Baiting wild honeybees in Singapore

We have been keeping bees in Singapore for over two years. I don’t mean keeping in the sense that we keep pets like dogs and cats, or even domesticated animals like chickens and goats. Bees are wild and they don’t need us to feed or protect them to survive. They forage for their own food in the surrounding flora and they defend themselves from honey robbers like ants (and sometimes humans). If they don’t like where you keep them, they simply move off to better grounds.

Asian honeybees (Apis cerana)

Asian honeybees (Apis cerana)

Urban beekeeping is a growing movement in different cities over the world. There are over 3,000 bee hives scattered across London. There are also many on top of hotels, museums, and other prominent buildings in global cities like New York, Paris, Hong Kong, and Melbourne. Singapore is late in the game!

Since our first colony of bees moved into our rooftop garden on one morning in early 2013, we have been learning about beekeeping and getting stung in the process. There are lots of surprises and at least as many disappointments. That’s the way it is dealing with nature and wildlife. Any beekeeper would remember clearly the disappointment of walking up to and opening his hive to find it all quiet and empty, with the deserted combs still hanging there. We have had our first colony sprayed to death by pest control due to miscommunication.

We have been keeping the Asian honeybees, also known as Apis cerana. They are native to Singapore and are very well-adapted with little requirement of care. They look and behave similarly to the European honeybee, also known as Apis mellifera. When we first started off with beekeeping, there were not many places from which to learn this art. There are no apiaries or professional beekeepers in Singapore. The information on the internet are mostly about the European honeybees because that is the species beekeepers use in the US, Europe, and Australia. It took some adaptations of the literature online to cater to our Singapore honeybees.

Getting the Bees

To start with beekeeping, you would obviously need a colony of bees. In Singapore, this is the hardest and easiest part. It is difficult because we do not have the easy way of buying a bee colony. There are simply no apiaries here on our island. In other countries with professional beekeepers, you can order a nucleus colony and they will mail it to you! Even if you are brave, catching a handful of bees from a garden and putting them in a hive isn’t useful as well. Those are probably the worker bees and every colony would need a queen bee to survive.

Getting bees can be very easy too because you really don’t have to do much, except being patient and lucky. We have found that the best way to get a bee colony is to have them move into your empty hive on their own accord. The bees are most likely to stay in this manner.

Baiting a Bee Colony

To bait a bee colony, you have to understand what constitutes a suitable habitat for them to settle down and build a home. Honeybees need to build in an enclosed environment, like a cavity, with some form of entrance or exit for them to move freely. In that cavity, they can defend themselves from predators and also manage the micro-climate within the hive at 35 degrees celcius constantly be it rain or shine.

2013-06-26 11.35.51

A topbar hive based on dimensions for European bees, bigger than what our Singapore honeybees like.

A mistake that we made in the beginning was to use hive designs for European honeybees. The European honeybees have much larger colonies and therefore like bigger hives. Our Singapore honeybees seldom have big colonies. They split into two separate colonies when it gets too crowded. I suppose that the reason is that over here in the tropics, there is no winter to tide through and the bees don’t need to store big amounts of honey. The European bees also like having more fellow bees to huddle with to keep them warmer during the cold winters unheard of in this part of our world.

Hives can get really complicated but really all you need for bees to reside in is a cavity. We have seen bees move into a cardboard box, a wooden shoe cabinet, a concrete mailbox, underneath clay roof tiles, even a sound speaker! The hive you see on the right is a topbar hive based on the dimensions from The Barefoot Beekeeper. The topbar hive was the hive of our choice because it is more natural for the bees and also easier to build.

To keep it easy, put together a box about 15-40 liters big with untreated wood and drill some entrance holes an inch wide. Once the box is built, you can leave it at a place elevated at least a meter from the ground and under shade from the sun. Then all you have to do is wait…

Increasing Your Chances

For those of you who don’t want to leave everything to fate, there are some methods to increase the chances of bees moving into your empty bait hive.

  1. Beeswax: You can leave some beeswax in the hive, or coat it with melted beeswax. The bees will smell it and are more likely to find your cosy hive.
  2. Bee Pheromones: We have been using lemongrass scent because it is said to be similar to the Nasonov pheromone that bees use to orientate themselves. You can buy it commercially as well.
  3. Smoking: In their natural habitat in the forest, honeybees are likely to find a home where there has been a recent forest fire. After the forest fire, it is unlikely that there will be another fire soon because there is little left to burn. Therefore they are safe from fire. The photo below shows us smoking a hive.
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Smoking a topbar hive with charcoal.

Our Enhanced Hive

After a few prototypes, we have arrived at an improved hive design adapting features from various places. It is a topbar hive based on dimensions that we observed our Singapore bees prefer. A lot of the design thoughts are taken from our friends at ApiAnon, an organization that is spreading natural beekeeping as a livelihood to villagers in India. The climate over there is similar to Singapore and we figured that the characteristics and behaviors of the bees should be more similar.

We have a honey super that can be added on top of the main hive body. The bees tend to store honey at the top of the comb. With a honey super, we can harvest only the honey with less disruption to the brood. Lastly, we added a viewing panel so that the beekeeper can check on the bees through a clear plastic sheet without opening the hive. Every time you open the hive, you are disturbing the bees and affecting the micro-climate they are trying to maintain inside.

More photos below. Next time, we’ll share about transferring bee colonies from another location into your hive!

22 thoughts on “Baiting wild honeybees in Singapore

  1. Reblogged this on maemutgarden and commented:
    Our good friend Thomas Lim from Edible Gardens Singapore is a fearless man. Here is a great informative post about wild beekeeping. By coincidence, one of our current volunteers keeps bees in France and just yesterday we had a long conversation (he talked and I listened) about the relative merits of Apis mellifera vs. Apis cerana.

  2. I am an accidental beekeeper. They came to us & got us interested in them. I am a S’porean in the US & find it eye opening that there is beekeeping in SG. We had a swarm yesterday in our backyard, fascinating scene, but not from our topbar hives. Thank goodness.

  3. To get Singapore to become a city in the Garden, bees is one of the main enabler. Most of the people in Singapore are afraid of bees because bee stings but very few know about stingless bee. I found Stingless bee to be the perfect pets to keep in Singapore. You can keep a colony at you own home even if your are staying in a unit of HDB flat. I want to drive Singaporean to keep their own bee (the Stingless One). As more people keep bees they will have to make sure their environment is Bee friendly. People will start to plant more greens to feed the bees. Unlike planting edible greens for own consumption you now also able to get some 100% raw honey right from the hive. Honey is not only can use as a healthy drink but you can apply it to a wound, acne or use for cooking. I think drinking honey has a great effects in reducing the risk of getting all kind of illnesses that we are facing now such as Cancer, Diabetic, Allergy, and Skin problems. Diabetic patients should drink honey as a source of energy supply as it can be readily used by our body, the catch is that it has to be 100% raw honey. If your are interested to learn to keep stingless bee in your own home I am willing to share more with you. If you want to try some Stingless bee honey just let me or Thomas know.
    I want more people to work together with us to change the Singapore environment into a really green city for us and our generation to come.

    • Hey, can you do a beekeeping workshop or something for people to learn more about beekeeping in Singapore? How to get started and things like that. I would love to have my own colony.

  4. Looking for a beekeeper in Singapore. I keep bees in Idaho and would like some local honey. I’m only here until 9-25-15. I can get text when I have wi-fi. My USA phone is 208-863-6983 but text only

  5. Hi! I have a bee swamp in my garden. Looks like it started over night. Would you be interested to migrate it to your bee hive? Not sure how much longer they’d hang around for. 🙂

  6. So Glad I stumble upon your FB page. I am very keen to learn more about beekeeping. I would like to meet with you to talk about beekeeping. Merry Christmas and blessed 2016

    • Hello John,
      We conduct beekeeping workshops only occasionally so do check our FB page. Other than that, you can start baiting your own bees. If you want a prepared baiting hive, you can purchase it from the Nong website ( Happy 2016 to you too!

  7. Hello,

    Do you have an email I can reach you at ? need some advise on bee keeping in singapore. or you could contact me at 90905024 would really appreciate it!


    • Hello Robert,

      The bees usually need a much bigger area to forage from, so whether it’s possible also depends on the vegetation surrounding your garden too. Anyway you can contact Xavier from Nutrinest to see if it’s possible. I only keep bees as a hobby. =)

  8. Hello,
    I was wondering how much lemongrass oil do you use to bait your hive . I have tried using lemongrass oil without success. By the way I live in Butterworth, Penang. How long does it takes for a bee to get into your bait hives?

    • Hello Isahak,
      Lemongrass oil is very strong, so a single drop should be enough. You could try using a lemongrass stalk that can be bought at the market. It wouldn’t be too strong for sure. It can take a couple of months to a year, or even never. Site the hive in a quiet place, ideally the corner of a garden. There needs to be enough forage around your neighbourhood to feed the bees too. All the best!

      • Thanks for the info. By the way I have 3 colonies of stingless bees already in my backyard. I would like very much to have honey bees to tend to also. If its no trouble could you give me measurements to your topbar hives.
        Lots of thanks.

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