Stingless Bees Thrive in Peatlands ​

The journey towards becoming an entrepreneur in Kalimantan has been a bitter-sweet one for Yoanes Budiyana (43), an immigrant from Central Java. When Budi first came to Kalimantan he worked as a truck driver for a construction company. In his new environment, Budi struggled to earn enough income to stay afloat. He spent most of his time in his truck, driving long distances on difficult roads to deliver goods to far corners of the province. On one trip, he realized he had never seen a honey vendor by the side of the road, as was commonplace in Java.

Budi explains the unique hives of stingless bees

It was this realization that got him wondering how to enter the bee business. First, he started buying sawn tree trunks that the tiny stingless bees (kelulut) had nested in from the farmers he came across. Then he would sell them again in town. Although it was hard to find these wild stingless bee colonies, he could purchase them for as little as Rp. 200,000.

Then, once he had accumulated enough capital, he decided to foster his own bee colonies on his own land. In 2009, he relocated to Kelampangan, a village in peatlands a short distance from the capital city of Central Kalimantan. Here, he soon opened his own mellifera honey farm. He says he started tasting the sweetness of life from that point onwards.

Entering the honey cultivation area

“When I was in Java, I would often see many communities cultivating honey. For, in fact there is a lot of demand for honey in this country,” said Budi.

“Honey from kelulut yields well and is also simpler to treat. Stingless bees are also resistant to predators and extreme weather conditions. Just do not mess around with pesticides,” he added.

Wooden boxes are laid on top of the sawn tree trunks so that the bees can expand their nests just as they would in their natural habitat. It only takes about 30 days for the bees to build a nest in the box before it is ready to be harvested. Once they have formed a large colony, Budi then moves the queen kelulut bee to a new box to start a new colony. Using this technique, he no longer needs to buy any more wild colonies from farmers.

Close-up with a stingless bee colony

“The stingless bees belong to the genus Trigona. There are also other types like Trigona itama and Trigona thoracica. But, I cultivate the Trigona itama because it is a more productive species for honey production and efficient treatment,” he explained.

Entering the market

Budi’s journey towards developing his honey business was not easy. In fact, he faced marketing and capital difficulties from the beginning. To get his initial capital, he resold the bee-colonies he obtained. He then spent the sale proceeds on packaging bottles, licensing, and halal certificates.

“After I obtained all of the necessary permits, I was able to begin marketing my products. The good news is that kelulut honey has been gaining more popularity during the pandemic. Before the pandemic, it used to be a little difficult to sell,” he recalls.

Kelulut honey packaged and ready to sell

Nowadays, he can produce approximately 300 kilograms of honey each month, with a retail price of Rp 280,000 per kilogram.

Thriving well on peatlands

Budi says that the sustainability of his bee business is closely linked to the health of the peat ecosystem. The stingless bees feed on the flowers of particular trees that can grow well in the peat soils, such as Melaleuca and Calliandra. However, the tiny ‘kelulut’ bees can only search for flowers within  200-300 meters of their hives.

“Because the stingless bees are dependent on the native vegetation, I have had to learn a lot about peatland management here in Central Kalimantan,” he said.

“Unfortunately, many of the kelulut bees die when there are peatland fires, as happened in 2019, because they cannot find flowers in the smoke. And once there was a big flood [in 2015], and all the hives were submerged and the harvests failed,” he added.

Calliandra sp. flowering well in the peat soils

Through his experiences, Budi realized he had to take more care of the environment around him. He started to study the native vegetation of the peatlands. He discovered that the gelam tree (Melaleuca leucadendra) flowers throughout the year, providing a reliable food source for the bees.  He also learned to control fires in his local area and keep his farm free from pesticides.

Budi is always eager to share his knowledge of how to create kelulut honey from the ground up. Apart from that, he has also started distributing honey products from other nearby farmer groups through his marketing network. We wish him sweet success in his endeavors.