Saving Bees One Jar of Honey at a Time

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When you think of raw honey and beekeeping, Singapore is probably the last place that comes to mind. Its highly urbanised environment means there just isn’t enough space for commercial apiaries or apiculture hobbyists.

Somebody forgot to tell Xavier Tan. In 2014 the former operations manager at Hewlett Packard invested funds from his severance package into Nutrinest, Singapore’s first honey and bee rehabilitation company.

Tan has always been fascinated with bees. With 10,000 to 20,000 individuals living in a single colony, these highly intelligent and social insects band together and perform their specific duties in order to protect their home and to survive. In doing so, they produce honey, a nutritious but natural product that has been consumed for thousands of years.

How is raw honey produced?

Two bee species are native to tropical and subtropical regions: Apis trigona and Apis cerana. The bees leave their hives during the day, travelling up to two kilometres to forage for nectar and pollen.

There are three types of bees in a hive. The most common is the worker bee, which does the foraging. There are also drone bees, whose sole purpose is to fertilise new queens. Each hive also has a single queen bee, who can lay thousands of eggs a day to ensure the livelihood of the hive.

A worker bee can live from a week up to several months, while a queen bee lives from three to five years. A drone bee dies almost immediately after it has fertilised the queen. With the exception of the drone, all bees in a hive are female.

Tan says a hive is not unlike a large corporation, where many people have to co-exist and work cooperatively. Each team member has its own role; integration and cohesion are required to do the job well. “Except that most of the employees and the boss are women,” he notes.

Upon returning to the hive, the bees secrete the nectar into honeycombs as food for the colony. The nectar slowly evaporates through the constant buzzing and fanning of the bees’ wings, leaving the thick, golden and sugary syrup that we call honey.

If there is overcrowding in the hive, the older queen bee will leave the hive with half of her workers, swarming around a tree branch or under a roof tile to create a new hive, in a process called hive splitting.

Harvesting raw honey from the wild

Nutrinest’s honey, marketed under the brand BeeTalk, is harvested from hives it has placed in various locations in Malaysian forests. Its bees harvest nectars from surrounding plant life, such as wild tea trees, bittergourd flowers and cinnamon trees, and the hives are rotated according to the seasons. The nectar from these plants gives its honey very distinctive taste properties that appeal to Singaporean tastebuds.

The Apis trigona bees produce honey that has high anti-microbial properties, Tan says, citing a 2007 study by Kanazawa University’s Graduate School of Medical Science. An anti-microbial is an agent that kills microorganisms without causing harm to the host. The study found that trigona bee honey has almost the same levels of UMF, an indicator of anti-microbial properties in honey, as the famous manuka variety. Manuka honey is made from the nectar of the manuka tree, a plant native to Australia and New Zealand.

In general, raw honey is a healthy and natural sweetener that may boost your immune system and fight infections as well as inflammations. Children and adults alike eat a spoonful of honey to soothe their sore throats and coughs.

But Tan collects only a small amount of honey to sell on his website or at farmers’ markets. It is nowhere near the amount required to supply supermarkets and chain stores. Commercialising his product and reaping a profit is not the point of Nutrinest, he says.

“I only take my portion and it is not a lot – only a few hundred kilograms [a year] so I don’t think I can supply to Cold Storage or NTUC,” he says. “If I sell it to supermarkets, I will lose the opportunity to educate people about bees and the importance of conserving them.”

Why do bees matter?

Tan has a more pressing goal: educating the public about bee conservation and encouraging the humane removal and rehabilitation of beehives. The hives are relocated to his apiary at The Ashram in Singapore so they can recover and be moved again to other locations.

Bee populations have been devastated in recent years due to climate change, habitat loss and excessive use of pesticides. According to Greenpeace, about 40 percent of commercial bees in the United States have been wiped out. Monoculture – the cultivation of a single crop in an area – has also weakened bees’ overall health and biodiversity, Tan notes.

“Bees need to forage different plants for the different nutrients they require. But let’s say the bee forages only one type of plant. They will get malnutrition, just like how we will fall ill if we consume only vitamin C. Monoculture is not good for the bees and it’s a man-made problem,” he says.

It’s not just agriculture that needs bees. Forests, which act as the lungs of the earth by purifying air and producing oxygen, require pollination to continue growing. Without this lung, human beings can’t survive.

“If the lung is not doing well, the air will get polluted. And what will happen is that we are going to breathe in air that is bad and we are going to fall sick,” Tan says.

Singapore’s very own apiary

Tan’s Singapore-based apiary, where he conducts beekeeping tours and demonstrations, is in The Ashram, a halfway house funded by the Hindu Endowments Board. The Ashram sits within a lush section of Sembawang in Singapore’s north, and has a thriving garden that feeds the residents and keeps them busy.

Tan seeks to clear up a dangerous misconception about bees – that they are a hazard to public safety just because they wield a sting. Bees sting only when they are threatened, he said. They also don’t sting indiscriminately, as bees die after the barb is dislodged from their bodies.

Under his guidance, visitors who come up close to the hives should approach gently. Waving the bees away or slapping them only provokes them, he said. In the garden at The Ashram there’s a flowering trellis that bees buzz around foraging for nectar, and visitors are encouraged to walk through it to confront their fears.

Tan learned the ropes of beekeeping from a beekeeper friend in Malaysia eight years ago, at a time when forests were being cleared and hives destroyed to make way for infrastructure.

These days, he focuses on bee activism and local bee rehoming efforts. He held Singapore’s very first World Bee Day event on May 20 at The Ashram’s bee garden. He also conducts frequent public talks explaining humane ways to remove beehives and that people don’t have to resort to a pest controller, whose go-to method is to destroy the nest with toxic pesticides.

He hopes to work with pest controllers to formulate a solution that will rehabilitate bees, instead of killing them. “It has to be a full solution. We need the pest controllers to remove them but they can’t just dump the hives somewhere. It’s like abandoning children,” he says.

“To remove hives humanely, pest controllers need take care of the bees until they are strong enough to take care of themselves. And when they are healthy enough, they can find another place for the hive.”

Photos courtesy of Nutrinest and Jo-ann Huang

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