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City apiculture — a thriving hobby-business

Cikgu Michael Sabang opens a hive to show the honey pots (left) inside.

MIRIAN Aki Bujang remembers when he was still young, his grandparents could easily spot a kelulut (stingless bee) hive on the way to their padi field.

He would happily shout: “That’s the sweets for the little ones! Soon, we would be extracting honey from the tree trunk. Yes, those were the good old jungle days.”

Aki told thesundaypost many stories about ulu life — how they looked for honey by watching the tapang trees and how they waited for the kelulut (stingless) bees or meliponines to come home.

“It’s all in the past now. And today, like many indigenous people, the kelulut bees have migrated to the cities in search of food.

The tapang trees, once taboo to cut down, have succumbed to indiscriminate logging. The resinous species are gone and the bees cannot find food.

Many bee species, by far nature’s best pollinators, are very seriously endangered — probably to the point of extinction.

“Maybe that’s why our fruit trees are getting ‘rather cranky.’ Either they don’t fruit or they fruit in the wrong season,” Aki said with a faraway look in his eyes.

New urban business

Have you ever thought of becoming a bee keeper in the middle of a city? That’s not such a preposterous question because there are more people in the business of bee keeping in Miri City than you can imagine. And they don’t go around, wearing masks like Ghost Busters.

It’s actually an inconspicuous business and a good hobby, according to Cikgu Hashim (not his real name) who earns a fair income from it.

The whole family enjoy working together in the evenings, collecting honey from their 100 kelulut hives.

Cikgu Hashim started with only three hives, bought from a friend about two years ago. He hopes the business will grow and that he will still have his hobby-cum-business to keep him occupied when he retires.

A section of a bee farm in Miri.

Bee keepers in Miri

Miri’s apiarists keep a low profile and, the bees, like them, do not buzz around. In fact, the kelulut honey bees are extremely quiet creatures.

Try locating Bride’s Tears or Coral Vine in the residential areas. If they are grown around a house, you are bound to find kelulut hives in the garden.

Standing among the flowers and green plants are box hives which are rather small, perhaps less than one and half feet in width, height and breadth. Probed up on a tree trunk or log, they are not the natural bee hives you would imagine.

Bride’s Tears are lacy sprays of bright pink flowers with deeper pink centres. They are good climbers, forming good covers for fences and arbors. Also known as Queen’s Wreath, they were grown by British colonial families in the 50’s in Sarawak.

According to research, Bride’s Tears were introduced by the Dutch to colonial Indonesia. They are said to be “aggressive plants.”

Known locally as Air Mata Pengantin, the flowers are native to Mexico and often found in heirloom gardens in the US nowadays.

There are basically three types of Bride’s Tears — white, pink and darker pink. Grown on trellis, they look dramatic if well-pruned and arranged by gardeners or horticulturalists.

A kelulut hive.

Hobby-cum-business

Bee keeper Alan Wong (not his real name) from Sibu used to have an arbor (greenhouse) with potted plants.

But now that he has found a new and exciting hobby — keeping kelulut bees —  he has been growing Bride’s Tears from the ground to cover the roof of the arbor.

“These Bride’s Tears give my house a very fresh pink look,” he said.

Presently, Wong has about 50 hives at his place instead of hundreds of small potted cacti and other flowering plants.

“Although my hives are good enough to yield me some honey, I don’t intend to increase my honey bee business. I’m getting older and it’s just a hobby.

“People say I’m as busy as a bee but actually, it is the bees that keep me busy. I have to check the hives and pump out the honey. Every week or two, I can harvest about one to two litres – which is very good already,” he said.

Wong added that when his relatives visited, he would fete them to some good honey which they used straws to suck straight from the honey pots.

“They are usually quite surprised by the sweet welcome – and they feel like VIPs,” he beamed.

 

Busy as a bee

Retired principal, Michael Sabang is happy to show his former colleagues around his garden.

He has been keeping busy since his retirement, taking care of his bee farm of about 200 hives. The tell-tale sign of kelulut hives at his place is the fulsome presence of Bunga Air Mata Pengantin.

Michael is putting up a huge structure in front of his house to let more Bride’s Tears climb. It will be a ‘cannot-miss’ landmark when people come looking for his house.

“Most people come and order kelulut honey because they believe it will help improve their health. Many of my customers are diabetics,” he said.

He first bought two hives for RM150 from a friend. According to him, the hives are now sold for more than RM200, if not more, with the high demand.

His first hive is still producing and he gets a few bottles of honey from it every week. He uses a portable pump to suck out the honey, saying this has made life so much easier.

He also said he has grown more and more Bride’s Tears around his house as the keluluts love their nectar.

This is quite noticeable from the constant flitting of bees around the flowers.

Michael has given some Kelulut honey for his former colleagues to try. The honey is pale gold in colour and tastes sweet albeit with a slight tinge of sourness.

He said he could not adequately supply his customers at the moment because his stock has been depleted by rising demand.

“As kelulut honey is rich in antioxidants, orders from diabetics have increased. I really have to catch up on supply in order to cope.”

Statistically, Miri has one of the largest populations of diabetics in Sarawak.

Michael said kelulut honey has many other health benefits besides being a source of vitamins.

He noted that the honey is also bought by people suffering from stroke, hepatitis, cancer and hypertension.

Related problems

Breeders may have problems when the bees display a tendency to not ride into the artificial hives. Normally, they will not do this once the installation is complete. After three days, some pots of honey can be seen – a welcomed sight for any bee keeper.

Once the hives are in place, the process of rearing begins. The keluluts usually take between two and four weeks to produce a honey pot if the food source is adequate.

Michael regaled: “The honey can be harvested within a month by using a portable pump. That’s the sweet taste of our hard work.”

According to another bee keeper, known as Mr Ngu, the keluluts display a very interesting behaviour pattern in that if the entrance to the hive is turned or blocked in some way, they will not be able to find their way home.

“So it’s very important to keep the entrance clear and it must always be in the same position,” he noted.

Mr Ngui said open burning around the hives would cause the bees to flee, adding: “Poultry are also bad neighbours for bees as they will eat the bees and the colonies will shrink. Frogs, lizards, ants and even monkeys must be kept at bay as well.”

A dry spell will disrupt production as the bees are not tolerant of hot temperatures. In the garden where the hives are installed, the temperature should not exceed 30 degrees Celsius. Many colonies will leave during the dry spell.

Rain, on the other hand, will inhibit activities in the hives. Propolis (bee glue) exposed to water will be damaged and the keluluts will have to work hard to fix it.

Water entering the hives will cause mold and bacteria. That’s why kelulut “houses” are best kept under a roof built from overhead beams and covered by Bride’s Tears vines.

Many bee keepers in Miri sell their bottled honey directly to customers at the tamu.

Kelulut food

Most importantly, these bees love the nectar of the Bride’s Tears. They favour trees and flowers, which are naturally resinous, and will build honey pots more quickly if there is sufficient source of nutrition.

In yesteryears, these bees usually nested in the jungles of Sarawak — in hollow trunks, tree branches, underground cavities or rock crevices. Today, due to lack of food in the jungles, they can be found in wall cavities, old rubbish bins, water meters and storage drums in and around cities like Miri.

Many apiarists keep bees in their original log hives although most will transfer them to a home-made wooden box which is easier to supervise and control.

Some put the bees in bamboo stems, flower pots, coconut shells and other recycling containers such as water jugs, broken guitars and closed receptacles.

A “VIP” kelulut bee hive, specially made and designed by Cikgu Michael Sabang.

Other products 

Products like propolis soap, cosmetics, pills and creams, organic ginger and honey juice can be derived from kelulut honey.

This home hobby-business can even be turned into a tourist attraction. For example, local and overseas tourists can be taken on a day’s visit to a kelulut honey farm.

Students can also build their own honey centres in their school gardens while some rooftops in cities can be transformed into green gardens.

Above all, even if bee farmers are not rearing for the honey, they are still doing nature a good turn since the bees can help other species of flowers, vegetables and plants to flourish through pollination.

Maurice Maeterlinck who wrote The life of the Bee, stated: “If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live.”

This statement should get a lot of us who love nature to start keeping at least one man-made hive to give bees a home in the city.

When would you be interested in getting your Vitamin C fix from a pot of kelulut honey  or better still, offer a foster home to homeless bees? Hopefully, as soon as possible.