The honey hunters of Palawan By Astor Wong Hong Kong


The Batak’s traditional practice of honey collection dates back in history. Though it is uncertain when did they learn and started practicing honey-harvesting, honey certainly plays a vital role in their livelihood, contributing to both subsistence - as a nutritious food source - and cash income. Successful honey collection requires in-depth knowledge about bees and their behavior. The Batak people have a diverse range of bee knowledge,

including hive-making, pollen gathering, flowering seasons, and, most importantly, technical know-how of honey collection, making them experts in wild honey harvesting. Due to climatic factors, there are considerable variations of the geographic location of hives and the duration of honey season every year. Batak honey hunters can identify more than nineteen floras that contribute as pollen and nectar sources for bees. Sophisticated indigenous knowledge about honey collection, including flowering schedules of trees and structure of beehives, has been accumulated and passed on generation to generation among the aborigines. My Batak informants can also distinguish up to seven distinct species of bees, five of which are honey-bearing, while the remaining two do not produce any honey. Most of the honey-producing bees build their hives in the upper forest story, hanging from branches near treetops. The Bataks are trained with excellent eyesight ever since they were little, for what used to be an essential skill for hunting now become useful for spotting bee colonies. Apart from sharp perception, they are also equipped with superior tree-climbing skills. Upon locating a beehive, the adroit Batak honey hunter would single-handedly climb up to the treetop hive-location. The collector then opens up the comb with a bolo (machete), and blows smoke into the hive with a small torch to disorient and drive off the bees. Subsequently, the honeycomb would be wrapped up securely with a hand-made rattan rope, and lowered to ground level. After extracting and exhausting all the honey from the hive to a container, which holds up to six gallons of liquid, the remains would be saved up for later consumption. Honeycomb, as a good source of carbohydrates, is one of the staple foods for Batak breadwinners who work long days - not hours - in the forest foraging and tapping tree resin. My informant Ernesto Gambio enlightened me that, to the Bataks, eating honeycomb ‘helps you spread very quickly,’ meaning it promotes reproduction. ‘That’s why a lot of women get pregnant during honey season,’ he explained.

Among the five honey-bearing species, there is but one of which that inhabits ‘underground,’ in holes in logs or tree stumps, the notorious Kamantanek. This particular species of bees produces the renowned Palawan green honey, as rumor has it, this type of wild honey has medicinal properties - some even claim it as a miracle cancer cure. However valuable it may be, every Batak we had spoken to refused to harvest the green honey.

As the stung of the Kamantanek is deadly poisonous, the stakes are very high. They once witnessed a carabao’s life being taken in the blink of a time after being bitten by the bee, and as far as concerned, there is no venom cure for this type of bee poisoning. For Bataks who live from hand to mouth with a big family to raise and support, they could not put their lives at risk like this. Nonetheless, our informants promised to try harvesting if we gear them up with protective suits; if that is the case, we might be able to get some exclusive green honey for CERS!

In the Batak worldview, humans, and bees, along with other animals, inhabit their environment with other natural spirits. Honey is considered to be a finite resource; thus, it needs to be balanced and restored through constantly negotiating with the panya’en (caretaker spirit) Ungaw, who is responsible for honey production through controlling bee movements. Ungaw, the apo (grandfather) of the bees, takes care and protects the bees. Believing Ungaw has the power to send away the bees thus affecting honey supply, the Bataks learn to harvest honey in a conservation-oriented manner; abusing bees, exploiting honey excessively or wasting honeycombs is straightly prohibited to avoid upsetting Ungaw and inducing punishments like fall in honey supply, sickness or even death. Ill-manner and disrespectfulness towards bee would also offend the spirit; at times, Ungaw’s anger would be reified into actual bee aggression, stinging collectors harvesting honey and causing great pain. For the Bataks, the traditional remedies for bee bites is an ointment, made from mud collected after dishwashing, fried with coconut oil. While applying the ointment on the wounded part, they would make a sumpa (magical spell) to curse the bees so that the agitated spirit would leave the injured alone, and the pain would soon fade.

To restore cosmic equilibrium between humans and bees after a year-long honey collecting activity, the Bataks would carry out the Lambay kat taro ritual annually. ‘Lambay’ in Batak language can be translated as ‘to throw away’ (disperse), embodying the philosophy of the ritual - to promote the dispersal of rice seeds and bees from their cosmological place of concentration, which enhances harvest for swiddens and honey. Lambay ritual starts in March when honey gathering begins and follows by the burning of new swiddens and plantation of rice or other crops in April. During the seven-day ceremony, the Bataks are required to uphold collective ‘good conduct’ – honey collection is put on halt entirely, and interpersonal conflicts must be avoided. In the sword dance ceremony, male participants would playfully fight against one another with wood swords; nevertheless, the tips of the sword must not collide, for this symbolizes conflict and irritates the bees. After the ritual, the disturbed balance between humans and sprits would be restored, and the Bataks can proceed to a new cycle of honey collection and swidden plantation.

This is our first time revisiting a Batak village after participating in the Lambay ceremony earlier this March. As told by our informants, thanks to the ritual, there is abundant honey this year for everyone to harvest and sell. The sudden rise in honey supply, unfortunately, lowered the price and profit of honey sale; originally priced at 700 pesos per gallon, some families could only sell the same amount for 200 pesos this honey season. As part of our social development project for the Batak tribe, in the future, CERS could contribute to stabilizing the market price of honey by setting a price baseline, assuring that the honey hunters would be paid fairly for their hard work. We are also planning to collaborate with Batak ladies, commissioning them to tailor-make traditional basketry for repackaging the honey for sale. Through value-adding process as such, the honey business would become much more lucrative than it is now, hopefully improving the living standard of the indigenous community.