Kelulut beekeeping

Stingless Bee (Kelulut) Farming in Sabah

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Today I want to introduce some sweethearts to you. These little honey make money and healthy food for you. They are stingless bees (or meliponines), the honeybees that don’t sting. Stingless bee is known as Kelulut in Malaysia and Tantadan (local Dusun name) in Sabah. Belong to the family Apida, kelulut is closely related to honey bees, and they are also the honey producer and important pollinators in tropical and subtropical regions.

Stingless bees (kelulut) congregate on a leaf
There are about 38 species of stingless bee (kelulut) found in Malaysia, but not all are honey producers

Stingless bees are very common in Sabah. If you have a garden or orchard, there is a 80% chance that you could spot a kelulut hive nearby. Usually they build their nests in hollow trunks, wall cavities, and even crevices in your house wall. Stingless bees are always found busy harvesting nectar in the countryside. If you sweat a lot, some of them would land on your skin to collect salt.

Wax tunnels of wild stingless bees on a tree
Wax tunnels of wild stingless bees on a tree. When I was a naughty kid, I used to pinch to seal the waxen tunnel of their entrance for fun.

Stingless bees are only 1 centimetre or less in body length. Their tiny size allows them to access small flowers. Though they produce honey in small quantity, kelulut honey is more nutritious and highly priced. It is a trend that more and more Sabah village house farms kelulut, as the kelulut honey has good demand and can generate hundred to thousands dollars of easy side income every month.

Stingless bee (lebah kelulut) of Heterotrigona itama species
Heterotrigona itama species of stingless bee (kelulut) is all black in color and suitable (and common) for beekeeping

Honey Bee Vs Kelulut. Which Honey is Better?

Honey produced by stingless bees has many names such as Meliponine honey, pot honey, sugarbag honey (in Australia), and kelulut honey (in Malaysia). In Malaysia, kelulut honey is acclaimed as a honey healthier than normal honey. The following are some comparisons of both honey:

1. Taste

As you know, honeybee honey is sweet. Kelulut honey is sourish sweet. Usually sweetness is the base taste, and it mixes with varied degree of sourness, and even bitterness, greatly depend on the flowers or fruit trees visited by kelulut. Stingless bees store their honey in honey pots which are made of cerumen, produced from the bee’s saliva mixed with pollen, plant resins and flowers, and this chemically affects the taste. Sometimes its honey has slight fruit flavour or herbal aroma.

Geniotrigona thoracica species of Stingless Bees
These stingless bees are Geniotrigona thoracica species. They make very delicious honey.

2. Nectar and Viscosity

Kelulut honey is thinner than honey due to higher water content and more prone to spoiling. Many plant and trees have small flowers that only Meliponine can access to collect the nectar. Kelulut honey is also not as “heaty” as normal honey.

3. Quantity

Honey bees produce about 5 or more times honey than kelulut. In average, a honey bee hive creates 2.25 to 3.75 Kg of honey per month, whereas kelulut is only 0.5 to 2 Kg per month.

Stingless bee (kelulut) honey for sale
Stingless bee (kelulut) honey is more expensive than honeybee honey

4. Price

In most cases, a standard grade honey costs less than RM90 per Kilogram. Kelulut honey is sold for RM120 to RM150 per Kg locally.

5. Nutrients

According to the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (MARDI), stingless bee honey is twice as nutritious as ordinary honey. In a Scientific Reports published on 22 July 2020, the researchers found that up to 85% of their sugar is trehalulose, which is a rare and healthy sugar that is “friendly” for diabetes and doesn’t cause tooth decay.

Row of kelulut bee houses
Row of kelulut bee houses. Each log hosts a colony. You can have a few to 100 bee houses in a bee farm

6. Health Benefits

The main selling point of kelulut honey is its stronger health values from anti-bacterial, anti-carcinogen and anti-oxidant properties. It has a history of traditional indigenous in treating cough, fever, cuts and rashes. Some of the claims are proven by research, just to list a few below:

Locals believe having a tea spoon of kelulut honey twice a day can strengthen immune system, to prevent cold and flu.

Nest structure of kelulut bees
Nest structure of kelulut. At the right are “honey pots” that store the honey

Beekeeping Method (Meliponiculture)

The rearing of stingless bee is known as meliponiculture. There are more than 38 species of stingless bees found in Malaysia, but only a few of them are suitable for beekeeping, for example, Heterotrigona itama and Geniotrigona thoracica are the most preferred species, followed by Lepidotrigona terminata and Tetragonula leviceps.

Kelulut bee farm under rambutan tree
Kelulut bee farm is best built under shade with lot of flowers and fruit trees nearby

Generally kelulut is passive. To defend their home, they would attack invaders by biting, but it is more like ant bite and far less painful than honeybee sting. No bee protective suit is required for handling of kelulut. Stingless bees share similar food, behavior, and social structure with honey bees, so you can rear them like normal honey bees.

Stingless bee farm in Kota Belud (Kampung Pinolobu)
Stingless bee farm in Kota Belud (Pinolobu Village)

Beekeepers can house the kelulut colony in a bee house called Gelodok or transfer them to a wooden box. You can open the box periodically to harvest honey without doing too much damages to their nest. The old methods of using bamboos, flowerpots, or coconut shells as bee house would be less sustainable as beekeepers need to cut the nest in half for collecting honey.

Stingless bee house with top cover
Stingless bee house with top cover makes honey harvesting easier and causes less damage to the nest

Commercial kelulut beekeeping is introduced in Malaysia in 2012. Now there are 750 to 1,000 bee farmers nationwide. Sarawak state produces the most kelulut honey, followed by Sabah and Peninsular Malaysia.

Close-up of stingless bees (kelulut) and their nest
Close-up of stingless bees (kelulut) and their nest

Beescaping

Bee houses are placed in shade to avoid excessive heat. Stingless bees have short flight ranges of about 500 metres (honey bees is 2km). Therefore, for higher honey yield, the bee farm should be nearby the favourable food source of stingless bees, the following are some preferred host plant:

  • Flowers: air mata pengantin or Honolulu Creeper (Antigonon leptopus), Buttercup (Turnera subulata)
  • Fruit trees: rambutan, starfruit, passion fruit, coconut, durian
  • Acacias, rubber and other flowering forest trees

(Note: the choice of plant can affect the taste and colors of the honey)

Sipping kelulut honey
Sipping kelulut honey as a fun activity

Small kelulut is vulnerable to attack and raid by bigger bees and hornets. A trick is to place some belacan (shrimp paste) near the bee hives to keep these predators away.

Got Honey, Got Money. A Profitable Business

Malaysia government has initiated the National Kelulut Honey Industry Development Plan 2020-2030 that aims to make the kelulut honey industry a new source of stable and sustainable income because kelulut beekeeping can generate good income quick without high capital and advanced skill as a start. You can get the kelulut nest from the wild or buy it from local open market (tamu). A new colony normally starts producing honey after three months.

Stingless bee flying to Honolulu Creeper (Antigonon leptopus) flowers
Honolulu Creeper (Antigonon leptopus) flower is a good host plant for stingless bee farming

If you have RM1,500, you can start a small farm of three stingless bee colonies. Each kelulut nest produces about 0.33 to 2 Kg of honey monthly. In Sabah, beekeepers earn about RM60 per kg of kelulut honey, which is marketed for RM120 to RM140 per Kg in the shops after processing and packaging. You can build a bee farm of 50 to 1,000 bee colonies with a starting capital of between RM40,000 and RM50,000, that can bring you a monthly income of RM5,000 to RM30,000.

Gelodok bee house for Kelulut (stingless bees)
Gelodok bee house for Kelulut (stingless bees) at a village house

Currently, the total market volume of Malaysia’s kelulut honey industry is only RM33.6 million while the market potential is about RM67.2 million. According to data provided by the Agriculture Department in 2017, the total kelulut honey production in Malaysia stood at 134,244 kilograms. From what I heard, the demand for stingless bee honey is high and most go to local consumption. The needs for kelulut honey will grow when it becomes more popular.

Old-fashioned stingless bee houses in village
Old-fashioned stingless bee houses in village

Besides, about 1,000 downstream products can be made from honey, propolis and pollen from kelulut nests. The ingredients can be used in health supplements, cosmetics, skincare, toothpaste, face cream, essential oil, hand cream, skin disorder ointments, lip salve, etc. These byproducts will increase the revenue generated from bee farms.

Box type stingless bee houses
Box type of stingless bee houses (in Kiansom)

Training and Funding

Interested in starting a kelulut farm? The organisations below might be able to help you. Good luck!

Big entrance of stingless bee nest. Found in Gaya Island, off Kota Kinabalu city
Big entrance of stingless bee nest. Found in Gaya Island, off Kota Kinabalu city

1. Borneo Honeybee Centre

In Sabah, the State Agriculture Department and Koperasi Pembangunan Desa (KPD) provide advice and conduct courses for stingless bee farming. KPD opened the Borneo Honeybee Centre in Sikuati, Kudat (north of Sabah). The Borneo Honeybee Centre is a centre for collecting, processing and bottling of honey and also conducted the bees farming courses (for about RM350). This 8.5-acre complex has various facilities such as Honey Processing Factory, Bee Gallery, Honeybee Souvenir, Honeybee Café and guided tour for those who want to learn more about beekeeping.

Facebook: BORNEOHONEYBEECENTRE

Borneo Honeybee Centre in Kudat
Borneo Honeybee Centre in Kudat is a hub for collecting, processing and bottling of honey and also provides beekeeping courses

2. Akademi Kelulut Malaysia (AKM)

Located in Bangi, Selangor, this company provides beginner to advanced training on kelulut beekeeping and making of stingless bee products. They also publish some books on stingless bees.

Facebook: akademikelulutmalaysia
E-mail: akademikelulut@gmail.com
Phone: 011-1514 2620

Some courses by Akademi Kelulut Malaysia (AKM) on making of Kelulut products
Some courses by Akademi Kelulut Malaysia (AKM) on making of Kelulut products

3. Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (Mardi)

MARDI is a government agency established with the main objectives of generating and promoting new, appropriate and efficient technologies towards the advancement of the food, agriculture, food and agro-based industries.

Facebook: mardimalaysia
Website: mardi.gov.my
Twitter: mardimalaysia
Blog: blogmardi.wordpress.com

Kelulut in the tube entrance
The potential market of kelulut honey is huge

4. Young Agropreneur Programme

Implemented by Ministry of Agriculture and Food Industries’ (MAFI) in 2016, the Young Agropreneur Programme aims to encourage the involvement of youths (18 – 40 years old) in entrepreneurial activities in the agricultural sector’s value chain. If you are eligible, you can apply funding at: mafi.gov.my.

Photos taken in Sabah, Malaysia Borneo

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