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Jars of native stingless bee honey from the Markham Valley in Papua New Guinea with a local beehive in a traditional clay cooking pot.

‘Switpela Bi Hani’ (Sugarbag Bee Honey) is a native stingless bee community program established in 2018 by PNG Biomass in the Markham Valley. It is aimed at creating awareness around the presence and value of native bees in the Valley and presenting communities with an interesting local business opportunity.

In 2017, PNG Biomass explored how native pollinating insects of the Markham Valley could help pollinate the Company’s tree farm seed orchards. Soon, a key pollinator was found: A small black stingless bee, often referred to locally as ‘biggi’, native to PNG and locally found in the Markham Valley.

Placing native beehives in seed orchards improves pollination and seed production, and thereby improves the genetics and productivity of the plantations. After a successful first trial hive was installed in October 2017 and a second in January 2018, local communities participated in the design and operation of the community native bee program.

Switpela Bi Hani is actively supporting local communities by educating them about the importance of native bees to the local biodiversity and how they can provide community benefits. The program engaged a meliponist from Australia to make regular visits to communities in the area to conduct awareness and training sessions, including ongoing training to produce boxes and bamboo beehives from homegrown materials.

The native bee program protects biodiversity by promoting awareness among local communities of ways to identify, care for, and breed native bee species, including solitary bees and other pollinating insects and animals. When communities see the importance and benefits of native bees, their role in protecting biodiversity follows naturally. The program will also contribute to the world bank of bee research and knowledge.

Community ownership

Over the course of 2018 to 2020, Switpela Bi Hani explored the existing local knowledge of communities regarding native bees and other pollinating insects; engaged communities in building and trialling various models of beehives; and provided information and training on keeping native bees.

Communities involved in Switpela Bi Hani are located across the Markham Valley; from Yaru Bridge in Huon Gulf District to Watarais in Markham District of Morobe Province – Nasuapum community; Chivasing community; Atzu Business Group; Markham Valley Women in Agriculture Association including women from Orori, Kaiapit, Zumangurum and Bagabuang communities; Ragiampun community; Abirawang community; Waritzian community; and Zumin Bridge community.

Frank Godfrey transferring native bees from a traditional OATH hive to a traditional Markham clay pot

To establish their beehives, communities do not have to go far to source their bees. Commonly, bees are found all over the village in posts, walls, roofing, old toolboxes, banana bunches, wood trunks, soil and coconut trunks. Bees where also found in old car tyres and clay cooking pots – the latter inspired the use of the clay pot as beehive.

Switepela Bi Hani has helped communities establish 43 hives across 12 locations in the Markham Valley. These hives are frequently visited for monitoring and support by the Switpela Bi Hani officer, however, increasingly villages are starting to create their own beehives.

More and more communities are participating and together creating a thriving native bee industry. The beekeepers are predominantly subsistence farmers, family units, women groups, and small-scale entrepreneurs – some are involved already with PNG Biomass as tree farmers while others are non-tree farmers.  For example, hives were set up at a residential area in Nasuampum village where the family has a roadside business selling flowering plants.

Upon establishment of the bee program, PNG Biomass demonstrated native bee keeping practices with the OATH (Original Australian Trigona Hive) hive – generally considered the workhorse of Australia’s stingless bee industry. When communities in the Markham Valley understood the requirements of a stingless beehive, they soon identified suitable local alternatives, from bamboo hives to local clay cooking pots.

While some find the OATH hive more convenient and reliable, it does require skilled construction. That is why many locals are starting to favour the clay pot hive — as it is produced from local materials, with easy access to harvest honey. Over time the performance of the hives was determined by the communities to vary by type of bee species.

Bee specimens collected in the Markham Valley have been identified at The University of Queensland as Tetragonula sapiens and Tetragonula clypearis – and previously Austroplebeia cincta was identified.

A success story

Frank Godfrey from Wompuai village in the Markham District of Morobe Province was one of the first to join the bee program in 2018. Frank demonstrated a great love for the native bees as well as an entrepreneurial spirit. Over the course of three years, he has honed the skills of crafting OATH beehives and worked with his community to find local materials and options for improved and alternative hive designs. He pioneered the usage of clay pots as hives, finding the bees thrive in these traditional cooking pots.

By early 2021, Frank has 35 ‘beehive farmers’ in his village of Wompuai, helping him look after over 300 hives. Native bees are known to produce much smaller quantities of honey than honeybees, but in PNG they are productive and – according to Frank – produce about 50 grams per harvest per hive. He has so far harvested more than 4,000 grams of honey and 300 grams of pollen grains, making him about K1,500 in sales. It takes about 4 to 6 months from establishing a new hive to harvesting honey, reports Frank.

Buyers of Frank’s honey like to use it to replace sugar, they prefer the sweetness and flavour of the honey. They also see it as a way to reduce health issues by improving the human body immune system.

Frank’s community is proud to be the first Coastal village to produce native stingless bee honey, a true organic and local Papua New Guinean product.

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