never gained sufficient strength to generate any honey crop during the short summer. Only in one apiary 92 kg of honey were harvested from eight hives. The purchase of queens and bee colonies from the few beekeepers in the region, to replace the lost colonies, turned out to be problematic. Chalkbrood, Varroa and queens that became drone laying after a short period were not unusual. So-called breeder queens from Australia appeared very small and were not special in their performance.
Note: This report refers to experiences on Negros Island and mainly to the area around Mount Kanla-on. It is possible that beekeeping with Apis mellifera on other islands in the Philippines with different climatic patterns and distinct vegetation may produce different results.
Results and action
The search for more prosperous foraging areas went on, flowering calendars were drafted, bee plants identified and new apiaries tested. The assessment was that bees could not survive the year, and no colony exceeded 5-6 brood combs or generated any honey in areas dominated by rainforest. Migratory beekeeping is not viable mainly because Negros Island has no extensive bee plants or orchards with bee trees. Attempts to migrate hives locally to better foraging areas were frustrated by landowners and the general fear of bees, based not so much on experiences, but rather on anecdotes about Apis dorsata. Also small-scale farmers do not have the capacity to engage in migratory beekeeping. Avocado, cashew and a number of indigenous trees initially appeared to be promising, but they usually have scattered occurrence so there is no guarantee of a good yield. Bees survived better under coconut trees, but the honey crop was negligible. Coffee is plentiful in the project area but seemed not to contribute. Beekeeping was promising only in areas with older established gardens and in multiple use zones of the protected area. Here no sugar planting or tree cutting is permitted and small-scale agriculture dominates with some surviving large trees, riverbank habitats and unused land.
Disease and predators
The common practice of using Apistan against Varroa was replaced by the use of formic acid, which is cheaper and can be ordered in any chemical suppliers with delivery from Manila within days. It was noted that chalkbrood usually disappeared when colonies gained strength.
The limited availability of queens and healthy colonies, plus the requirement for future re-queening created a need for queen rearing. The first attempts were not very successful. Few drones were available and the colonies only became strong enough at the end of the season. Therefore in the next season all efforts were made to start queen rearing early. Some participants, who had developed considerable skills in beekeeping, were trained as trainers and also learnt queen rearing methods. Fifteen queens were successfully mated and the group was able to give some nucleus colonies to a new participant. At the next harvest the overall quantity of honey increased, although the aim of 20 kg per hive seems to be unrealistic in the near future. However, the groups have acquired the skills to overcome the major obstacle in so many bee projects, which is to replace lost colonies and to re-queen the hives in time. Manipulations and management methods using queen excluders have been found useful to increase the honey yield. It is now considered that eventually all colonies will be moved to the lowlands during the monsoon season, where they remain strong and vigorous. The search continues for apiaries around Mount Kanla-on with good bee forage to generate sufficient honey yields. Honey sells immediately and already the unique brand of Mount-Kanla-on honey is famous. The demand is ever rising, which confirms, as is often the case in beekeeping development projects, that the bottleneck is not the market, but the production.
Horst Wendorf is a sociologist and ecology consultant. He has worked on beekeeping development projects for the last three years in the Philippines and previously ten years in southern Africa.
DVD: Beekeeping in Zambia describes the project Horst Wendorf worked with in Zambia showing appropriate beekeeping technology, processing and marketing of bee products, and the management of bees in top-bar hives. Available from Bees for Development click here
DVD: Beekeeping in Laos. Available from Bees for Development click here
[Bees for Development Journal #65}