Wild bees help tribesmen survive amidst pandemic

By Rhaydz B. Barcia


PARACALE, Camarines Norte --- For many Kabihug tribesmen in Camarines Norte, wild bees that produce healthy and nutritious honey sustained their daily food requirements amidst the Covid-19 pandemic for nearly two years now.


Windel Gutierrez, 23, father of two, a member of Kabihug tribal community living within the watershed protected area of Barangay Batobalani, Paracale town, said that the Covid-19 pandemic hit them hard economically specifically their daily subsistence, but wild bees in the forest helped and gave them hope to survive.


“Without the wild honeybees, I will not be able to sustain the daily food requirement of my family. The demand for honey amidst Covid-19 is high among the lowlanders like you. With high demand for honey, I could feed my family and was able to survive,” he said.


He said that demand for honeybee’s tripled as many Bicolanos opted to buy it as natural vitamins for stronger stamina to fight the virus. 


“Honey is better and is the best substitute for synthetic vitamins. Rich and poor Bicolanos bought honey produced by putyutan and ligwan, which helped us earn money to buy food for our family,” he said. 


Gutierrez said with the growing demand for honey, he and his fellow tribesmen go on bee hunting in various mountains and forested areas of Camarines Norte.

Kabihug tribe members


We trek three to four hours hunting for honeybees in the mountains of Paracale and as far as “Tulay na Lupa” in Labo town three to four times a week.


“We are bringing our food and water for the day to hunt wild bees. When lucky, we harvest at least two buckets of honey. Enough for us to generate several bottles of honey and earn a thousand pesos for the day,” he said.


“In a day, we were able to get 15 bottles of honey. Originally, we were selling the honey for one small bottle of Ginebra San Miguel at P150. Today, we are selling pure wild honey ranging from P250 to P300. So, if we get 10 to 15 bottles or so, we have P3,000 to more than P4,000 for the day divided into two or three persons. Good enough compared to farming as we are paid P250 to P300 as farm laborers,” he said.


Gutierrez’s family is living within the watershed protected area of Barangay Batobalani, Camarines Norte along with other tribesmen.


Kabihug couple Jesse Quintela, 40, and Maribel Quintela, 38, mother of five from Sitio Iyawan, Barangay Batobalani, also told Bicol Mail that the earnings from honey sustained their daily survival amidst the pandemic.


Quintela said that bee hunting is more profitable than working in a farm as laborer where they are paid just a pittance. Farm owners who are also badly affected by the pandemic specifically during lockdown are hardly hiring farm laborers.


“Our source of income was badly affected by the pandemic due to limited farm work during the lockdown but we were able to feed our five children in more than a year through bee hunting because many lowlanders opted to buy honey for their vitamins requirement as protection from Covid-19 virus,” he said.


Maribel Quintela said that honey also served as their vitamins that make them stronger to fight Covid-19. “We don’t mingle with the lowlanders to protect our tribe from the virus. A teaspoon of honey is our protection from Covid-19 virus,” she said


“Honey sustains our survival to feed our children. We are lucky because the watershed protected area is still rich in biodiversity. Without the forest, we will not survive this pandemic because our food requirements depend on the forest where the pukyutan and ligwan bees usually thrive,” she said. 


According to her, many of the tribal males engaged in wild bee hunting during the lockdown imposed by the government. 


“Without honey, we might be gravely affected because this provides us money to buy rice and other basic necessities. Hopefully, there will be no weather disturbance so the flowering trees will continue to provide nectars for the bees. We are also praying that cutting of trees will be halted so as not to drive away the bees, which give us food and money, specifically today that Covid-19 is affecting us all,” she said. 


Tirry Velasco, chieftain of Kabihug tribesmen at Sitio Iyawan, Barangay Batobalani, said that there are 29 tribal families living within the water protected area engaging mostly on bee hunting.


According to Velasco, there are few families who benefited from the 4Ps program of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) as the majority are not covered by the 4Ps program of the government due to lack of supporting documents, specifically birth certificates.


Merlinda Sto Tomas, 55, child development worker in Barangay Batobalani, told Bicol Mail that eight families of Kabihug tribesmen are members of the 4Ps program of the DSWD.


Meanwhile, Gutierrez said that they are hunting two types of wild bees locally known here as Putyutan (Apis dorsata) and the ‘Asian honeybee’ or Ligwan (Apis cerana).


Putyotan is more dangerous than ligwan. Putyutan is bigger than ligwan and once bitten could inflict a severe pain to bee hunters. He said that putyutan bees usually make their home in the open and under the branches of tall trees. While the ligwan bees are quite small in size compared to putyutan with brown striped bodies.


"These wild bees make their home in an enclosed area of the taller trees surrounded with flowering trees where they can easily get nectar. Sometimes bees make their combs in holes and caves in the ground but oftentimes within the taller trees,” he said.


When asked about the mode of bee hunting techniques to get the honeybee from the branch of the tree, Gutierrez said that it’s a rigorous process. “We climbed the trees where the bee colonies are located. We are bringing with us bolo, a pail with nylon ropes while some of our companions are waiting on the ground.


The process of bee hunting employs indigenous techniques where the tribesmen use dried coconut leaves to make a fire to generate smoke and drive out the bees. 


He said the fire and smoke used to drive pukyutan and ligwan away from the trees where the combs or colonies are located. After driving out the wild bees, two of their companions will climb the tree to harvest the honey. 


“To drive the putyutan or ligwan bees away from its combs, a fire is lit under the tree and the smoke is directed at the colony. Once the comb is free of bees, the comb from the branches of trees are taken down and put in the bucket before towing it down to the ground where our companions are waiting,” he said.


The volume or amount of honey depends on the sizes of the combs. “Sometimes, we generate a lot of honey when lucky. But retrieving the combs is usually strenuous and dangerous as we need to climb the taller trees where the honeybees created their colonies,” he said.


To grow and protect the wild bees, the tribesmen according to him do not cut or totally take down the entire combs of ligwan and putyutan, so the bees can return and the colony can procreate anew to continue producing more honey in the coming days and be harvested again.


Like most Indigenous People (IP), the Kabihug tribe relies on nature’s resources for their sustenance and survival. 


Bicol region is bestowed with several indigenous bee species which include the giant honeybee locally called as putyutan (Apis dorsata), the Asian honeybee commonly known as ligwan (Apis cerana), stingless bees locally called as lukot (Trigona biroi) and another stingless bee commonly known as lukot (Melipona sp.)


These bees are native species found solely in the Bicol region according to the IPs. While a European honeybee (Apis mellifera), mixed with the native bees, were raised in the three beehives in Camarines and Albay provinces.


Similar to farming, bees are dependent on climatic events and are threatened to wipe out due to adverse impact of climate change and deforestation. Good forest cover is critical for indigenous people’s survival in the countryside.


Ancie L. Lawenko, DENR regional public information officer, said that the majority of the IPs are residing within the protected areas in Bicol with good forest cover.  


“Bicol is not a logging country, though there are cutting of trees but still with intact forest cover unlike the other hotspot regions in the Philippines,” she said.


She said that good forest cover in the region is vital as it protects the public from the impact of disasters and thus provides food and water.


According to her, “honey hunting,” if done properly in the region’s forest conservation, could bring the bees back and support local livelihoods particularly the sustenance of the indigenous people’s food requirement.


Lawenko said that in Camarines Norte, one of the region’s protected areas is the Abasig-Matogdon-Mananan Natural Biotic Area, classified as a protected area on May 31, 2000 by virtue of Presidential Proclamation No. 318.


The Abasig-Matogdon-Manananp Natural Biotic Area is one of the 19 Protected Areas in Bicol region covering a total of 5,420 hectares and is home for the endemic plant species, Rafflesia baletei. Many Kabihug tribesmen rely on local biodiversity for their survival, specifically during the pandemic.


These tribesmen are living in the so called Geographically Isolated and Disadvantaged Areas (GIDAs). Agta is the generic name in Bicol for the natives with dark colored skin, short stature, big nose and kinky hair.


In Camarines Norte, where the culture has been preserved, they call themselves “Kabihug”. Manide is the term for their language. The Kabihug (meaning friend) tribe is the region’s oldest surviving group of indigenous people living in the highlands.  


Believed to be of pre-historic origin, they have preserved their culture because they have not married lowlanders. The Kabihug are nomads who move from one place to another and stay in a makeshift house.


For their survival, they depend on root crops, rice and vegetables that they grow. Besides farming and fishing, many of the tribesmen also engaged in rewarding ventures, such as gold mining, copra making and charcoal making.


But this pandemic, bee hunting is crucial for Kabihug survival with limited resources and livelihood. Like many IP communities in the region, they are saddled by poverty, lack of basic services, specifically water and livelihood.


As of April 2016, there were 48,743 registered IPs across the region out of the 213,311 estimated population nationwide. The Agta tribal communities in Bicol are subdivided into several sub-tribes, predominant of whom are the Agta-Tabangon, Agta-Cimaron, Agta Taboy, Dumagat and the Kabihug of Camarines Norte.


NCIP records show that of the 9,007 IP Bicol families, 24,507 are male and 24,187 females. The tribesmen in Bicol are among the 2.2 million Bicolanos belonging to the poorest of the poor out of 6,082,165 million population based on the 2021 census of the Philippine Statistics Authority.


They are rarely benefiting from health care because of their isolation and relying on herbal medicines as part of their custom and cultural beliefs.


Cris Barcia, NCIP Camarines Norte provincial head, said that there are 382 kabihug tribesmen vaccinated with Covid-19 vaccines. 


The National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) is the primary government agency mandated to recognize, respect, promote, and protect the rights of Indigenous Cultural Communities/Indigenous Peoples (ICCs/IPs) with due regard to their beliefs, customs, beliefs, traditions, and institutions.


(Editor’s note: This story was produced by Rhaydz B. Barcia as one of the fellows of the 2021 Philippine Press Institute (PPI) Civic Journalism Fellowship on the coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic  and the May 2022 elections with funding from the Hanns Seidel Foundation Philippines).