On a warm clear-skied Tuesday morning, Xavier Tan slipped into his gauzy beekeeper suit and sauntered through a passageway, its arched roof blanketed with coral creeper shrubs, towards his enclosed bee yard. Situated not far off Sembawang Park, the bee yard sits in a corner of a backyard eco-garden attached to The Ashram, the Hindu Endowments Board’s (HEB) halfway house which rehabilitates Indian former substance abusers in the final stage of their detention. Its unassuming bungalow is a temporary home to some 15 to 20 residents who follow a daily set of programmes, meant to help reintegrate them back to society.
In front of the bee yard, the 53-year-old beekeeper and conservationist hushedly opened the wire mesh door and stepped inside, where boxes of apiaries were stacked. It was so quiet that the only sound that could be heard was the constant beeps from the halfway house’s secured parameters. Inside, Tan singled out a box — three types of bees were kept in the yard in different boxes — and pulled up one of the stacked wooden frames with a practised gentleness. A fuzzy cloud of Apis ceranas, the common Southeastern Asian bees, came into view, swirling in droves around porous combs spread between the rectangle frame.
“These are all the hives,” the beekeper nudged his chin towards the other frames lined inside the box. A bold peer into the box would reveal rows of one whole colony’s teeming population, numbered at about 30,000 bees, nesting on the glistening combs.
Tan in his bee yard at The Ashram halfway house.
The Apis ceranas are honey bees commonly encountered in southern and southeastern Asia countries.
Tan has been a volunteer at the halfway house for more than five years. He helps manage the eco-garden, an initiative he suggested to The Ashram’s chairman after spotting a bare plot of land adjoined to the halfway house, unused, apart from the residents’ occasional languid soccer matches. The idea was approved for its therapeutical values for the residents — a priority to the halfway house — which they could potentially procure by tending to the eco-garden. Together with the residents, Tan along with several volunteer peers worked to build it over the span of half a year.
An expansive self-sustaining garden with a full food chain cycle, it’s now a growing ground to more than 30 variety of vegetations, from flowers and vegetables to trees producing bananas, starfruits and jambu airs. Organically grown, no chemicals nor pesticide are used. The water the plants need come from preserved rainwater. Its soil nutrition bolstered by compost churned out of manure from the chickens and fishes kept in the site and the residents’ food waste. Harvest from the garden goes back into the kitchen, closing and rebooting the cycle’s loop.
The bees Tan brought in and reared play the pivotal role of pollinators. As the bees rely on the plants for their nectar and pollen, the plants symbiotically depend on the bees for reproduction, allowing them to bear fruit and proliferate. Aside from the yard, several hives are scattered around the area, most placed within convenient proximity to the plants.
Most of the bees are conserved from extermination. Tan founded Nutrinest, his one-man bee-conserving operation, around the same time he started volunteering. It was after discovering the brutal extermination of beehives in Singapore that the former logistics manager left his job to work on his passion full-time: beekeeping, conducting educational workshops, and what he dubs “humane bee removal”.
Behind The Ashram halfway house is the verdant eco-garden.
“Generally in Singapore, when people discover a bee or a beehive in their house, they’re very scared and they’ll call the pest control — be it private or government[-backed] — who will just spray chemicals and kill them,” he said. Tan is able to remove whole hives and relocate them safely to the eco-garden or his other three bee gardens without the need for extermination.
To Tan, the bees’ safety is first and foremost. The honey his bees produce is secondary but a side interest he hopes will be an avenue to pique the public’s awareness. Tan only harvests honey that has fully riped. Matured honey has no expiry date, meaning one can keep it forever without the deteriorating of flavour or nutrition. Tan’s honey takes three to four months to mature. When the honeycomb is sealed up, that’s when Tan cuts open the hive and lets the honey drip down, sieving it through a net directly into bottles. There are four permanent hives at the eco-garden and each produces an average of 20 kilograms of honey a year, not much, according to Tan, but he’s indifferent to quantity.
“Bees can’t produce [honey] each day. It takes time to harvest the nectar. If honey has yet to mature and you harvest them, there’s a secondary process that honey producers need to go through because the water content will be too high. Sometimes they’d call it “pasteurisation to kill germs” but germs can’t get into honey [in the first place] — and when honey is diluted, it can fermentate and be spoiled,” Tan explained. “If you’re able to do something naturally and able to monitor it, and you only harvest it when matured, then the honey will be of quality.”
The authenticity of a honey can be tested by putting a drop on the tip of the tongue and pushing it to the roof of the mouth. If it warms up the palate — a reaction of live enzymes in contact with human skin cells — it’s real. Meaning, the honey was produced naturally by bees without any human intervention. All of Tan’s honey, unsurprisingly, produces this pleasant lukewarm sensation.
Nutrinest’s honey products range from trigona honey to mead, a type of alcoholic honey drink.
Tan harvests raw honey with different flavours. The maelstrom of honey types — wild cinnamon, bitter gourd, tea tree, trigona berry, trigona go — are labelled according to what the producing bee colony mostly forage from. Their hives are stationed beside a certain plant or tree in order to achieve a certain taste and texture. Some of these Tan fermentates into honey wine, also known as mead, which is said to be the world’s oldest alcoholic beverage and has recently spiked in its popularity. Stocking his honey products on his website and sampling them during his workshops, Tan has his pool of returning regulars.
Through his honey, the environmentalist hopes to start conversations and snub the misconception that bees are dangerous.
“When the bees are close to you, what you have to do is to stay calm and not make huge movements, and the bees won’t sting you,” Tan said, trudging down a gravelled path to another set of apiaries. Hundreds of bees swarmed in and out, foraging for food from the eco-garden’s nectars. Tan stood close to the boxes, in earnest observation of the hard-working insects. None stung Tan nor the working residents nearby.
“This is the place where I bring people in, let them learn about bees and convince them that it’s possible to co-exist with bees. Even if you stand very close to the bees, like this, it’s alright. As long as you don’t disturb their hives,” said Tan.
A staunch advocate for urban co-existence with the pollinators, Tan mused, “If possible, I’d prefer for people to keep the bees stay where they are. We can’t keep all the bees in one single location. This location, for example, will not have nectar to support all the bees. With bees being one of the most important pollinators, it’s ideal if the bees are diversified into different places for a balanced environment.”
As the halfway house residents transition their way back to the fabric of society, back into their own homes, perhaps one day so could the bees.
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