Why Philippine beekeepers want to nurture stingless bees

By Eleanore O. Hatta

Many people are familiar with the European honey bee, which is a source of much of the world’s cultivated honey. But did you know that there is another kind of honey that is derived from stingless bees?

Stingless bees (Tetragonula biros) are known in Tagalog as lukot or kiwot. They produce honey, propolis, and pollen. Their hives are reportedly low-cost and low-maintenance, so they are relatively easy to take care of and nurture. These stingless bees are different from the European honeybees (Apis mellifera) that most beekeepers worldwide like to cultivate. As long as there are the right kind of flowers and trees such as coconuts, stingless bees can thrive.

Stingless bees outside their bee box.

I first encountered stingless bees some years ago when I was studying a short course about organic agriculture in the University of the Philippines Open University. As part of the requirements of the course, we went to a small farm in Laguna. The current farm manager and our instructor then gave their own short lectures while we students gathered around them.

I was sort of bored so I went away a little bit from the group. Then I decided to re-join the lecture and walked back to the group. At that moment, one of the stingless bees flying around suddenly flew straight at me and whacked its body against my eyeball. It hurt! But the bee didn’t sting me. 

Tiny stingless bees foraging for food in the writer’s basil garden.

That’s how I found out that stingless bees really don’t have any stingers. They do, however, bite when they feel threatened. This is why stingless bee beekeepers still have to wear a bee suit and, or at least, a bee veil when they are handling the hive to protect them from being bitten. Stingless bees can get inside your eyes, nose and ears too. 

One beekeeper I’m familiar with is Lea Del Rosario, who runs Herbs & Spices PH, a garden business based in Paranaque, Metro Manila. 

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Lea sells bottled stingless bee honey to the public under the Nectar & Pollen brand. Lea sold me some bottled honey and I really liked the taste of this product. It’s rather hard to describe the taste of stingless bees honey. For me, it’s like a very sweet calamansi juice. I was so addicted to this kind of honey that I started taking it daily.

The good thing about taking at least one tablespoon of honey daily is that you get to consume the vitamins and minerals that stingless bee honey contains. I was skeptical at first about such claims until, shortly after I bought my stingless bee honey from Lea, I developed tonsillitis. I remembered that Lea mentioned that the honey has antibiotic properties so I started taking some of the honey daily. To my surprise, within two days, the tonsilitis was cured. This convinced me that this stingless bee honey really does have antibiotic properties.

Nectar & Pollen Stingless bee honey.

One setback that Lea encountered with the marketing of stingless bee honey is that the science behind beekeeping is still in its infancy. Researchers in the Philippines still have to thoroughly analyze the many reputed properties of stingless bee honey. What does exist are testimonials from people who have tasted stingless bee honey before and reported its positive benefits to  beekeepers like Lea.

It can be safely said that many Filipino consumers are not yet very aware of the value of stingless bee honey. One reason for that is each hive can only produce an estimated 1 kg to 2.5 kg. of honey per season. European honeybees produce much more than this, which is why many entrepreneurs still prefer to use them to produce honey. 

The brownish liquid on the bees’ legs are the propolis they’ve collected.

But according to Lea, stingless bees are worth her time to nurture as a beekeeper because she doesn’t have to watch over them every week. She can leave them alone for months provided that they can’t be reached by ants, lizards, frogs, and roaches. As long as there are flowers for her bees to forage on for nectar and pollen, Lea can expect her stingless bee hives to keep accumulating honey, pollen, and propolis for her to eventually harvest.

Lea says that beekeepers can offset the low production rate of a stingless bee hive by setting up more hives. Stingless bees are very hardworking and Lea can pay attention to her garden  business without having to worry about “motivating” her stingless bees to keep producing honey.

Honey, brood, propolis, beeswax and bees inside the bee box.

She sets up new hives, makes sure there are flowers in the immediate area that the bees particularly like, and leaves the hives alone. She will only open each hive when it is time to harvest that “yellow gold” that is stingless bee honey.

Stingless beekeeper Lea Del Rosario splitting a boxed colony.

The University of the Philippines Los Banos (UPLB) Bee Program is where much knowledge and technologies for various fields are nurtured then shared to the public. The UPLB Bee Program is one place where you can sign up to be trained as a beekeeper. You will have to pay for your training, but in return, you gain very valuable knowledge and skills that will help you when you are already aiming to set up your own beekeeping business.

You might be wondering if there is a ready market for stingless bee honey locally and abroad. Stingless bee keepers are slowly carving a niche for their products within the Philippines, but Lea would like to market her stingless bees honey abroad as well. For now, she markets her products to family and friends, as well as members of the public who are convinced of the medicinal properties of stingless bee honey.

Photos by Eleanore O. Hatta

Read more about farming and gardening at agriculture.com.ph