Friday, May 3, 2013

Malaysian Bees

I've got a rogue tomato plant that determinedly grew up out of my compost and would be almost two metres high if I could stake it. As it is, it grew up through the branch of one tall pot plant and now bends over and rests on others. It seems to be okay and has put out lots of flowers. So of course I'm interested in little pollinators coming in and working on them so I can get tomatoes.
The tomato invasion

My apartment is very high up and I have seen some little bees from time to time, but my daughters freak out and want me to chase them away. I've also heard that most mosquito species (there are thousands, of which only six bite and even then only the females) are also pollinators as well as butterflies, moths, lady bugs and so on. So, I became more interested and began some research which brought me to some interesting species of bees. I'll put the links to the pages I've found so that you can read up on them as well if you want to. I'll do other species in later posts.

Where are those bees?
One thing I found is that there are not only the well-known stinging honey-bees here in Malaysia, but also a number of non-stinging types or non-aggressive types - very good news indeed. They are mason bees and trigona bees.

Mason bees are apparently from the Americas and there is only one site in Malaysia that has them, Penang. They are solitary bees which house themselves in small holes, cracks and crevices. Apparently, the male comes out of his pupae stage first, waits for the female to come out, mates and then dies. The female mason bee gathers food in a cavity the nest, lays an egg and closes the cavity up with the food. The female eggs are laid near the back of the nest and the males towards the front. The female will do this by herself all summer finding new nests when she's filled one up. There are no queen bees nor worker bees. They just work by themselves. Their way of storing the pollen and nectar also means that they don't produce a honey that is consumable by humans. However, for an urban garden that wants pure pollinators, I think they'd be very useful. They're also safe for children and pets as they'll only sting if squeezed or stepped on. There are lot of sites where you can find ways to house and keep them. I can't find whether you can buy them here yet and you'd have to get a permit from the Ministry of Agriculture if you want to bring them in.

Although the mason bee is only to be found in Penang right now, the trigona bee is far more widespread through out Malaysia with its own native species called kelulut. The trigona genus is found in tropical and sub-tropical areas around the world with more than thirty species here. They are social bees and have the whole set-up with the queen and worker bees. That means we can also get honey from them. Trigona Bee Farm in Pedas and a propolis bee farm in the Penang Botanical Gardens are doing just that. In Sabah, locals are very active in harnessing and harvesting the sting-less bees hard work. Murphy, who has the blog My Sabah, wrote a really informative blog post on different types of trigona bees and other types over there. Apparently, it's not as sweet as it's more famous cousin's honey is, and it's a little bitter. However, the various sources I've found say that its health benefits are wider.

At this time I can't find a Malaysian site where you can buy trigona bees, but I found some information from an Australian trigona bee site that explains how to transfer them.  So if you find some when you balik kampung you can bring some back with you. However, do get permission from any appropriate authorities/locals in case you are taking them from an area that needs them.

Finally, although, trigona bees may not sting, they do bite, but again - only if you disturb their nest, not while they are pottering around the flowers. So, if you see a little bee working away in your garden compare it to some of the photos you find in the links and you might find you have a little kelulut helping you in your garden.


  1. There is a farm that sells Stingless bees. Please phone Mr Lee at: 0125343734. He's in Ipoh Perak.Annie Low