Photo by Jovian Lim.
THE SACRED BEES - Xavier Tan, beekeeper and founder of Nutrinests
from The X Press Edition N°3
“Don’t stand directly in front of the hive. If you block their flight path, the bees feel threatened and may attack,” says Xavier as we approach a cluster of beehives he’s relocated from around the city. We’re at The Ashram, a halfway house in Sembawang where he’s set up base for his bee garden. He carefully lifts a wooden frame, revealing bulbs of rich golden honey, molten and delicious. He points out smaller, brighter spots of yellow—eggs that will soon hatch into hundreds, possibly thousands of bees. He reminds us to move slowly around the hives, beckoning us closer to touch the bees and observe minuscule flecks of pollen attached to their hind legs—the bees’ knees, indeed.
In-flight, the tiny creatures are mesmerising, producing none of the buzz or drone that prompt instant dread. We stay for a while, then follow as Xavier leads us past plots of herbs and vegetables toward a different sort of hive. This one belongs to the stingless bee, and consists of a comparatively messy web of brown combs. Nestled within is a honey pot, a natural store of the sweet liquid built by its inhabitants. He invites us to taste it, and we do, dipping our fingers in and relishing the experience of consuming food straight from nature.
The bees we keep are local bees—Apis
cerana and Apis trigona. These are two
species of bees that produce quite a bit of
honey as compared to others.
They are smaller in size, and the honey
they produce is smoother, more fragrant
and flowery in flavour.
Xavier, please tell us about the bee garden you manage, and the people you work with.
The garden is taken care of by inmates, who are towards the end of their terms and are in a halfway house because they behave well. They have a higher chance of merging back into society. We’re trying to nurture them so they’re more updated with what’s going on outside, and are able to adapt better.
I helped the halfway house design the garden and decide what to place in each section. We employ a polycultural* system in the garden. We don’t just keep bees, we make compost, have a chicken coop, a fish pond, and all kinds of plants.
So it’s an entire ecosystem.
It’s a whole ecosystem with a complete food cycle. Our chickens are free-range; if you come to our garden, you’ll see not only plants, but chickens walking around, and bees flying around. It’s a place we created to let Singaporeans experience how a system in nature works.
Organic waste from the gardens and our kitchens are tossed back into the compost for decomposition—there’s zero food waste. We harvest worms from the compost and feed them to the chickens and fish. Their waste, together with the compost, are returned to the soil as fertilisers for plants. And when the plants flower, bees come to pollinate and we get fruits that go back to the kitchen. We also try to collect rainwater to water the plants. We get everything from nature, and return them to nature.
Bees are an important part of the garden and our environment. We have so many varieties of plants, and about 80% of plants in a forest are pollinated by bees. Without bees, you’re going to see a reduction in tree populations, our air will become more polluted, and this will lead to global warming. It’s a ripple effect.
How did you end up working with The Ashram to start the bee garden?
It was by chance. I got to know the team from The Ashram, and was talking to them about what I was doing. They’d been thinking about starting a garden in The Ashram, but didn’t have extra hands or the resources to get it going. When we started, it was very difficult. How were we going to convince the residents to help? We wanted to do it ourselves; if we’d gotten a contractor to do it, it would have been meaningless.
In the beginning, the residents didn’t see the point of the garden; they were skeptical about how genuine I was. I managed to get some NUS students to volunteer, and we started to work on a very small plot. I built a nursery area and a shack using bamboo, wood and coconut leaves—not a single nail was used. When the residents saw me working on it persistently, they started to get involved.
Some of the workers and residents at The Ashram like gardening, so I started going around to the gardeners I knew, and they supported me by donating plants, seeds, pots and things like that. We started planting herbs like basil, moringa and borage. It all started very small, but the plants started to grow and you start to see the garden forming. And more residents decided to join us. Now, more and more people are interested in helping.
What were you doing before you started Nutrinest?
I was working for a multinational company as a worldwide logistics manager. They decided to move the business to China, so I was given the golden handshake.
... about 80% of plants in a forest are
pollinated by bees. Without bees, you’re
going to see a reduction in tree
populations, our air will become more
polluted, and this will
lead to global warming.
So why did you choose to go into beekeeping?
It wasn’t like I got into it straightaway. I was already interested in it and have beekeeper friends. Once, I met up with one of them in Malaysia—he’s also into bee conservation, and was helping to remove bees from deforested areas. I started to help to relocate [beehives] in Malaysia, and that’s how we started our apiary.
Later, I realised that Singapore was killing bees too—it’s ridiculous; in every part of the world, people are trying to save bees. It was a painful start because nobody believed [it was possible to do beekeeping in Singapore]. People were saying that I wouldn’t make it, and that nobody really cares about bees. But it’s about awareness. Once people know a little bit more, and it makes sense to them, they will want to help.
Can you explain what bee conservation involves?
Part of bee conservation is helping people remove beehives from their houses. In Singapore, people usually call pest control. And they kill thousands of bees by spraying chemicals. All the honey, all the bees, all the honeycombs are wasted.
What I do is I capture the queen bee, cut the hive away, put them into frames and get the whole colony into a box. I clean up the place and move the hive to our bee garden. There, the bees can survive, the bee problem is gone, and there are no chemicals. It’s a more complete solution.
How do you capture the queen bee?
The queen bee is bigger in size. Every colony has only one queen, and she moves around the hive. There will be some bees that are always following her, so you’ll see a cluster of movement. You need to cut the hive away, piece by piece, to look for her.
It’s not making money because I spend a lot of time on it. I stay [at the location of the hive] for five to six hours, and if the hive is inside a rooftop, I have to find access—cut a hole or something like that—remove the hive and patch it back. It’s a lot of work (laughs in exasperation). But it’s worth it because you’re saving all the bees.
I have to make sure the cost of removing a beehive is equal to, if not lower than, pest control so it makes the decision a no brainer. Because when people [find out] that they can remove the bees at the same cost as pest control, without killing or damaging the environment, they think, why not?
Do all species of bees produce honey?
No, not all of them. But all bees pollinate flowers, and only honey bees group as a colony. I read a report that said that we have over 2,000 species of bees in Singapore, but only four produce honey: Apis dorsata, Apis cerana, Apis andreniformis and Apis trigona (stingless bees).
What is the difference between local honey and honey from other parts of the world?
Their tastes are very different. In most parts of the world, the bee used to produce honey is the Mellifera species. It’s a European bee, and many commercial beekeepers exploit them; they harvest their pollen—their natural food that builds up their immune system and gives them nutrition— and replace them with man-made pollen. This makes the bees unhealthy and easily infected with diseases. So it’s the norm for commercial beekeepers to feed them with antibiotics. When you taste some of the European bee honeys, you realise they have a very strong medicinal smell.
The bees we keep are local bees—Apis cerana and Apis trigona. These are two species of bees that produce quite a bit of honey as compared to others. They are smaller in size, and the honey they produce is smoother, more fragrant and flowery in flavour. The taste is more distinct.
You have commercial clients and work with schools as well. What do these projects involve?
There are schools and hotels that ask me to maintain beehives for them [on their premises]. But they only want stingless bees, and I refuse because the only criteria I have is that if you want to keep bees, you have to keep both— stinging and stingless. Of course I know their reason—it’s for the safety of the children. But if schools only keep stingless bees, they’ll give students a wrong understanding of bees. They will think that bees don’t sting, and you can disturb them. It makes more sense to teach kids how to handle bees, rather than avoid them.
Right now, I only have a few [beehives around Singapore]. Some are in other people’s houses; they are not only interested in conserving bees, but willing to put in the effort to take care of them at home. It’s very satisfying when someone who initially wanted to remove a hive decides to try and keep it. It’s very encouraging. One of them actually takes videos of her hive, puts them up on YouTube and sent them to me. And I thought, “That’s wonderful.”
Visit www.nutrinests.com for more information about urban beekeeping and conservation.