For most of us, consuming honey is something we would welcome with open arms, but going near beehives to breed it? Not quite.
While the honey bee stings only as a last resort for self-defense, not everyone would have the confidence to walk into colonies of honey bees with this knowledge. Although you might be happy to know that we can raise stingless bees in Malaysia.
Locally known as kelulut bees, it is actually an industry that brought in RM 33.6 million in the country as of 2020, but has the potential to generate annual sales of RM 3.03 billion when it develops. Therefore, we surveyed two Kelulut farms in West Malaysia (Bayu Kelulut, Kedah) and East Malaysia (RH Bee Farms, Sarawak) to find out more about the current industry.
A local fauna richness
"Kelulut bees originated in Malaysia and have existed here for thousands of years, but weren't commercialized until 2015," Amira of Bayu Kelulut told Vulcan Post.
Beehives in the Bayu Kelulut farms / Photo credit: Bayu Kelulut
“In 2014 there was great interest in scientific knowledge about Kelulut honey. If the honey is consumed regularly, it can be very beneficial for your health, ”she explained.
While honey bees are available all over the world, kelulut bees are only found in countries with tropical and subtropical climates, including Southeast Asia, shared Joe of R H Bee Farms.
Beehives at R H Bee Farms / Photo credit: R H Bee Farms
To the untrained eye, kelulut bees may resemble a housefly because, according to Joe, there is no striped body and the size (3mm to 10mm) is smaller compared to honeybees (12mm to 25mm).
The taste of the honey they produce is also different. The honey harvested by Kelulut bees has a spicy, sweet and sour taste, paired with an earthy scent.
It doesn't sting, but it bites
Now every living being will have some kind of defense, and the kelulut bee is no different. If threatened, they will bite you, but according to Amira, there will be no lump or itchy skin.
Although honey bees prefer to make their hives on branches and walls, the Kelulut bees prefer hollow trunks, underground cavities, and wall cavities.
One advantage over honey bees is that they are more disease and pest resistant. According to Joe, they are harmless to native species and also excellent pollinators.
Where a bee eats and lives its days / Photo credit: R H Bee Farms
“Kelulut bees are more informative than honey bees. According to this research, kelulut bees will also (explore) but not fully exploit the current flower resources. Honeybees, on the other hand, will use the flower resources to the point of emptiness and search for new flower resources, ”said Amira.
This is because kelulut bees only eat up to half a mile while honey bees eat up to 2 miles, added Joe.
A lucrative but expensive bee
The height of a Kelulut bee compared to a honey bee is not the only thing that is actually smaller. You can grow a colony up to 10,000 which is the smallest colony size for honey bees.
For this reason, their yield is relatively lower than that of honey bees. And because it's so low, the running costs are also higher compared to raising honeybees, resulting in a higher retail price.
While it is a blessing that kelulut bees can thrive in a tropical climate like ours, one of the downsides is that they are unable to collect nectar during the rainy season due to their smaller physique and less foraging distance, resulting in even lower production.
Harvesting honey from bees (left) and in their beehives (right) / Photo credit: Bayu Kelulut
However, Joe shared that the reason they would continue to pursue this is because they think the current honey bee market is too competitive. Kelulut honey, on the other hand, seems to be a premium product and has a more unique taste.
Amira stepped in and said her incentive was also its medicinal value, as Kelulut honey is rich in antioxidants compared to the honey from her honey bee colleagues.
Extracting Honey / Photo Credit: R H Bee Farms
Currently, R H Bee Farms has fewer than 20 beekeepers with over 7,000 beehives while Bayu Kelulut has 4,000 beehives. Both companies are supported by MARDI and MATRADE in penetrating the market for research and development or overseas.
Both farms are now exporting to Asian countries such as China, Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan and Singapore.
Stingless but tolerated Predators better
Honey is not the only thing that attracts intruders to these bee farms as kelulut bees themselves fall prey to frogs, lizards, spiders, etc. Therefore, beekeepers need to take extra care to ensure the safety of the beehives from those beehives insects and spider webs.
Monthly inspection of the beehives / Photo credit: R H Bee Farms
"To keep out intruders like monkeys and bears who love honey, we installed an electric fence system on our farms in 2020," said Joe. However, kelulut bees are generally more tolerant of pests and diseases.
On the business side, Amira shared that they were initially challenged by the fact that kelulut honey did not meet the standards of the International Honey Commission (IHC) / CODEX) and the Malaysia Food Act of 1983 because the standards they have are measured based on normal traditional honey.
“Therefore, Bayu Kelulut, together with Gabungan Persatuan Usahawan Kelulut Malaysia (GPUKM), urged the government to set new rules and parameters for Kelulut honey. In 2017, with the help of SIRIM, MARDI and the Department of Standard Malaysia, the Malaysian standard for Kelulut honey (MS2683: 2017) was set to address this issue, ”she told Vulcan Post.
With all of the information Amira and Joe shared about kelulut bees and the industry, here is a table shared by Joe that summarizes some of the biggest differences between honey bees and our kelulut bees.
|Stingless bees||Stinging bees|
|Common names||– Kelulut
|– honey bee
– Italian bee
|distribution||Tropical and subtropical countries||All around the world|
|Beehive||– hollow case
– Underground cavities
– wall cavities
|Colony size||1,000 – 10,000||10,000 – 60,000|
|lifespan||Approx. 60 days (drone / worker) and 3 years (queen)||Approx. 120 days (drone / worker) and 5 years (queen)|
|Food removal||Up to 800m||Up to 3 km|
|Hive Anatomy||Set up horizontally||Set up vertically|
|Honey production||300 g to 1 kg / month per colony||Up to 5 kg / month per colony|
|defense||– Strikes with propolis
– Occasionally bites
|Produced||Honey, propolis, pollen||Honey, pollen, honeycombs, royal jelly|
|advantage||High tolerance to pests and diseases||– High yield of honey production
– Longer life span
|disadvantage||– Low yield of honey production
– Shorter lifespan
|Susceptible to disease|
- You can find out more about R H Bee Farms and Bayu Kelulut here.
- More startups that we have covered here can be found here.
Selected image source: R H Bee Farms