JUST A FEW WEEKS after our trip to Malaysia to hand out printed copies of The Bee Tree, I received an email from my friend Prof. Makhdzir Mardan in Malaysia saying that he had gotten a worried and upset call from Salleh Mohammed Noor, our friend, the hero of “The Bee Tree” affectionately nicknamed Pak Teh. Someone was trying to cut down the bee tree! My first reaction to this note was that it must be a mistake. How could anybody want to cut down this particular tree, in a protected area. And how could this come out just after our book promotion tour for a picture book focused on that tree? Inconceivable and absurd. That tree is famous. It’s sacred.

Well, absurd things do happen. Last night I received both a text message from Mardan and an email link from my friend, journalist Siew Lyn Wong, directing me to an article in The Star, the largest Malaysian English newspaper, titled “Honeyman feels the sting”. There is a photo of the bee tree and of Pak Teh. The article mentions Prof. Mardan as well as our book.

Salleh said he started harvesting honey in the Pedu forest in 1968 after getting approval from the Kedah Sultan.

“Honey hunters need permission from the Sultan as the honey belongs to the ruler. I will seek an audience with the Sultan to inform him of the tree’s fate and that of other tualang trees in the forest soon,” he added.

Kedah Forestry director Kasim Osman said he would investigate the matter and question the timber concessionaire in the area.

Universiti Putra Malaysia’s professor of apiculture and pollination biology Datuk Prof Makhdzir Mardan urged the Government to draw up a policy to protect tualang trees.

The tualang trees of Pedu and giant honeybees that nest there are mentioned in a book called the The Bee Tree, published in the United States.

Salleh and two of his grandsons are mentioned in the book, written by entomologist Dr Stephen Buchanan and environmental consultant Diana Cohn.

Dr Buchmann’s research on Salleh’s honey showed that it was among the best in the world as the bees in Pedu gathered nectar from 180 species of flowers.

The Star, Wednesday February 21, 2007

Of Bees, Bears, and Tualang Trees

Bee trees, locally called “Tualang trees” are the third tallest tree in the world. They can reach 250 feet, about 30 stories, in height, emerging above the rest of the forest canopy. They grow only in primary tropical rain forest.

Tualangs, Koompassia excelsa to botanists, are in the legume family, related to the tiny pea. Their ability to grow so large is partly due to the partnership legumes have with nitrogen-fixing soil bacteria. Nitrogen, an essential nutrient to all living things, makes up 80% of the earth’s atmosphere, yet nitrogen is inert and unusable by all except for a few kinds of bacteria, who can metabolize it into a form usable by other life forms. These bacteria make life as we know it possible on Earth and legumes are smart enough to provide little nodules in their roots for these bacteria to live. That’s a major advantage in nutrient-poor rain forest soils.

The giant wild Asian honeybees, Apis dorsata, love the tualang trees and they come back to them every year as they migrate in huge swarms, following local flowering periods. I imagine the tualang is easy to find, sticking up above the other trees. The smooth slippery bark of the tualang discourages the Malaysian honey bear from climbing up the hundred feet to the first branch. The horizontal branches are perfect for attaching their huge six foot long parabolic honey combs, covered with 30,000 inch long, highly protective bees resting in several layers over the combs.

You don’t find forests of tualang trees. They are solitary giants scattered throughout the forest, sometimes miles apart. There are 6 or 7 tualang trees in the Pedu Lake forest preserve that Pak Teh harvests every year in February and March. Pak Teh says that there used to be 100 colonies on a tree. But now there may be as few as twenty hives in a tree.

Even in forests cleared for agriculture, tualang trees are often left standing. Besides being so hard that they require a special saw blade to cut them, the tualang is considered more valuable for its honey production than for wood. The wood also lacks natural resistance to termites and wood boring insects and needs to be treated. However, as other hardwoods become harder to find, tualang trees are now being cut.

I had a first hand premonition of this when I was shopping for wood to replace the floor in my old house. I looked at the label on one sample called “kempas” and was surprised to see it identified as from the genus Koompassia. It wasn’t even that expensive. Should I buy bee tree wood for my floor? No, although I may be guilty of cutting down a few oak trees, I could not walk on wood from a bee tree. I now use the wood sample from the flooring company under my graphics tablet to raise it up to a more ergonomic height on my computer desk. I like being near that wood.

Koompassia wood is ranked as 26% harder than red oak, and is considered by the timber industry to be suitable for all heavy construction, like posts, beams, joists, heavy duty columns, piling, railway sleepers and power transmission poles. Untreated, the timber is suitable for heavy traffic flooring, panelling, mouldings, heavy duty furniture, high-impact tool handles and plywood.

How Many Ringgits is The Bee Tree Worth?
To conservation biologists or nature-minded people, the tualang is a keystone species in a forest that is 70 million years old. A keystone species is defined as an organism that plays a role in it’s ecosystem analogous to the keystone in an arch. The keystone organism may not be particularly abundant, but its absence would create a dramatic shift in the whole ecosystem, just as the removal of the keystone causes the collapse of the arch.

To Pak Teh, it is part of his livelihood. The tualang tree produces some of the most valuable honey in the world. But even to him, it is more than that. It is a hobby, a family tradition, an obsession, part of his identity. It’s a sport that tests a man’s strength, endurance, and courage. The honey hunters are respected like any local athletes. In Tucson, it’s probably like the regard given to a member of our Wildcats basketball team.

To Prof. Mardan, the stories about the bee tree contain a traditional knowledge that can be transmitted to school children so that the decision-makers of the next generation may have a feeling for the economic value of an intact, wild forest, balanced with the uses it undeniably has as timber.

To me it is a sacred tree. That’s the simplest way to say it. I’ve produced countless drawings and photographs of it and other trees in the Pedu Lake area. It is beautiful and grand and evokes an emotional response in anybody who takes the time to walk up that that mountain to stand beneath it. It is the focus of traditional honey hunting rituals mixing Hindu and Islamic symbolism. It is the home of Hitam Manis, the beautiful dark lover of an ancient prince killed by the Sultan’s soldiers and still living now as the spirit of the wild honey bees; a story that comes from the Hindu Rigvedas, between 3-4 thousand years old. Several times, while in the Pedu Lake forest, I have gone to the bee tree just to calm and ease my mind. It is a fellow being of great strength and power that deserves respect.

To the timber industry, the bee tree is worth a certain amount of money and its wood could be used to construct many useful things. I am curious to know what the value of the bee tree is in Malaysia ringgits. The decision to cut it down is a serious one and I would not want to own the burden of that responsibility. I do not dispute the validity of cutting timber. I live in a wooden house. But is money the only consideration? I don’t think so.

In the mean time, I wrote a letter to the editor at The Star. It pretty much follows the outlines of this blog article.

Please read the article online and write if you feel moved by the story and wish to support Prof. Mardan’s call to preserve the bee trees of Kedah. International attention can help in these cases. The bee trees are not the only trees in question. But they are an example and may turn out to be the heros of the story. Still a keystone species, the tualang trees may stand become representatives to us from the other species in the forest. They may inspire humans to use the creative thinking abilities given to our species to make wise decisions about our resources.

In 1935, 80% of peninsular Malaysia was covered by forest. After decades of clearing for rubber and oil palm plantations, and for timber, this number is closer to 45% today. Soil erosion and environmental degradation due to logging is recognized as a major problem. National and State laws, as well as logging guidelines, already exist to promote sustainable forest logging. But guidelines are not always well implemented nor laws enforced. Several non-governmental organizations, like the Malaysia Nature Society, and Sahabat Alam Malaysia (Friends of the Earth, Malaysia) have become increasingly active in bringing public and government attention to environmental issues, creating a network of nature preserves, and promoting a rational conservation policy. These groups have had a positive effect on conservation of the remaining forests.

The area around Pedu Lake is a watershed for Kedah agriculture downstream, the so-called “rice bowl of SE Asia”. As such it is protected as a the Pedu Lake Forest Reserve. Nevertheless, we had seen new logging and its resulting erosion, in the area. An new road is under construction now, which may open up the area for more logging as well as more ecotourists.

Biologists who have visited the Pedu area have noted that it is still an intact virgin forest. One may observe the complete natural food chain there, from honey buzzards down to the bees and the plants they depend on. In order to protect a forest, one has to save everything.

The decision whether to cut or to conserve the tualang trees of Pedu Lake Forest Reserve is a serious and weighty responsibility. Whoever makes that decision must answer to all of us.

Letters to the editor of “The Star” may be addressed to editor@thestar.com.my.

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