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A Philippine stingless bee helps boost coconut yields and empower women

  • Tetragonula biroi, a stingless bee native to the Philippines, is being cultivated on a farm to both produce honey and pollinate coconut trees.
  • The farm, owned by Luz-Gamba Catindig and employing local women, has seen an increase of up to 50% in its coconut yields; researchers say the presence of these pollinators, known as kiwot bees, can boost yields by up to 80%.
  • Key to these improvements in productivity are upgrades to the common beehive, developed by local bee experts working with university researchers. 
  • Although kiwot bees produce less honey than the more common western honey bee (Apis mellifera), they produce more propolis, a resin-like substance with high medicinal and therapeutic potential.

ALBAY, Philippines — Josefina Dayta is among the fortunate Filipinos who haven’t had to experience job insecurity amid one of the harshest lockdowns imposed by any government during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the community quarantine, as it’s known here, began on March 15, maintenance work on bee colonies has continued at the Balay Buhay sa Uma Bee (BBu) farm in the Bicol region, southwest of Manila.

Dayta, 53, is among those essential workers whose job as a gardener involves watering plants, removing dry leaves, and weeding. It’s a crucial job, she says, in keeping the farm’s bee pasture in good shape. “These help plants bloom, which serve as food for the bees,” Dayta tells Mongabay.

A bee pasture, an open area with overgrown flowering plants, is a prerequisite for beekeeping. Maintaining it is important because bees depend on its output and quality to thrive and produce good-quality honey. The presence of bee pastures in this region is also known to improve coconut yields and to provide economic opportunities for women in Dayta’s town, despite the typhoons that ravage the region every year.

Luz-Gamba Catindig, BBu’s owner and beekeeper, says her love of trees instilled a desire to recreate a forest here in the foothills of Mount Bulusan. Later, she says, she learned she could do so through pollinator-friendly agroforestry, a land management system where crops thrive alongside trees. On Catindig’s farm, there are plenty of bee plants, water sources and native trees that naturally attract the native bees and other insects.

Bee farming technology in Balay Buhay sa Uma Bee Farm. Image courtesy of BBU Bee Farm

Among the native trees on Catindig’s 3-hectare (7-acre) farm is Canarium ovatum, known as pili and the region’s prime commercial tree cultivated for its nuts. There’s also hagis (Syzygium tripinnatum), a berry tree that can grow to a height of 20 meters (66 feet) and whose fruit can be processed into juice, jam or jelly. In the wild, it’s a favorite food tree for bats and birds.

Peppered among the trees are flowering plants that Catindig lists off: “Cosmos, Easter lily vines, fishtail palm, and marigolds.”

She says she didn’t have a good start at beekeeping. That changed when she shifted to using a native stingless bee species, Tetragonula biroi, known locally as kiwot. These little bees would go on to play a key role on her farm, eventually leading to increased coconut yields.

Flor Palconitin is the consultant who advised Catindig to use the kiwot to pollinate the coconut trees on her land. Palconitin says the bees’ ant-like size makes it easier for them to penetrate into the flowers of coconut trees.

Stingless bees like kiwot produces less honey but more propolis, a resinous material that bees collect from tree buds to build and protect their hives. Photo courtesy of Patricia Bravante from Sayonora Farm

Catindig hired Palconitin and her late father, Rodolfo “Tio Ompong,” in 2005 to supervise the nascent bee farm. The elder Palconitin’s practical knowledge of kiwot bees was a result of his curious interest and affection for bees since his teens. The Palconitins introduced Catindig to a low-cost bee housing made from a coconut shell with a metal roof, inspired by the round honeycombs that kiwot bees construct.

Later on, Tio Ompong’s practical expertise was sought out by the administrators of the beekeeper training program at the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB). There, his knowledge of kiwot behavior helped with the development in 2010 of a two-tier box that mimics the kiwot’s natural hives. In the new, updated design, the first level contains the brood while the second is for harvest-ready surplus honey.

Catindig installed these improved hives near the flowering plants and hung the coconut-shell houses beneath her coconut trees. Kiwot bees typically roam within a 250- to 500-meter (820- to 1,640-foot) radius of their hive, so they have to be close to pollen sources, such as the wild plants that grow under coconut trees, Catinding says.

The changes helped improve the farm’s coconut yield by up to 50%. “Fewer premature coconuts fell off the ground even after a typhoon,” Catindig says. Cleofas Cervancia, from UPLB’s beekeeping program, says kiwot bees can improve coconut yields by up to 80%.

The UPLB Bee Program developed this technology for beekeeping with native stingless bees. The first level contains the brood. The second level is for the surplus honey for harvesting. Photo by Mavic Conde

The Philippines is the world’s top producer of coconuts, and the fruit remains a major perennial crop in the Bicol region, which produced around 8% of the country’s total coconut  production in 2018. But the region is frequently battered by typhoons, incurring millions of pesos’ worth of agricultural damage after every onslaught.

Farms with bee pastures benefit from intense pollination even after a disaster, and maintaining these pastures improves the farm’s resiliency over time. It also sustains the livelihoods of both the farm and its workers, as “we only need manpower to plant, replant, and maintain them regularly,” Catindig says.

Salome Baloloy, who has been working at Catindig’s farm for 15 years, says she’s been able to “provide food for my family, buy medicine, and send children to school.” For Josefina Dayta and Shirley Aviso, who are both widows, it has been their main source of income. Dayta was even able to send her third child to a vocational school.

The bee farm has also become a testing ground for the beekeeping technology being developed by UPLB, as well as an agritourism destination. Today, Catindig sells honey products at the farm’s gate. This includes pollen and propolis products, mostly processed by women.

The Bicol region is among the country’s top agriculture areas but its yields are battered by frequent storms. Image by Nor Llorca via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Due to their size, kiwots can’t produce as much honey as the more common western honey bee (Apis mellifera), but it compensates by producing more propolis, a compound used in the international market as a key ingredient in beauty and anti-ageing products. Several studies have focused on the medicinal and therapeutic potential of propolis. At an international beekeeping conference held at UPLB in February, scholars from Japan and the Philippines presented studies about the potential use of native stingless bees’ propolis for treating ailments ranging from hair loss to gastric cancer to wounds.

Other studies from across Southeast Asia also show that honey and other bee products from the region have therapeutic uses because of their high antioxidant content. Honey characterization, or the process of identifying its components and origin, is crucial in arriving at these findings.

Honey characterization is also linked to conservation, since “honey characteristics are from bee forages,” says Nola Andaya of the Non-Timber Forest Products Exchange Programme (NTFP-EP), a coalition of NGOs and civil society groups that advocate for sustainable forestry use. Andaya says nectar sources are as diverse as forest ecosystems, and that identifying bee-friendly trees could help pasture owners and inform the general public. To date, kiwot bees are known to pollinate coconut, mango, guava, tamarind, calamansi, duhat (java plum) and strawberry plants.

Image courtesy of Balay Buhay sa Uma Bee Farm

But bees are among the most threatened species in the world, with habitat loss the main driver of their decline. In the Philippines, habitat loss and degradation is linked to a lack of standards for bee hunting and trade, which poses challenges to conservation efforts.

Pedro Jose De Castro, who studies the Indigenous Aeta group’s native honey-gathering practices, says program managers should engage Indigenous groups in beekeeping interventions. He adds that replanting coconut trees in degraded Indigenous areas should be included in the Philippine Coconut Authority’s industry development road map.

Catindig’s experience running a coconut farm as bee pasture for kiwot bees could offer insights. With help from the government, in her case through UPLB’s innovations, her model farm has shown that sustainable tree management and higher crop yields aren’t mutually exclusive — all thanks to the Philippines’ unsung, and unstinging, native kiwot bees.

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Banner image of the coco beekeeping technology at the Balay Bahay sa Uma Bee Farm. Image courtesy of BBU Farms.

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