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During the establishment of our trial tree plantations in the Markham Valley, we regularly encountered native bees. Of particular interest is a small black stingless bee, often referred to as ‘sugarbag’ bee. They are quite small (only 4mm) compared to the well-known honeybee and usually live in hollow trees.

Sugarbag bees are entirely harmless as they do not have a sting, do not produce any venom, and are incapable of causing any serious allergies in humans. While there are hundreds of species of native bees, these stingless sugarbag bees are the only ones that make and store small quantities of honey. Indigenous Australians have been harvesting sugarbag bee honey from native Australian bees for thousands of years and it is a popular form of bush tucker.

European honeybees can produce 40 to 50 litres of honey from one hive a year, but the sugarbag bees produce about 1 litre. However, sugarbag bee honey is recognised for its medicinal qualities and considered similar and in some cases much better than what we recognise in Manuka honey. Sugarbag bee honey is high in antioxidants and has strong anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory qualities. As a result, there is a growing global demand for sugarbag bee honey, and because not much of it is produced, it attracts high prices.

Considering the ubiquitous presence of sugarbag bees in the Markham Valley, in combination with their harmless character and valuable honey, PNG Biomass is designing and trialling a community sugarbag bee honey programme called “Switpela Bi Hani” (Sugarbag Bee Honey).

This trial of the Switpela Bi Hani programme is aimed at exploring the benefits of sugarbag honey production in project area communities. We will work with communities to build specifically designed beehives, provide information and training from international experts on keeping bees and honey production, support honey production and sales, and monitor the hives and community benefit streams. The trial programme will be conducted in 2018 with the first results expected in early 2019.

We anticipate the following community benefits:

  • Beehive production – Local craftsman will be trained in the production of a specific beehives design.
  • Low cost investment – Local ownership is an important factor in making a social programme succeed. The aim is therefore to ensure that beehives are not provided free-of-charge by PNG Biomass but that there are affordable purchase options from local craftsman.
  • Safe and low maintenance – Beekeeping of sugarbag bees is low risk as they are stingless. Apart from the initial hive setup and honey production, keeping bees is also very low maintenance.
  • Honey production skills – Local participants will receive training from professional beekeepers and international experts to gain the relevant skills to successfully keep sugarbag bees and produce honey.
  • Additional income stream – The sale of sugarbag honey will provide an additional income stream for participants. Initially honey will be sold locally, but international sales will be explored as it can attract higher honey prices and ultimately provide a greater income stream.
  • Improve fruit set in gardens – The increased presence and proximity of bees to local gardens will improve fruit set and yield.

PNG Biomass will also benefit from the bee programme, as the flowers of our plantation’s Eucalypt trees are a good source of pollen and nectar for the bees. This will lead to improved pollination in our seed orchards which will improve the genetics and productivity of our plantations.

The first trial hive was installed in October 2017 and a second one in January 2018. PNG Biomass is currently producing more hives to install over the next few months.

 

Community members from the PNG Biomass project area in the Markham Valley can register their interest in the ‘Switpela Bi Hani’ programme by contacting Tim Siegenbeek van Heukelom. We will then keep you informed of the next steps in the development of the programme and potential opportunities.

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