“It is going to be death by ant I think”. The young guy walking behind me was half joking, half complaining as we trudged through long grass and thick bushes, flicking red ants off our inflamed skin as we went. I wasn’t really listening to him; I was taking in the sounds of nature, a sound we make a point of travelling long distances for. The concrete jungle of Manila does not award us with chirping cicadas and buzzing bees so here we were, in this Amazonian style garden paradise wandering through and following our leader.
BB had asked recently how bees produce honey and so SB thought that could be fun to explore. Here we had found ourselves at the Milea Bee Farm, two hours out of Manila in Batangas. The drive down was non-eventful as I searched for bee jokes on my phone and cracked myself up with the funny ones (what do you call a bee having a bad hair day? – a Fris-Bee). The children played in the back seat of the car and we listened to the brilliant old music on radio 100.3. Today they had an excellent mashup of The Carpenters greatest hits.
Arriving at Milea, you need to seek directions from the locals to find the entrance. Signage isn’t great as you slowly cruise down tight winding streets. Children play roadside, adults recline on verandas sleeping or looking at their phones and dogs hot from the humidity pant and slowly pad around looking for a cool place in the shade. Finally we were led to a small gate in a fence that opened to a path through thick bush land. We walked about two hundred meters and then we found the sign. Milea Orchard and Bee Farm.
Through another gate and along another winding path passing by a bee hive heaving with activity as we went, we arrived at a small building enclosed with netting. I guessed it was to let the non-existent breeze travel through. It was hot and we welcomed the shelter from the burning sun as we were offered a welcome drink of icy cucumber water or comote water. Here is an interesting piece of information. Comote is actually sweet potato. The root is boiled down and mixed with honey and citrus to make a refreshing drink. Perfect for such a hot day. We looked around and chatted as we waited for a few more visitors to arrive for the tour. We snacked on suman, served with coconut nectar mixed with honey, and roasted coconut flesh.
Rico and his wife Edilee set up this business about seven years ago. Edilee was making products using bee by-products and Rico started making hives to breed queen bees. It all started when their son was born with very bad eczema, or as it is known here, skin asthma. Edilee has a background in cosmetics and based on some advice by her Dermatolgist, began to research natural treatment options used in Australia. She started to play around with oils and bee products and before long developed what is now known as Itcho’s Oil.
A combination of product demand and issues with the quality of ingredients and customs made Rico consider making their own. He took himself off to America to study and become a qualified bee keeper and came back to The Philippines to set up his Bee Farm. The name Milea is a combination of their other two children’s names and this really is a family affair. The two daughters run the market stalls on the weekends at Salcedo and Legazpi.
The farm focuses on propagation and practices two kinds, Apiculture/Apiary (propagation of Apis Bees which are bees that sting) and Meliponiculture/Melipony (propagation of Stingless Bees). The key purpose of the farm is to provide a healthy and stable natural environment for the bees to breed and produce queens which can then be rehoused in rural areas to build colonies. The by-products produced are used to make honey and a range of cosmetics from balms for abrasions to soaps and shampoo. Rico is all about sustainable practices and he uses permiculture to create this lush and healthy environment for the bees. So healthy, a range of other wildlife can be found here too with butterflies and other insects in abundance as well as attracting birds. It was fascinating to learn how to make fertilizer using bamboo, rice and molasses.
Rico’s personality and passion for bees is engaging and we hung on every word as he described his program to help local farmers learn and understand how bees can benefit their farming practices. He provides the bees and the hives and then collects the harvest and helps sell it. He is invested in educating people of the role bees play in nature, as he says a lot of farmers think bees are pests and destroy them. Rico’s program is now extending to the younger generations with the start of a Junior Bee Keeping Program for primary school children in grades five and six.
Did you know that there are about 25,000 species of bee and only seven of them produce honey! All seven of those species live here in The Philippines and, on Rico’s property.
The tour of the garden soon started and we found ourselves walking deeper through this lush wonderland as Rico picked leaves off plants, handing them around telling us what they were. A lot were herbs we were already used to growing ourselves, but our fascination grew as we were handed cinnamon leaves. The whole group stood around the cinnamon tree in wonderment and we gazed upon this beauty. SB and I have never seen a cinnamon tree before and the leaves smelt so fresh and cinnamoney…Rico said you could use them in cooking. He then gave us leaves off a liquorice tree and we chewed on those.
The first hive we visited was the hive of Italian Bees. Watching Rico interact with these bees with such respect and ease was fascinating. That put us at ease too and as we stood with hundreds of buzzing bees around our heads at no point did we feel fear that we would be stung. On the contrary, I enjoyed getting up close to the hive, within centimeters of the workers, to watch how they busy themselves, interact with each other and watch the queen move around, inspecting her eggs. Rico explained how the bees work (females do it all, the males do sweet stuff all) and he pulled out the panels letting us hold them. The weight of a full panel with honey can be about 2kg.
Bees do something called ‘fanning’ to communicate to other bees. We watched in fascination as a very proud worker bee return to the hive with legs filled with pollen. She did a dance and fanned to let other bees know how much she had and a few came up to her to check it out. It was really kind of cute. Rico understands these creatures; he knows their behaviours so well he was able to point them out to us, so that we could learn.
We continued our walk through this luscious garden and I could see SB dreaming that this was our garden back home. I had the same thoughts in my mind too. We would love more than anything to have a space filled with trees, flowers and edible everythings. The insects were singing their gorgeous symphony, the birds were chirping and fluttering around, the trees were abundant with fruit as we walked past avocado, pineapples and an awful lot of coconuts. We were super excited when Rico showed us how he had planted vanilla vines to help increase pollination. There they were, these very green, thick, large leaf vines growing up the trunks of coconut palms, giant sized vanilla pods hung in clumps off the vines. We have never seen a live vanilla vine, nor green vanilla pods. Rico told us they dry out on the vine, go a yellow colour then they are cultivated. I swear we were dancing along a bit not to keep the ants off us (the joys of a very healthy ecosystem is every bug in the world wants to take up residence), it was because we were just so excited to see these gorgeous plants in real life, not just in a jar from the supermarket.
We checked out more hives and Rico’s famous ‘hive condominium’s’. Apparently you are not supposed to put hives in close proximity and higher than the other, but Rico has and the bees have thrived. Bee specialists have come from all over the world to visit him to see it.
We were introduced to the Stingless Bees. Now, these bees are tiny, they are native to The Philippines and you would be forgiven for thinking they were very annoying blow flies. They build their hives with the resin from trees which is sticky, and that is what they line the entrance with to stop crawling insects coming in and attacking them. When you see the inside of their hive you kind of get creeped out. You would be forgiven for thinking it was from some sort of science fiction film, and in fact, I have no doubt at all that these hives have inspired many a horror/sci-fi film over the years. What can I say? There are sacks that hold the honey and then little eggs and everything is stuck together with resin vines that look like alien sputum.
When Rico needs to collect the honey, he collects the sacks that are made with propolis, a bee by-product. He then spreads these out on a tray outside and this tells the bees he needs the honey. Over the next week or so they chew off the propolis and they actually reuse it. Then the honey is collected. How amazing is that!
Back at the entry building we tasted honey and the stingless bee honey is a mixture of sweet and sour. It is very strong in flavour and actually quite hard to describe. We brought a lot of the products to try and after a good chat with Edilee it was time to head off. Rico waved us goodbye with a lunch recommendation up the road and we slowly made our way out of this garden haven.
Driving away shirtless children in board shorts ran along the side of the road with homemade white kites, trying to get them in the air. I hoped they would have success even though there really wasn’t any breeze. Those dogs plodding around earlier were asleep now and the adults laying and sitting on verandas were still there.
We went into Lipa and wound through streets admiring the ancient architecture until we found Rico’s recommendation. The Lipa Grill. The unassuming restaurant was filled with locals enjoying lunch and as the giant westerners walked in they barely glanced up, so engrossed in their meals. We ordered pancit, chop suey, chicken and broccoli and garlic rice, and SB drank fresh buko water. The waiters stood around us with smiles on their faces waiting to assist us, service you don’t really get back home, and we looked around at all the local foods and treats on display for sale. The children ordered homemade vanilla gelato and as it was put on the table we could see it was filled with vanilla bean seeds. The site of those little black gems made us sigh and gave us both that tingle of excitement as we remembered our walk through the garden.
Here are some fun bee facts
Bees live for only 45 days
Honey weighs more than water, on average 1 litre of water weighs about 1 kg. One litre of honey weighs around 1.4kg.
To check if honey is pure, pour some in a glass of water. It should sink to the bottom and not mix at all, so there should not even be a cloud in the water.
If you put a bit of honey on a plate, then a bit of water over the top and swirl the water around, the honey naturally forms the shape of the honey comb. It is amazing!
Every honey harvest tastes different. Taste is affected by the flowers that are around at the time. We tasted bee pollen that had a distinct tamarind flavour, because it was created when the tamarind was in flower so that is the pollen that was collected.
Did you know the queen mates only once? 200 male bees are selected for her to review and out of those only 50-90 are successful to the next round of mating.
Details about Milea Orchard and Bee Farm
Address: Kurba Road, Lipa City, Batangas . From Manila take the expressway down to make it the quickest trip. Waze gave good directions. Check out their website and Facebook page for details.
Time: Tours are on a Saturday morning, you need to book so check the website for details. Please make sure you are on time for the tour. Allow at least two hours from Manila for travel time by car, a bit more if the weather is wet.
Cost: 150php per adult, children under 12 are free.
Useful Information: Take a lot of bug creams and sprays. The ants are vicious so you need closed in shoes and socks, I’d wear long socks if you have them. Take hats and suncream. Rico has umbrellas to use for shelter from the sun and rain as well.