How pollinating insects came to Malaysia

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In the oil palm plantations millions of workers are pollinating the flowers day and night, rain or fair weather, and over Christmas and New Year. They are the insects brought from Africa called the Elaeidobius Kamerunicus.

The credit for supplying the idea goes to Datuk Leslie Davidson, but there are many who have been involved to see it done, and two of them are from Sabah and Sarawak.

Davidson had observed the insects among the oil palm flowers when he was working as a young planter in Cameroon in Africa, on one of the Unilever plantations in Ndian.

The insects looked like rice weevils. When he came to develop a new plantation upriver on the Labuk in Sabah in the early 1960’s he faced a problem after a few years when he found that the bunches on the palms were very small, and did not give much oil.

He had to recruit hundreds of workers to collect the pollen from the male flowers, dry and sieve them, and keep them in freezers. When needed the pollen was mixed with talcum to be puffed to the female flowers when they were receptive.

When the palms got taller he used long bamboo poles with plastic tubes. They extended to the crown of the palms, and with bellows the workers puffed the pollen mixture into the trees, and hoped that any receptive flowers up there would get pollinated.

Each worker worked every day covering about 6.3 hectares per day, and coming back to the same area every three days. But this hit and miss approach was not good enough, and that was when he started to think about getting the insects from Cameroon to Malaysia.

It was not easy for Davidson to convince other planters that it was a good idea, for already it was written that the palms were wind pollinated. It was also partly his fault, because he was prone to exaggeration.

Davidson was a large Scotsman with sandy hair, and told stories endlessly. I heard him tell the story how he caught a python, and at each telling the snake had grown so that the last time he told it I saw he was pacing the floor to show how long the snake was.

But he convinced his employers in Unilever, London, so they could come up with the funds for research work on his idea, providing it was an advance to be paid back by the planting community in Malaysia at the end of the study.

The study had to be done meticulously for at that time in the late 1970’s there was a scare about mutation of bees when in a different environment. Objections arose from many quarters.

In Peninsular Malaysia the plantations did not want to contribute, but the study went ahead with Dr Rahman Syed, an eminent entomologist observing the insect life in Kluang and in Sabah.

In Kluang, Syed found that the female flowers were pollinated by a  species named  Thrips Hawaiiensis, a weak flyer which could do some work in the tall palms where the wind was not blowing vigorously, but the improvement was very little.

In Pamol, Sabah in the Labuk valley, there was no pollinating insect at all. When he did his checking in Cameroon he found that indeed the Elaeidobius was active, feeding on the male flowers, and then flying off to look for more food, and was lured to the female flowers which exude the same aniseed smell.

In the process of crawling all over, the insects would have the pollen fall of their bodies to stick to the stigma of the female flowers of the palms. Fruit set was high with the bunches well-formed, even in the months when the rainfall was heavy.

There the ratio of fruit to bunch weight was over 60 per cent, while with no assisted pollination as in Sabah, the ratio recorded was only 42 per cent (Speldewinde and Preira 1974).

The Malaysian government sent scientists to check on Syed’s work, including Dr Tay Eong Beok, the entomologist and deputy director of Agriculture Sabah, and Zam Karim, entomologist from the Agriculture Department Kuala Lumpur.

Scientist Ding Siew Ming was in charge of quarantine, and she would see if a recommendation could be made for the insects to enter Malaysia. I went too, helping with visas, and appointments with research bodies in France, Ivory Coast, and in London.

We checked with the scientists at the Museum of Natural History, and went to Kew Gardens to discuss any risks to plants. In Cameroon the scientists climbed palms to see the insects at work as they landed on the flowers, and the fruit set was far better than what we could see in Malaysia.

They were satisfied with the work done by Syed, and the government allowed the Elaeidobius Kamerunicus to be imported, first to be quarantined, and then released.

They were released on Mamor estate near Kluang in early 1981, and two weeks later a release was made of 2,000 weevils in Pamol, Sabah. The insects multiplied rapidly, and were effective very quickly.

It allowed for the rapid expansion of oil palm plantations which could produce more oil and kernel per hectare than before. Each year the extra earnings amounted to hundreds of millions of ringgit for Malaysia, and when the insects were introduced to other Asian countries, they enjoyed the added earnings too.  Now the Elaeidobius Kamerunicus is in many other regions where oil palm is grown, but it is worth remembering that the research effort was paid for by the plantations in Sabah and Sarawak.

These plantations were members of Empa or East Malaysia Planting Association, which was actively looking after the interests of plantations in the two states. The chairman then, Ong Kean Teong working for Hap Seng, got each plantation company to agree to pay according to their sizes.

The two largest plantations companies were the Sabah Land Development Board which was headed by Ismail Ariff, and the Sarawak Land Development Board, headed by Pengiran Zain Salleh.

Together, these two figures paid the most money for the research to be done, and it was my job to collect when I succeeded Ong as chairman of Empa in 1980. I got the money and paid Unilever, which was also ultimately my employer, who had initially advanced the money.  The plantations in other parts, including in Peninsular Malaysia did not pay, but all had benefitted in the end.

All this emanated from the observation of one man, Davidson. That is why I have often mentioned in my visits to the plantations that this is how a simple observation can give the idea for increased earnings of billions of ringgit per year today.

In appreciation, the State Government of Sabah awarded Datukships on Syed and Davidson. The Federal Government gave a prize to Davidson at the Merdeka Award ceremony in Kuala Lumpur a few years ago. He mentioned the insect pollination story in his excellent book ‘East of Kinabalu’.

There are other insects which play a less major role but they are still in Africa. They include the E Subvitatus and E Plagiatus. Probably, they could be brought in and improve the pollination even further. Even if the improvement is small, it would mean a higher crop each year, with extra earnings at no costs.

It is thirty years since the insects E Kamerunicus had been introduced, it is probably time that another effort is made. The plantations companies could work closely with the Malaysian Palm Oil Board, which might be able to fund the study.

As in the past, many parties have worked together, so that the industry could raise its productivity and earn even more revenue for the plantations, the country and the states.