Tak kenal, maka tak cinta — you can’t love what you don’t know — is a common rejoinder when a frosty relationship thaws after one or both parties learn more about the other. Dr Mohd Norowi Hamid hopes the same words will encourage people to get up close with bees.
Norowi is chairman of My Bee Saviour, a local non-governmental organisation dedicated to conserving those fuzzy insects. Unlike the fire brigade and local councils, which destroy hives when approached by people to handle “invasions” of their home or neighbourhood by a colony, his team relocates the hive so its inhabitants can continue doing what they do best.
The answer to what bees do is always: to produce honey. What is not obvious to many is that they pollinate plants, flowers and trees that serve as food and shelter for wild animals and support their growth. Melittologists — people who study bees — say bees play a key role in one out of every three bites of food we eat. Without bees, many plants humans rely on for food would die off.
“More than 90% of plants out there, including agricultural crops, depend on bees to pollinate,” says Norowi. “Pollinators are important for food security. If there are no bees, there will be no pollination, and no food. Plants that contribute to one-third of our daily food intake are pollinated by bees.”
Naturally, there is the honey, produced from the nectar bees extract from flowers, as well as byproducts such as beeswax, pollen and royal jelly. Beeswax, which forms the structure of the hive, is used to make candles and safe food wraps. Bee pollen is found in natural supplements and creams for eczema. Royal jelly, a milk-like substance secreted by honey bees to feed the queen bee and larvae, has antibacterial properties.
Unfortunately, these benefits are dwarfed by fear factors: When a bee stings, it injects venom that can cause serious reactions in those who are allergic to it. Besides, the sight of them swarming around fully-suited beekeepers can make people feel squeamish.
There are many encounters between bees and humans in the cities, says Norowi. They could cluster on a condo ledge, under a house beam or across two branches. “If you contact the fire brigade, the solution is either spraying or torching. As long as people remain unaware of the importance of bees, such ‘solutions’ will continue until it is too late.”
Too late to save these insects, which are already at risk of becoming extinct because of human activities. My Bee Saviour member John Chan says they have been chased out to the city by development and the clearing of forests for agriculture. Besides habitat loss, pesticide use, disease and climate change have also depleted their populations.
“The important thing is awareness — teaching people how important bees are in our lives,” says Norowi, former director of the Strategic Resource Research Centre at the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (Mardi). “It’s their nature to fly from one place to another looking for nectar. Sometimes, while travelling, they have to stop at an R&R, a building within the city. If people understand this, we can live in harmony with bees.”
He initiated My Bee Saviour in 2013 while at Mardi and registered it as an NGO in 2019, three years after his retirement.
Farmers aside, a lot of other people are interested in bees, from engineers to accountants to teachers, he notes. Thus, Bee Saviour’s activities are aimed at increasing awareness among those who encounter bees (which happens mostly in the city), ensuring the survival of the latter (it suggests bee gardens, planters and the relocation of hives, often carried out at night) and boosting bee productivity (pollination services and honey).
Chan, a biologist by training who owns and runs Nature Inspired, an eco-tourism company, observes that in the kampung, the creatures commonly buzz among bushes and flowers, and people leave them alone. But with concrete structures and open spaces in the city, they have become more visible.
A bee suit is all one needs to get started on relocating hives. But the novice risks being stung if he tries to harvest the honey, so newcomers usually follow seasoned members around to learn how to do it safely. Smoke is used to “persuade” the bees to fly to a new location, or the whole hive could be removed.
Bees build hives at a particular place for a reason — they can get a food source there, says Chan. They are attracted to perfume and tend to seek out clean places. Sometimes, the volunteers manage to persuade house owners to leave a hive alone. In return, they get free pollination services for their garden.
On average, worker bees live for four to six weeks, pollinating plants and producing honey. Queen bees, whose job is to mate and lay eggs, can live for two to five years. But workers are essential to a colony, as without them, the queen will die because they produce the royal jelly she feeds on.
My Bee Saviour runs on membership fees and donations from a few bee-related setups. Most of the time, “activists”, as Norowi calls members, dip into their own pockets to answer the call for help. “With buildings getting higher, we have had to get a crane to reach the hives when people called us.” Occasionally, homeowners may give them a token sum to say thanks. He says that the NGO is collaborating with Gamuda to develop a bee garden at its project in Rawang.
With World Bee Day coming up on May 20, the group plans to join in the events organised by Universiti Putra Malaysia to get My Bee Saviour’s message across: Save the bees.
“The perception is still that bees are bad because they sting. They won’t, unless you disturb the nest. Bees are friendly and provide us with many good things. We should live in harmony with them. As the saying goes, tak kenal, maka tak cinta.”
This article first appeared on Apr 17, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.