All about bees: in the Philippines and beyond

January 24, 2020

By John Leo Algo

Asian Honey Bee Apis cerana by WK Cheng / Inaturalist.ca. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Bees are not just mascots of fastfood or movie franchises; they are one of the most important parts of nature. They are responsible for maintaining ecological balance of different environments, including tropical forests,  mangrove forests, and agricultural lands.    

The relationship between bees and plants is an example of the interconnectedness and reciprocity in nature. Bees serve as pollinators that allow for the production of seeds, nuts, berries, and fruits. In response to triggering the reproduction of more plants, bees get food in the form of nectar. This relationship forms the foundation of many ecosystems. In fact, 80 percent of all flowering crops worldwide are pollinated by bees, which include apples, watermelons, oranges, asparagus, broccoli, and nuts.

Our native Katmon trees have flowers that bees visit and pollinate. Photo by Rocel Ann Junio.
The fruit of the Katmon. Once pollinated, it is used for sinigang and even medicinal purposes. Photo by Rocel Ann Junio.

The Philippine context

In line with its status as one of the megadiverse countries, the Philippines is home to some of the most unique species of bees. Five out of nine species of honeybees in the world are native to the country. At least seven species of stingless bees are also found locally, some of whom have been domesticated for agricultural production.    

One such honeybee species is the Apis cerana, locally known as the ‘laywan’. They build their nest in the form of vertical combs, which can host up to 7000 individuals and be used for storage of honey. During the summer, the worker bees of the group gather outside the nest and fan their wings to cool the entire hive. 

The laywan establish their nest in an area with a high supply of nectar and pollen. As they do not store high amounts of honey compared to other bee species, they are more vulnerable to starvation during a prolonged shortage of these substances.

Within the laywan colony, a queen bee usually mates with at least 10 male bees, or drones. This allows for a higher chance for the colony to cope with diseases and respond to nectar sources and external stimuli. While the specific time and place for mating varies by subspecies, the biggest factor in determining mating time is not the environment; it is the presence of drones of other bee species. 

Apis cerana Queen is the larger, blacker bee in the center. By Azman – Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Among the stingless bee species, the most important one is Tetragonula biroi (or ‘kiwot’). It shares a similar morphology to honeybees, with the major differences being that the kiwot is the size of an ant and it lacks a sting. They set up their nests in old bamboos or other wooden structures. They are key pollinators for nine crop species, including macadamia, coconut, and mango; they may also contribute to the pollination of 60 other flowering plants.     

Given their roles as pollinators and the honey they produce, the kiwot hives are increasingly being used in agricultural regions throughout the Philippines. These bees are a key pollinator for the production of pili nuts, which has one of the toughest nutshells to crack. Its honey is also known to have antibacterial properties that are twice as effective as honey produced from other bee species. 

Compared to honeybee hives, kiwot hives are smaller, which means they cannot produce as much honey. However, their hives are more resilient to pests as they contain propolis, a resin-like material made from saliva, beeswax, and substances discharged from plants or trees. Propolis inhibits fungal and bacterial growth and prevents pests from entering the hive. 

Global and local threats

However, bees worldwide are dying out at an alarming rate in recent years due to a combination of man-made factors. The overuse of pesticides has caused poisoning on bees, whether acutely through contact or chronically by eating contaminated pollen and nectar.

Bees are also beginning to die out due to climate change. With higher temperatures due to man-made greenhouse gas emissions comes changes in the timing of plant growth. By the time bees start pollinating, there is little nectar left, increasing competition and disrupting the reproductive success of bee species. It also causes land degradation that leads to a decline in plant biodiversity, further disrupting natural pollination and could cause lower yields of many key crops.

The Philippines is not exempted from the global trend, either. While there is insufficient data to accurately assess their status on a national scale, local cases suggest that native populations are declining. Wild colonies of honeybees are now mostly found at isolated areas on the mountains, with colonies at lower elevations being cut down by those harvesting honey. Habitat destruction is also driving wild bee colonies away, as urbanization trends are projected to intensify in the Philippines. 

Without a foundation, any structure, no matter the size, will collapse. Bees are part of the backbone that makes Philippine ecosystems not only productive to strengthen food security, but also resilient to external threats. Yet most Filipinos do not even notice bees unless they need to avoid them. Without improved measures to protect them, the loss of bees would bring about more than just a sting to the future of the nation.