The Tapang tree (Koompassiaexcelsia) is the king of the Sarawak rainforest, towering over the forest canopy to a height of 80 metres or more. It is also notoriously hard to climb, with no branches below 30 m from the ground and a complete absence of bark. Why, then, would humans and sun bears both risk life and limb to reach its upper branches? The answer, of course, is honey. Mature tapang trees are festooned with huge vertical honeycombs as big as car doors, home to hundreds of thousands of giant honey bees (Apisdorsata).
Gathering this honey is no easy task, even after scaling the tree in one piece. Even if you aren’t in direct competition with a distinctly unfriendly sun bear (and some honey hunters proudly carry the scars), the giant honey bee is one of the most aggressive bee species in the world. It releases an alarm pheromone when threatened that can rouse the entire surface of the honeycomb into a Mexican wave of raised bee stingers and instigate entire swarms to attack an intruder. Its stings are also among the most venomous – only last year a pest control officer was stung to death in Singapore.
Almost every human culture prizes honey (happily overlooking the fact that it is insect vomit), which bees create by regurgitating plant sugars found in nectar for use as their own food source. Native Sarawakians are no exception. While the sun bear relies on its dense fur for protection, human honey hunters approach cautiously at night, when the bees are more docile, carrying smoking bundles of twigs to subdue them further. However, Sarawak’s honey hunters only need to worry about bee stings and losing their grip; in the estuarine forests of Bangladesh a small number of honey hunters succumb to tiger attacks every year.
Mature tapang trees festooned with huge vertical honeycombs as big as car doors are home to hundreds of thousands of giant honey bees (Apisdorsata).
Although honey from the tapang tree is much prized by Sarawak’s indigenous peoples, the huge irregular shaped honeycombs are difficult to process and yield a thick, waxy honey with little commercial value. As giant honey bees are far too aggressive to be domesticated, traditional beekeepers in Sarawak prefer the painless company of stingless bees (Trigona sp.). Although these tiny bees - only 1 cm long - produce less than 1kg of honey per nest, they require very little care.
The Bidayuh farmers of KampungSemban build small hives known as “bleh-teh” from hollowed out tree trunks which they hang in considerable numbers under their houses and farm huts. Other Bidayuh villages also use similar methods, producing the thick, richly flavoured honey that is sold in recycled beer bottles at Satok Weekend Market in Kuching. More recently, some enterprising kampung beekeepers have been venturing into commercial production of stingless bee honey with hundreds of hives scattered across their farmland. This could be a very shrewd investment indeed - after processing, this exclusive honey is sold for over RM120 per kg in Peninsular Malaysia.
Even these artisan beekeepers make little impression on the national honey market; demand continues to grow as consumers become ever-more health conscious and as the many benefits of honey consumption become better known. Malaysia produces only 4% of the honey sold in the country, so to cater for this demand both hobby and commercial beekeepers are turning to the western honey bee (Apismellifera). One producer in Sarawak, Summer Pacific SdnBhd, is so convinced of the long-term demand for high quality honey that they are now producing organic honey and other bee products on over 300,000 acres of acacia forest plantations in Central Sarawak.
The most popular commercial bee species, the western honey bee is docile, easily handled with the right protective equipment, and very productive indeed. Best of all, the uniformly square honeycombs formed in commercial hives can be very easily processed to separate the main commercial ingredients, i.e. honey, beeswax, propolis and royal jelly. With careful handling and extraction, the beeswax, propolis and royal jelly can almost double the commercial value of each beehive.
Beeswax, secreted by bees to produce their honeycomb cells, is used in food, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals and also as a wood polish and an ingredient in candle making. Propolis, a resinous substance which the bees secrete to seal and anchor their hives or nests, is being widely hailed for its medical properties, and has been used for centuries as a traditional medicine and as a varnish ingredient for stringed instruments. The great violin-maker Antonio Stradivari was said to have used liberal amounts of propolis to achieve a rich tone that would last down the ages.
Royal jelly is possibly the most mysterious of all these substances. Secreted by worker bees from glands in the head, it is fed to all larvae for the first three days of their lives. However when the existing queen is ailing or dead, the workers will feed a few selected larvae with royal jelly throughout their development, transforming them to queen larvae. This remarkable power to transform humble workers into queens has made royal jelly very popular as both a traditional medicine and a dietary supplement.
It is worth remembering, though, that the western honey bee is an alien species. While it does not appear to have harmed local bee populations directly, its very efficiency may one day put an end to honey hunting and traditional stingless beekeeping. Whenever you get a chance to try traditionally produced or gathered honey, complete with lumps and various bits of bee anatomy floating in it, just remember that old fashioned Sarawak honey has an incredible depth of flavour, and sometimes (literally) a sting in the tail.
Mike Reed, originally from London, is a tourism consultant, guidebook writer and self-confessed laksa addict. He came to Sarawak to visit a gawaiantu 20-odd years ago and has been telling the world about the Land of the Hornbill ever since.