Agriculture

The Path to Sustainable Honey Extraction

Indigenous communities are paving the way for a cleaner method of harvesting honey

Photos by Santiago Esquivel/Unsplash and courtesy of Philippine Forest Honey Network

The abundance of forests in the Philippines make it a home for a variety of honeybees that produce high-quality honey. In several indigenous people’s (IP) communities, honey is a major commodity that contributes to improving their economy. It is also a time-honored custom that is part of their cultural identity. They primarily use the honey for  food, health, and livelihood.

Forest honey, also called honeydew honey or tree honey,  is a common variant in these IP communities. As the name suggests, the honey transported by the bees comes from trees rather than flowers or smaller plants because they contain a lot of plant saps; certain insect species secrete a sweet substance (that is the honeydew) whenever they come to eat these plant saps.

Since honeydew has a different composition than nectar, it is usually darker and contains a higher mineral content; the taste is stronger and it is believed to have more health benefits than regular blossom honey. Harvest season is usually within February to May, but it will depend on the area, weather condition, type of wood, and the current state of the forest where the honey is harvested.

Unfortunately, a lot of IPs have harvested forest honey in ways that harm not just the trees but also the honeybees themselves. Traditionally, it is done by setting fire at the foot of the tree to cause smoke, which will drive away or burn the bees before hunters could climb the tree to gather honey. They would then cut the honeycombs and squeeze out the honey with their bare hands, killing the eggs and larvae in the hives that the bees have worked on for about eight to 10 months.

Pure honey from Non-Timber Forest Products

Sustainable honey focuses on hygiene and post-harvesting, where hunters only drive away the bees by smoke without setting the tree on fire, wearing protective clothing and masks, and cutting the honeycomb with stainless steel blades and other clean equipment. Hunters only take the combs that contain honey, maintaining the colony’s life cycle and enabling the bees to produce more honey than the first harvest.

The Philippine Forest Honey Network (PFHN) is a network of forest-based communities and support groups under a non-government organization called Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP) that recognize and practice sustainable management, harvesting, and marketing of quality forest honey. Since its establishment in 2012, the organization has gathered over 500 harvesters from communities in Quezon, Palawan, Mindoro, Zambales, Pangasinan, and Bukidnon to spread the word on sustainable forest honey harvesting.

“We basically provide them with the equipment and basic training on sustainable honey. We started in Palawan, and we also partner with other organizations that support our cause and are interested in giving livelihoods to the indigenous people. We used to have instructors before, but we realized that these people know better and so all the workshops and conferences are done among themselves” says Ruth Canlas, executive director of NTFP. These conferences and workshops will hopefully entice more communities to join and put an end to the illegal activities done in the country’s forests.

Another problem is the process of granting certificates of ancestral domain to the communities, which gives them the right to fully use their ancestral territories. “‘Yun ang madalas na reklamo ng mga katutubo. Sila naman ‘yung nakatira pero sila pa ang maglalakad ng certificate, and they have waited for so long,” says Non-Timber Forest Products executive director Ruth Canlas.

Some forest-based communities still practice the traditional method of harvesting honey, while others join new plantations and mines that are gradually wiping out the forests. “Kung mas maraming plantations and mines, mawawala talaga ‘yung mga honeybees. Insecticides also. Sana nga makita ‘yun. We need to protect our forests, and these changes bring an effect talaga sa ating mga kagubatan,” says Canlas.

Another problem is the process of granting certificates of ancestral domain to the communities, which gives them the right to fully use their ancestral territories. “‘Yun ang madalas na reklamo ng mga katutubo. Sila naman ‘yung nakatira pero sila pa ang maglalakad ng certificate, and they have waited for so long, says Canlas.

The organization hopes that there will be a bigger movement in the country that will advocate for clean and pure honey. While they cannot guarantee instant profits for their partner communities, they are fortunate to have them sticking by their side in spreading awareness. “Hindi na sila gagawa ng iba pang bagay na makakasira sa kagubatan. So when they approach us to thank us, I tell them it should really be the other way around kasi they’ve protected the forest for so long. Nagdadagdag nalang kami para maprotektahan pa sila lalo.”

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