Man at His Best

Mind your beeswax and make some honey

A practical handbook to saving the bees and the world.

BY LETITIA TAN | Dec 1, 2015 | Food & Drink

Illustration from Boston Public Library, Flickr Commons

Imagine this: it is early on a quiet Sunday. Clad in your white suit, you are padding across your lawn as you make your way home, a frame of honeycomb from the hive in your backyard in hand. Persistent honeybees dance around you. Some rest on your sleeves. Most eventually lose interest and return to the remaining frames of honeycomb.

Imagine slicing the thin layer of beeswax, revealing the encased honey. Imagine placing the frame in a honey extractor, letting it spin, as you would your laundry, releasing the honey. Imagine filtering and bottling the resulting liquid gold. Imagine drizzling it over your morning toast or yogurt, maybe adding a spoonful to sweeten your tea, before taking in the day ahead.Imagine you’re doing laundry in your backyard. Imagine hearing a buzzing in the Sunday silence.

Imagine tracking the low-pitched orchestra to a rafter. Imagine bees clustered like a tumour on one of the beams, the size of your face. Will you don your suit to protect yourself as you fog them? Will you think of fresh, delicious honey, or the demise of Macaulay Culkin in My Girl, where his character was stung and killed by a swarm of bees?

In leafy and forested parks, bees set up home in hollowed-out tree trunks or nestled on branches a distance above the ground. In concrete jungles, they build hives in any dark, sheltered space, including recessed ceilings, air ducts, holes in walls and abandoned mailboxes.

Singapore is home to more than 100 bee species, including the Giant Honeybee, the Asian Honeybee and the Stingless Honeybee. While the Giant Honeybee can be more aggressive, the other two species are relatively docile. They generally resort to stinging as a kamikaze-type defence: lodging their stingers in their victim’s skin and ripping out their innards as they fly away. They are often associated with wasps and hornets, and deemed to be more harmful than they really are. In our ingrained reflex to rid our homes of moving insects, bees that find seemingly safe haven in dark nooks and crannies often perish under blitz exterminations by pest controllers.

Carl Baptista is all-too familiar with this practice, as he makes amends for his past as a pest controller. In early 2015, he founded Pollen Nation with Elric Tan to speak up for bees, al-laying misguided fears through public talks. In addition, they save bees from extermination by relocating and re-housing unwanted swarms.

The relocations, or beevacuations as the social enterprise calls them, are performed wearing white suits, gloves and protective headgear. Unwanted hives are approached with a hand-held, bladeless vacuum modified to include a container to collect and store the bees temporarily. At the flick of a switch, the vacuum whirs, competing with the bees buzzing as they drone on. The tip of the vacuum kisses the hive and sucks the bees into the empty bottle until the hive is vacated. The trick here is to keep the bees alive while extracting them. If the queen bee dies, the colony will waste away, making the quick deaths by pest controllers relatively humane.

The collected bees are rehoused in man-made hives in Pollen Nation’s backyard, a plot of land in the Kranji countryside. They grow flowering vegetables, such as bitter gourd, and sprightly flowers near the hives so that bees have nectar to forage and feed on. Bees that are less easy to domesticate, like the Giant Honeybee, are kept isolated from human traffic in the lush, green corners of the Singapore countryside.

Urban farmers Rob Pearce and Thomas Lim are keen advocates for bees through Edible Garden City, an organisation that champions grow-ing your own food. They have been offering a similar service since 2013, redirecting queries to Pollen Nation when a lack of manpower limited bee rescues last year. They have a handful of colonies across Singapore, including one at Open Farm Community, the nation’s first farm-to-table restaurant with a fully operational farm attached. In 2015, they launched Plan Bee, an umbrella organisation that continues their relocation efforts and promotes urban beekeeping.

Singapore is late getting into the game of urban beekeeping. We’ve fallen behind cities including London, Paris, Seoul and Hong Kong.

Singapore is late getting into the game of urban beekeeping. We’ve fallen be-hind cities including London, Paris, Seoul and Hong Kong. Our inherent fear of these insects that appears to be holding us back isn’t unique: in New York City, honeybees were considered as dangerous as hyenas and poisonous snakes by the law until the ban was lifted in 2010.

To help Singapore catch up, both Pollen Nation and Plan Bee seek to educate the public about bees. Baptista runs talks with NParks and helps 11-year-olds understand pollination, a topic from their existing syllabus, beyond their textbooks. Pearce and Lim promote urban beekeeping through Edible Garden’s events and work-shops. Most of the individuals who attend don’t consider bees dangerous. They join mainly to understand bee behaviour better, so they can reassure their friends, neighbours and/or family, especially children.

In addition, Pearce and Lim offer a beekeeping establishment service from which aspiring beekeepers can purchase empty hives for SGD300. A common practice in other countries would be purchasing bees from api-aries and professional beekeepers to start your own colony. Having neither in Singapore, Lim recommends bee baiting, which is like fishing for bees. In place of wormy baits, bees are drawn to possible homes. As such, the wooden hives they’ve made are smoked and scented, providing better odds of baiting bees. In the end, it all boils down to patience and luck. Unlike fishing, however, aspiring bee-keepers should be prepared to get stung.

To do her bit for the environment, Olivia Choong co-founded Green Drinks, a platform for collaborative environmental efforts among individuals, businesses and the government, and Green PR, an environmental communications consultancy for small and medium companies. She is passionate about sustainable living, even going so far as to grow her own vegetables and rear chickens in her backyard.

In 2013, she started beekeeping with a bait hive after reassuring her parents that bee attacks would be unlikely, so long as the insects were not provoked. She has been lucky enough to own a fully functioning hive since early 2015 with Lim’s help. Her hive is nestled in a corner of her backyard, where the bees live relatively undisturbed.

In her role as beekeeper, Choong happily watches the bees busying themselves in her garden, flitting in and out of their hive. She checks on them occasionally, fending off predators like lizards and frogs. Compared to raising her chickens or more conventional pets, beekeeping makes for a relatively “hands-off”, passive hobby.

To this end, the bees are like guests that stay on because of the space that you’ve provided for them as a happy host. Yet, at the same time, they would have no qualms about leaving if they find a better space, as long as they have their queen. Beekeeping is thus a bit of a misnomer simply because they are never really yours to keep.

Pollination is plant sex. Pollinators, like honeybees, facilitate fertilisation after they inadvertently pick up pollen when they stop to suck nectar from flowers. As the honeybee flits and for-ages, the pollen eventually gets dusted off and lands in the stigma of another flower; thus begins fertilisation and the continued cycle of life.

In the absence of honeybees, humans can step in to lend a hand by dabbing male flowers gently with a paintbrush. The collected pollen is then transferred to female flowers. Human pollinators, however, need to wait for specific flowering windows for their jobs to be effective. Compounded by the laborious nature of the role, this job, when carried out by hand, proves significantly costlier than the average honeybee’s contribution.

The honeybee is said to have evolved from wasps for this very purpose. Flowers, in response, grew to vie for the bees’ attention. They started showing up in bright colours and sweetening nectar to give bees more reason to pause and pick up pollen, ensuring the continuation of the respective flower’s lineage.

Abroad, awareness of the work done by bees grew with the advent of Colony Collapse Disorder (the phenomenon where worker bees mysteriously disappear, abandon their queen and effectively kill the colony) in 2006. While research continues in an attempt to pinpoint its precise cause, the disorder continues to spread, and has reportedly made its way to Asia.

With just one percent of land set aside for agricultural use in Singa-pore, it is easy to believe that the disorder’s repercussions are distant woes—even if Einstein forewarned, “No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”

Baptista, however, isn’t taking this development lightly. As such, in addition to the talks that he hosts in schools, he also offers the opportunity to include beehives in their community gardens. This not only gives students a relatively rare chance to be closer to a food source, but also helps them to consider the ecology of a gar-den, with the hive as a barometer of its health. The idea, though, remains foreign to most educators who prefer to avoid confrontational, concerned parents. To date, only one primary school has agreed to host a beehive.

As a country, we are proud of our UNESCO heritage status and play host to plants from all over the world in our domed greenhouses. We boast numerous national parks and over 700 community gardens. Honeybees are responsible for helping to keep these spaces in good health and colour, pollinating approximately two-thirds of the flowers in these green spaces.

And while there has been a growing interest to connect with nature in recent years, we remain largely tourists in our garden city, unwilling to co-exist with the very creatures that are part and parcel of a garden city. Maybe it’s time we take a small step to change this, starting with the humble honeybee.

If I had paid more attention in science class, I may not have been so horrified to discover that honey is essentially bee vomit.

The worker bee is equipped with an extra stomach to stash nectar from flowers. The sugar in nectar is partially digested as the bee continues to for-age. Once it returns to the hive, it regurgitates its stomach contents into a waiting bee’s mouth. The latter continues to break down the sugar, before regurgitating it into the next bee’s maw. The bees re-drink and regurgitate the mixture until the last one disgorges it, with the sugar fully transformed and ready for storage, into a honeycomb. They then fan the mixture with their wings to evaporate any remaining water. When the honey is of the right quality, it is sealed with beeswax until needed.

Bees make and store enough honey to keep them nourished through winter. In the absence of wintry winds, the insects produce a lot less honey in the tropics than their counterparts in temper-ate countries. Pollen Nation, for example, harvests 25-30kg of honey a year—an occupational perk of their work as bee conservationists. (However, colonies kept for honey production should lawfully be housed on land earmarked for farming.) The social enterprise works with likeminded conservationists in Southeast Asia, as well as restaurants to make the most of their limited stock.

Pollen Nation’s honey collection is stored in precious vials, and ranges in colour from a pale golden sheen to a caramel hue rivalling that of the best ales. Each vial varies in sweetness; some are laced with hints of citrus, others with bitter notes—the result of a hive located near flowering bitter gourd plants, I later learn.

And while it may be exciting to taste and learn of these locally sourced flavours, it is also easy to forget whom the honey is really for.

First published in Esquire Singapore's December 2015 issue.