Bees and beekeeping in Borneo

Discussing beekeeping in the UK and Borneo over a coffee in Oxford

Recently I met with Made Setiawan, a medical anthropologist and ethnographer who lives in Oxford. He works for the Indonesian Katingan Project on a reforestation operation in Borneo, working in an area where the native forest has been largely razed by logging. One aspect of this work is using bees to help reboot the ecology.

We discussed the differences in bees and beekeeping here in the UK and in Borneo.

Made knows quite a lot about beekeeping in Indonesia from his brother who lives there and has a large apiary stocked with local apis cerana bees. Also, he has harvested comb from log hives in the forest, where locals just eat the entire comb, wax and all; he assures me that bee larvae are delicious.

Despite the differences to British beekeeping and our bees, he thought it could be useful to learn as much as he could about our methods, hoping something would be transferable. It transpired that he had never caught a swarm, so I think I taught him something, though most of the information flowed in the other direction!

Borneo’s bees

The project area is very remote: villages are half a day apart by motorboat; problems include crocodiles large enough to tip boats over, mosquitoes, and the stifling high humidity of tropical peat forest. It is also very beautiful, holds 5% of the world’s orangutans, and is a centre of valuable biodiversity – with over 200 species of trees alone.

The most common bee there is apis trigona, a tiny one like a flying ant. This produces small quantities of a sour honey, not very saleable. It doesn’t sting, though it can bite (we hardly feel it). Its main defense is a sticky goo which it spreads round the entrance to its nest to prevent ants entering, like flypaper. If provoked they will fly into your hair and make it sticky!

The most spectacular bee is apis dorsata, the giant bee. These build enormous free hanging combs in very tall trees and their stings hurt a lot. Like wasps, they predate on other bee species, but they also make honey.

Rather than the mild mannered European apis mellifera, the area’s equivalent bees are apis cerana. They forage mainly in the early morning, to avoid the giant dorsata which predate upon them. These have a reputation as being fiestier than our bees, but Made says the locals call them “fly bees” because their sting barely hurts. Though according to the Schmidt pain index, they hurt about as much as our bees…

Both the giant apis dorsata and the normal-sized apis cerana have two unusual methods of defense which we don’t see in European bees. The first is possibly a disorientation attack: they shimmer. A large number of bees will reflect sunlight off their wings together, at a threat. Locals know this means “this is your final warning!” The second is heat balling large hornets, there is a famous video showing bees mobbing a hornet and cooking it to death here.

Despite having diverged from our bees tens of millions of years ago, both dorsata and cerana also use the waggle dance to communicate the location of food sources and new homes. (As it is so successful, perhaps our own species, homo sapiens, should harness the power of interpretive dance to aid our own decision making processes!)

Borneo beekeeping

The varroa mite comes from this general area so there is no question about what type of bee for beekeepers to use: apis cerana, and its redder cousin apis koschevnikovi, which have co-evolved with varroa and have coping mechanisms like grooming and frequent swarming.

Complex and expensive hive types aren’t suited to truly remote locations, and traditionally they have used log hives suspended well above the ground; the bees will not hang around in ground level hives because the sun bears smash them open.

This is why Made contacted natural beekeepers in Britain – our methods are closer to the techniques used in Borneo. There’s no way the locals could afford to use bees which needed regular mite treatments and framed hives!

There are also some families who harvest the apis dorsata honey once a year, and this is co-ordinated across the region. For about 2 weeks no one goes into the forest except those people with the specialist skills required (one of which is climbing really tall trees) because the giant bees are very, very upset about the theft of their honey.

Considering protection from stings, I showed Made protective bee suits and he laughed, it is far too hot to wear those in the tropics. The ventilated bee suit was a possibility but too expensive. He was interested in the simple hat-veils though.

This prompted Made to mention a benefit of beekeeping I’d never considered before. If there are colonies of bees in a forest, loggers are discouraged from cutting and burning it! (No protective clothing…)

I then described tree beekeeping and the efforts to revive it in the UK. He told me there are no large trees left after an area is logged, and in fact the bees have more or less abandoned the forest and taken refuge in villagers’ roofs. So there are extensive areas with no bees – which he wants to encourage as they are a keystone species which enables other life to move in. For example sun bears, and the bee-eating swiftlet, which makes the edible nest used in bird’s nest soup. These nests sell for £700 / kg, so although it is not hugely profitable for the villagers to make honey which has to be shipped a long way to market, they have a big incentive to increase the number of bees around. I was able to give him some tips on what kind of cavities bees look for, which can be built and suspended up trees, but of course their local bees may have different colony sizes and requirements.

Forage is not an issue. The project is working directly in an area of 150,000 ha (in the middle of a million ha of unmanaged degraded land) which contains about one third old-growth forest and two-thirds requires reforestation. In the cleared areas the kinds of bushes which spring up as intermediate growth have lots of blossom suited to pollinators.

Obviously the rebooting of a peat forest ecology and making a sustainable ecosystem is not just about bees. There are many other aspects, such as fire management, managing water systems and peat swamp habitats, reintroducing other native trees and flowering/fruiting plants to support other keystone species and migrating bird populations, and encouraging other sustainable agroforestry projects, such as small-scale crop plantations of vanilla, jlutong, rubber and rattan.

Further reading

  • The Katingan Project, building a sustainable peat swamp forest ecosystem in Borneo
  • A blog post about Borneo bees by a local called Murphy – lots of pictures
  • NTFP, a network of NGOs throughout south-east Asia who help forest communities develop sustainable economies
  • Bees for Development, a charity helping people develop income streams from beekeeping in developing countries
  • An article on Amazonian rainforest bees I wrote in 2014 (this rainforest is antipodean to the Borneo rainforest, but they have some similarities)


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2 Responses to Bees and beekeeping in Borneo

  1. Pingback: Rainforest bees | Oxfordshire Natural Beekeeping Group

  2. Emily Scott says:

    I went to Borneo on my honeymoon and saw bee colonies living in the high trees. I think to anyone from the UK it would be hard to appreciate just how tall and smooth trunked those trees are, with no low branches. We were told the bees chose such high trees as discourage robbing bears climbing them.


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