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Bees help keep Philippines coconut production abuzz

A disaster-vulnerable and poor village in the Philippines' Bicol region is now starting on the path towards resilience, food security, and sustainable economic growth with help from these little buzzy friends.

Thirty-eight-year-old Leony Gabiazo could have been a housewife but thanks to the buzzing beekeeping business in Bulusan, a rural town in Bicol region in the Philippines, both she and her husband, Dennis Dominguez, could have jobs.

Gabiazo and Dominguez started work at Balay Buhay sa Uma Bee Farm (BBu) since it opened in 2000. But besides propagating native “kiwot” (Tetragonula biroi) bees to make honey, the husband and wife team is also helping increase the number of another crop in the Philippines: Coconuts.

When BBu farm owner Luz Gamba-Catindig discovered that kiwot bees are excellent coconut pollinators, she soon expanded the bee farm operations to coconut plantations.

BBu has been pollinating coconut trees at Villa Corazon farm with stingless “kiwot” bees. The bees are also known pollinators of high-value crops such as mangoes. As coconut pollinators, kiwot bees have helped the farm increase its yield by up to 50 per cent.

“The reason for the higher yield is that fewer young coconuts fall to the ground,” Catindig said.

“The tiny size of the bees let them penetrate the coconut flowers,” explained former BBu beekeeping consultant Floreza Palconitin-Broqueza.

It’s kind of a showcase. If people can see that the farm is earning, they will believe and they will be encouraged.

Cleofas Cervancia, head, University of the Philippines Los Banos (UPLB) Bee Program 

Catindig started to see the improvement in yield six months after using kiwot bees for pollination, and since then harvests have been good even after the typhoon season, which usually sees a decline in harvests due to felled coconut flowers. 

“My husband is earning P300 per day and gets a P10,000 bonus every time harvest is good, either from Villa Corazon or BBu,” Gabiazo said.

Techno-demo farm

Catindig and her coconut farmers trained under the University of the Philippines Los Banos (UPLB) Bee Program headed by Dr. Cleofas Cervancia. Bbu became a project site—a learning ground for existing and interested beekeepers and crop growers.

As a techno-demo farm, BBu is able to train more bee hunters and community members through sponsored programs. Training participants are also taught not to burn the forest for honey and instead engage them in kiwot beekeeping for their livelihood source.

Catindig got her first kiwot colonies from slash-and-burn farmers who also hunted for bees in the wild. She initially bought five colonies in 2004 and 1,000 colonies more later, rescuing the bees in the process.

“We harvest once in every year (instead of several times because it rains most of the time in the area),” said Catindig. The sweet and sour kiwot honey costs P3,000 ($56 USD) per gallon.

She added that while the Tetragonula species do not produce as much honey as other bee species because of their size, unlike other species, they produce pollen and propolis, making them ideal for pollination.

People would visit the bee farm would also pitch their hammocks or ask to rent a shade. This gave Catindig the idea to include eco-tourism as another livelihood source. Now, she rents out huts and villas as accommodation in the sprawling farm.

Gabiazo said that the kiwot beekeeping changed their lives with stable and decent income. “Now we have a carabao, a motorcycle, a tricycle and a piggery because of the bonus we get from the farms,” she said.

Because beekeeping requires organic farming since bees will not survive chemical sprays, the farm, which also added pineapple and banana into its crop variety, also serves fresh, organic food to guests. 

“It’s kind of a showcase. If people can see that the farm is earning, they will believe and they will be encouraged,” Cervancia said.

Leading agriculture program

The municipality of Bulusan adopted the beekeeping project as its banner agriculture program in 2017 with the aid of the Agriculture Training Institute (ATI). Its 40 beneficiaries—mostly bee hunters and recipients of lands in upland areas—reside in the outskirts of Mt. Bulusan.

The project’s main objective is to improve the farmers’ productivity, which is also one of the main goals set by the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) in its 2018-2022 roadmap for the industry.

Each beneficiary received 11 colonies of kiwot bees, which were bought from six bee hunters for P500 ($26 USD) per colony. Some of the beneficiaries bought a few more colonies, giving the hunters—who are beneficiaries themselves—additional income.

Bulusan Mayor Michael Gusayko said there have been fewer requests for financial aid from the groups—who normally relied on government welfare assistance for food and basic necessities—since they started the project.

A big and healthy pollination hive can yield three bottles of honey, said Cecilia Olan who monitors all the beneficiaries and also a beneficiary herself. A 750 ml bottle costs P900 ($47 USD).

With the beneficiaries living nearby coconut plantations these get pollinated too like the neighbouring farms.

Proper profiling helps in the positive community response to this project. As in the words of Gabiazo, as former hunters, “their interest with the bees is already there.”

Climate change mitigation

According to a UN-Habitat report on Sorsogon’s vulnerability to climate change, the province is at risk of extreme tropical cyclones which locals associate with climate change.

The province has been experiencing more than the average three cyclones in two years and more rain volume and stronger winds from typhoons. Climate change also causes the increasing incidence of evacuation of families from urban coastal areas, especially those living in informal settlements, and riverbank erosion.

Cervancia said kiwot bees can help in mitigating climate change because they visit more cash crops based on pollen analysis. They make fast ecosystem recovery possible, too, through intense pollination.

When Typhoon Nina hit the region in 2016, villagers from Bulusan were among the more than 10,000 evacuees who fled flooding. Both the Balay Buhay sa Uma Bee Farm and Villa Corazon Farm financially recovered fast, despite losing many of their bee colonies.

More women in training

More women in the community are also following the steps of Gabiazo. Cervancia said a majority of the training participants in the second part of the program was women. The training involves a meticulous process, from picking the pollen and extracting the honey to separating the propolis.

Such livelihood opportunities keep family breadwinners away from environmentally destructive activities such as slash-and-burn farming and deforestation. Through agro-tourism, the bee farm gives jobs to these farmers, their housewives, and other community breadwinners.

The park’s rich vegetation makes Bulusan an ideal place for beekeeping, while at the same time protecting it and the communities in lowland and coastal areas through beekeeping.

For Cervancia, the most important takeaway from beekeeping is the conservation awareness a person develops. It makes people protectors of the environment especially if they know their livelihood depends on it.

As a livelihood source, it motivates them to do more from teaching their families the do’s and don’ts of harvesting honey and product development.

Catindig brings the Dominguez couple to training and seminars around the country to equip them with new technical skills. Beekeeping has become a family enterprise, and in Catindig’s case, a community livelihood.

Sustainable, viable enterprise

Beekeeping is an emerging industry in the Philippines. With the right intervention and strategies, it is “seen to address food security and provide income-generating opportunities to Filipinos,” said Rita dela Cruz of the Bureau for Agricultural Research.

Focusing on native bees allows for sustainable beekeeping – the native bees lessen the need for imported bees and also reduce start-up costs.

As former Bicol Regional Apiculture Center head Maria Dulce Mostoles said, beekeeping “is just right for many families who can’t afford sophisticated housing.” It promotes conservation too.

The pollination hive developed by UPLB is easy to mass produce, supports large-scale pollination services, and allows production of quality products in an easy processing and hygienic way.

If adopted by the entire province of Sorsogon, almost 50,000 coconut-dependent farmers in the province will benefit. In 2015, only 7.6 million of the province’s 9.5 million coconut trees were fruit-bearing. It can also be replicated across the country, where 68 of 81 provinces are planted with coconut.

Kiwot bees can help senile coconut trees bear fruits. In ideal conditions, kiwot bees can increase yield by 80per cent, and coconut provides adequate pollen for the bees as it continues to bloom all-year round.

Even with the recent improvement in coconut production, the Philippine coconut industry has yet to tap its potential in exports. For agriculture columnist Dr. William Dar, “addressing low yields at the farm level can be an excellent move to helping realize that.”

His recommendation? To put measures that help poor farmers earn more. Under the PCA road map, it means improving coconut yields and at the same time creating value-added products that naturally come with coconut production.

This story is produced under the Earth Journalism Network Asia-Pacific Story Grants 2018 with the support of Sweden/SIDA.

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