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Kampung Gombizau, Honey Bee Village of Sabah Borneo

honey bee comb

City people will freak out if they see honey bees building a nest under their roof. To most village folks, they are happy to see bee hives, because got honey, got money. However, beekeeping is not really something they do for money initially. In countryside of Sabah, it is fairly common to see one or two manmade bee hives in farm houses. The collected honey is mainly for self-consumption, but Kampung Gombizau (Gombizau Village) has turned honey bee farming into an attraction.

hollow log for honey bees
Pic: many village house has a hollow log (a native beehive called gelodog) for beekeeping.

entrance to Kg. Gombizau
Kampung Gombizau is in Matunggong and about 2-hour drive from Kota Kinabalu City. When you head to Kudat town, you will see a brown signage “Gombizau Honey Bee Farm” at the roadside, about 40 KM before the town. Turn to that junction and you will reach Gombizau (See location map), after driving two minutes on a small paved road (watch out for potholes).

reception counter of Kampung Gombizau
Pic: ticket booth of Gombizau. Entry fee is RM5 (≈US$1.55) for adult (above 12 years) and only RM3 (≈US$1) for child (6-12 years old).

honey for sale in Gombizau village
Pic: bottles of honey for sale in a booth near to entrance of Kampung Gombizau. Price ranges from RM20 (≈US$6.20) to RM38 (≈US$12) per small bottle.

big bottles of honey
Pic: big bottle of honey bee, about RM60 (≈US$19) to RM105 (≈US$33) each.

honey bee beadwork
Pic: cute honey bee handicraft made of beads, available for a couple of dollars. The villagers are Rungus people, who are skillful in making beadwork.

Gombizau honey bee farm
Gombizau is a real village with a population of 260 and not an industrial area. A villager led us to a rubber plantation about 30 Meters behind the village, where the bee farm located.

bee hives of Gombizau village
Under the shade, there are dozens of “honey bee hotels”, the man-made bee hives for the honey bees. The most common bee species in honey bee farm of Borneo is Apis cerana (Eastern Hive Bee).

harvesting honey
A worker showed us how to collect honey. First he used smoke to neutralize the attack-induced scent (pheromone) released among the bees.

holding a honeycomb frame
Then he opened the top cover and took out a movable frame hive, to which honeycomb attached. There are about 7 movable frames in a box. This allows the beekeepers to take out the honeycomb, harvest part of it and put it back, without damaging the nest structure, otherwise the bees would abandon the hive.

close-up of honeycomb
Pic: close-up of honeycomb

The whitish top portion are honey cells sealed by wax capping. The middle parts are cells filled by pollen, the color is depend on type of flower visited by the bees. Pollen is the only source of protein for feeding the broods. Some cells contain pupae, which is edible and rich in vitamin and minerals. Note the bee on her finger. It’s a drone (male honeybee) without sting. Drone is developed from unfertilized egg (with only one set of chromosomes), a son without a father. All worker bees are female developed from fertilized eggs (diploid).

raw honey tasting
They cut the honeycomb into small pieces and invited us to taste the golden sweetness of raw honey. It’s really sweet, with a flowery aroma that is absent from sugar.

“Eat honey, my son, for it is good; honey from the comb is sweet to your taste.” (Pro 24:13)

Types of Honey

Before I left the village, I would like to buy some honey. I thought there was only one type of honey, then I found out there were 3, each with different price tag. So I asked the villagers if these are due to difference in quality. According to them, farm honey is the cheapest (RM20 per bottle), wild honey is 2nd (RM32), and the most expensive honey (RM38) is from stingless bee (Trigona genus). You had seen the farm honey bee, so what are the other two?

wild giant honey
Pic: Giant Honey Bee is open nesting bee and doesn’t live in cavity

Most wild honey is collected from the nest of Giant Honey Bee (Species: Apis dorsata, Local Name: potiukan). Giant Honey Bee is open nesting bee so you can’t farm it in cavity like other honey bees. Besides, Giant Honey Bee is aggressive and considered one of the most dangerous animals in Borneo, its sting can penetrate fire fighter’s uniform, so honey gathering is carried out at night. They build their hive under the branch of tall tree (over 50 Meters high in many cases), and native honey hunter needs some guts and skill to climb up there in total darkness to harvest it. Each hive stores over five litres of honey and can be sold for RM200 (≈US$62) per litre.

Kelulut stingless bee honey
The next honey bee is Stingless Bee (known as Kelulut locally). Its honey is sweet and sour in taste. It is the most expensive because it is the hardest to extract.

stingless bees collecting nectar
Pic: stingless bees collecting nectar. They are relatively a lot smaller than honey bees.

stingless bee hive
Pic: the exit tunnel of stingless bees (Kelulut)

Stingless bees are quite common, even in sub-urban area. You can see them nest in crevice of houses and tree holes.

stingless bee nest

different types of stingless bee (Trigona genus)

The most distinctive feature of stingless bee nest is its tube-like wax tunnel as the opening of the nest. When I was a naughty kid, I liked to pinch the tunnel to close their “door”. They don’t sting. The only defence they have is to secrete something sticky onto my hair, so I didn’t give them due respect. Now I know that stingless bee is also an amazing bee.

Interesting Facts about Borneo Honey Bees

If you want to learn more about honey bees, I highly recommend the book “Honey Bees of Borneo” (by Nikolaus Koeniger et al). A lot of information of this article is from that book. I list a few interesting facts mentioned in the book:

  • Out of 9 honey bee species (Apis genus) in the world, Borneo has 5, so we are high in bee diversity, and Sabah has a Bee Research Center in Sabah Agriculture Park of Tenom.
  • Honey bee species naturally found in Borneo are Apis Dorsata (Giant honey bee), Apis cerana (Eastern hive bee), Apis andreniformis (Dwarf bee), Apis koschevnikovi (Red honey bee) and Apis nuluensis (Mountain honey bee).
  • In contrast, most part of Europe, Africa and America only has 1 honey bee species, i.e. Apis mellifera (Western Honey Bee).
  • During colonial era, British tried to introduce Western Honey Bee to Borneo but failed, due to mites, diseases and predation.
  • Apis nuluensis is the true Borneo honey bee, as it is restricted to mountain range of Borneo (1,500m-3,500m). Nulu means “Mountain” in Kadazan language.
  • Apis cerana is the most widely used in honey production in Borneo.
  • Apis dorsata is well-adapated to low light, so it can see you in half or full moon night. Harvesting honey from its nest is only safe being done in moonless night.
  • To avoid cross species mating, different bee species which share the same geographical area have different mating time. e.g. Apis andreniformis is 12:00-14:00, Apis cerana is 14:00-16:30.
  • Mating with the wrong species can be fatal, the genitals of both sexes would be locked, and both will drop to ground and die.
  • Robbing honey from other bee nests are common among honey bees.

honey bee and stingless bee on a flower
Pic: honey bee and stingless bee on a flower

Between year 2005 and 2009, Sabah imported about 341 tonnes of honey product, which is worth about RM5 Million. During the same period, only 26 tonnes of honey was produced in Sabah State. This means the demand for honey is high, and our honey has big market.

A Need for Standard & Branding

The authors of “Honey Bees of Borneo” also urge for the development of an international quality standard for Asian Honey Bees. Currently the quality standard of honey is based on Western Honey Bee (Apis mellifera), the most researched and farmed honey bee in the world. The biochemical characters of Asian and Western honey bees are different, so the honey of Asian bees would be graded as low quality, if the criteria is based on Western bee standard, it is like comparing orange to an apple.

moveable honeycomb frame
A small bottle of imported honey can be priced over RM50 in the market, but we sell 1-litre of local honey for only RM25. Is foreign honey really SsssOOOooOOo…. much better than our honey? The most expensive honey in the world is ‘Elvish’ honey from Turkey, which costs US$6,800 per Kg, because it is extracted from a 1,800m deep cave. Hey, Borneo is richer in flora (flower & herb) variety and our environment is cleaner. Can’t our honey ask for a premium price too?

honey for sale at roadside stall
Not only that, our honey is also lack of nice packaging. Most Sabah honey are sold in a glass bottle in the market and roadside without any label or quality seal. Would you pay RM100 per bottle for such presentation? There have been complaints about adulteration of honey too.

bee nest and bottles of honey
Nevertheless, there are a few local companies try to package and brand our Borneo honey, which is a good move. But we still need an official quality standard for Asian honey, so we can compete with Western honey in international market. Otherwise our local farmers will dump indigenous honey bees and farm only Western honey bee, a more profitable species.

Borneo honey

In fact, it’s happening. Ministry of Agriculture and Food Industry (Sabah) has imported European honey bee Apis mellifera (subspecies: agustica, a.k.a. Italian bee) from Australia for a trial run in Sipitang. The Italian bee is more docile and productive (generates 20-35 kg of honey) than Apis cerana (3-9 Kg).

Borneo honey for sale

Two months ago, I visited Melita Honey Farm in Tasmania, Australia. The range of their honey products is impressive, you can find ANYTHING related to honey, such as ice-cream, skincare, soap, lotion, candle, mug, candy, toy and medicines, so colorful… The shopping experience was so fun that I bought a lot of things. This is something Sabah should learn from the others.

Melita Honey Farm of Australia
Melita Honey Farm in Tasmania
Pic: Melita Honey Farm in Australia.

Do you like Sabah honey? Please tell me what you think about our local honey.

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Stingless Bees and Other Bees

Photos taken in Matunggong, Sabah, Malaysia Borneo

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Stingless Bees and other Bees

Stingless bee (Kelulut)

I guess the little black bees (see photo below) are no strangers to you, as they are so common in Sabah. They seem to nest anywhere that has cavity, like tree hollow, even wooden houses. They usually make a wax-like exit tunnel for the hive. When I was a naughty boy, I just couldn’t help to pinch the tunnel to close the exit, though they are gentle and harmless.

Stingless Bee nest

Stingless Bee nest

In one occasion, I was told that they are “stingless bees” (Trigona spp). FYI, they are locally known as Kelulut, and Chinese calls it Mi Zai (蜜仔). When stingless bees got agitated, they don’t sting. Instead, they secrete something sticky and make my hair stick together. I didn’t pay much attention to them, because they are so ordinary and abundant.

Stingless Bee nest

One day I passed by a house in Kiau Nuluh Village and saw a few log, each with a small opening.

Stingless Bee farming

Stingless Bee farming

Another closer look of the log. Actually they are hollow log (usually coconut trunk) for bee farming. The locals call this empty log “Gelodog”.

Stingless Bee farming

However, to my surprise, they are not farming honey bees, they farm stingless bees instead. It was early in the morning and most villagers have gone to work in their plantation, so I could not turn to anyone for answer. I wonder why they rear such a small bee species. Aren’t larger honey bees more productive?

Stingless bee hives (Kelulut)

Stingless bee hives in Kiulu (noted the bamboo logs being pointed to by green arrow)

Later I met a bee expert, Mr. Salim Tingek, who is one of the authors for the book “Honey Bees of Borneo”. He told me that the honey produced by stingless bee is sour and even bittern in taste, but its honey has better medical values, with functions still not being well-known to most researchers.

As stingless bees are a lot smaller than honey bees, they may have access to smaller flowers such as herb. His studies are mainly focus on commercial honey bees, so he advised me to ask the locals for more details.

Stingless Bee

Searching on the Internet, I found a bit of info from a propolis bee farm at the Penang Botanical Garden. They breeds stingless bees (in fact only Malaysia doing this) to get the propolis which can “promote healing and regeneration of tissues. It has antibacterial, anti-inflammatory functions and protect the body from oxygen free radical damage, …useful as healing agent and application for home remedies such as honey, soap and balm”. That’s all I know at this moment. Now at least I know stingless bee is an extraordinary bee.

Stingless Bees in Gaya Island

Last month in a jungle trek in Gaya Island, I saw hunderds of stingless bees gathered on a small tree, which is next to their hive.

Stingless Bees

Stingless Bees

Stingless Bee nest

It was quite an interesting phenomena, but I have no idea what they were doing. This specie has every big exit tunnel.

Stingless Bee rebuild home

Due to the forest fire caused by drought, many bees lose their home. Above is a photo of stingless bee rebuilding its home on a burnt tree.

Honey for sales

Talking about honey bees, probably I can share something I learn from the honey bee experts (Nikolaus Koeniger, Gudrun Koeniger and Salim Tingek). There are five species of honey bees in Borneo. One of them is Apis nuluensis (nulu means Mountain in Dusun language), a new species endemic to Sabah. They found its nest in a tree hollow near Laban Rata. There are 9 species of Apis honey bees in the world. The dominant honey bee species of Sabah is Apis koschevnikovi.

Bee farming

Apis cerana is the most common honey bee species being farmed (domesticated) in Sabah. In Kudat you can find many bee farms around and they have become tourist attraction of villages. The most famous honey bee farm of Sabah is located in Kampung Gombizau.

Movable frame hive

The “Gelodog” (hollow log) bee farming method is destructive, as you may damage the bee hive when you open the cover to collect the honey. The more sustainable method is by using Movable Frame Hive (like photo above).

Bee farming

Apis cerana honey bee is an Asian bee species, and it is not as famous as the European bee such as Apis Mellifera. We pay RM40, 50 to buy a small bottle of imported honey, even though our local honey bees also produce high-quality honey. Our environment is cleaner and more nature than the western countries. By right, our honey is better. We only don’t package our honey and turn it into a $ound brand.

Sabah honey for sale
Pic: a small bottle of Sabah honey (right) can cost MYR25 (≈USD8.33), expensive, but still cheaper than imported honey.

Bee farming

Unwelcome guest

Photo above: unwelcome guest detected by honey bees. Many natural predators and thieves are eyeing for the sweet honey and want to get a share. Besides stinging, honey bees have many ways to deal with enemies. Like the “sticky ring” next to the hive of Apis andreniformis bees, ants and other bugs who want to approach the hive will be glued. The powerful mandible of drone (soldier bee) can chew off their heads too.

Swarm of wild honey bees on tree

Here comes the most famous bee of Sabah, Apis Dorsata. This largest wild honey bee of Sabah is not only famous for its honey, but also its aggressiveness. Chinese calls it “Ba Gong Mi” (八公蜜) and this bee means horror. Stealing honey from these bees brings death penalty. I sweated when a bee expert showed a photo of her only 2 feet away from the dorsata swarm. She says it is ok, because the swarm is looking for a nesting site so the bees are not in the mood of protecting honey. I can’t read bee language so I will never dare to try that. I advise you not to too..

Apis dorsata

Apis dorsata specie is not a suitable candidate for bee farming, as they are not cavity dwellers. For safety and easier navigation, they love to build their hives high on tree, especially tall Menggaris tree. But my God, this bee seems to love to nest on Rambutan fruit tree too. Village kids like to throw stone to pluck Rambutan and that’s how they hit the jackpot by accident. Some locals hunt for their honeycomb and very likely the wild honey you buy in local market is from A. dorsata (or Apis cerana). The bee larvae is also edible. My mom tried it before and say it tastes like milk. Very healthy food I suppose.

Big black bee

Big black bee

The big black bee in photos above are Carpenter Bees, which were used to be the bee I feared the most. Later I found that it is very gentle and rarely attacks people. The only thing I know about it is this bee likes to drill a hole on the wood and nest inside, and it doesn’t live in group. Now I find it very cute. Oh Bee-Bee…

Hornet

Ok, this one is a hornet, not a bee. If you see a rat corpse without eyes, that’s the work of this hornet. So far I haven’t seen any of them harvesting nectar, so I assume they like rotten meat. For those who do fishing in the wild, you better cover the fishes and bait, otherwise you will find many hornets come and feast on them. Anyway, it is quite safe to get near to them, as long as its nest is not somewhere nearby. Chinese calls it Tiger Head Bee (虎头蜂). Its bright orange stripe is a clear warning. Everyone, who was stung by this hornet, says it scores 10 of 10 out of pain scale and the wound may leave a permanent scar. Imagine if you are stung by hundreds of them. The only way to escape the attack from swarm of hornets is to jump into the water, no matter you know how to swim or not. It is far more better to drown rather than being stung to death by hundreds of hornets.

Hornet nest

Honey bees die if they sting, because they detach the sting that is linked to vital organs, this is not the case for hornets. Many even call them killer bees. Hornet hives are very common on the trees of countryside. If you come too near, they will send a few patrolling hornets to check on you. It is important that you slowly walk away from their hive and don’t do anything stupid that makes them perceive you as a threat.

Huge hornet hive

Hornets like to nest on the tree, inside the shrub, under the roof and cliff. Their nests are very beautiful. However, after some days, the nest will grow from fist size to size of sandbag (or even bigger!). That’s how they get another name, i.e. Sandbag bee (泥包蜂 in Chinese). If you see their nest, don’t try to chase them away by boxing their hive like sandbag or fight them with mosquito insecticide. Just call the Fire Department, they know about to eliminate the nest (and it is a free service).

Can’t believe I can write so much about bees, hope you enjoy reading this…

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Kampung Gombizau, Honey Bee Village of Sabah Borneo

Photos taken in Sabah Malaysia

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