Ex-IBM systems analyst turns Dino Kelulut organic bee farm into a smash hit
After losing a loved one to cancer at the age of 23, Azril Dino Abd Malik was struck by the thought of his own mortality. The search for ways to improve his health led him directly to honey.
“That’s why I started taking Aussie honey every morning and then an article came out that [a brand] admitted that his honey was adulterated,” he says. About 80% of the honey found on the market is fake or synthetic.
Stunned, Dino wondered how he could get his hands on the real deal. He came across a company that offered a profit sharing program for Kelulut’s stingless bees and was excited to invest. At the time, Dino was a systems support analyst at IBM, where he spent 13 years, and thought the program’s passive income as well as free honey would be an added bonus. Unfortunately, he got scammed and instead of making big profits every month, Dino was wronged for two years. To make matters worse, he was fired from IBM.
“My wife and I sat down, and she said, ‘You already have your bee colonies there, why don’t you focus full time on that?'”
And he did. The early years were certainly an uphill battle. First, as Dino was based in Kota Damansara in Petaling Jaya, he had to travel nearly two hours a day to Kuala Pilah’s farm, Negeri Sembilan. There was also a lot to learn about this variety of bees. Trigona honey, also known as madu kelulutis made by stingless bees, which are slightly different from their better known stinging cousins.
“Everyone knows about stinging bees and how they store honey in honeycombs. Stingless bees store it in propolis pods. That’s the difference. Bees come out and find tree resin to make propolis pods, which has antimicrobial and anti-cancer properties.Then they find the nectar from the flowers and fill the pods.When the pod is full, they seal it.It is left for 30-40 days for all the properties of the propolis are infused with honey, which is why this honey is actually 10 times more beneficial than regular honey.
Kelulut honey is said to have many health benefits. Because bees are smaller than their stinging counterparts, they can penetrate deeper into flowers and extract more nutrients. Scientists have also discovered that, unlike most varieties, it contains trehalulose, a type of sugar that Dino says doesn’t raise levels in our bodies, but rather balances them out. He recommends consuming a spoonful of honey 30 minutes before eating in the morning or once a night.
“It is best taken just before going to sleep. When we sleep, our body actually heals naturally, so if you take a spoonful before bed, the healing process multiplies, it goes into beast mode,” he adds.
Knowing the benefits of honey was one thing, producing and harvesting it was another. “I took all kinds of courses organized by private companies as well as government agencies. I went from zero to at least some kind of knowledge. We knew all the theory but when you’re on the farm, it’s different, it’s the practice [aspect]. It was necessary to combine theory and practice. »
Learning from research that a colony can produce anywhere from 500 grams to a kilo of honey, Dino had high hopes for his 300 colonies. However, this fact did not take into account environmental concerns such as food source and weather conditions. He and his team had to study bees, even at night, to learn their ways and what works best for them.
Trigona bees develop their hives in tree trunks, which posed another problem. “In order for us to have a colony, at first we had to cut down trees. Since I started with 300 colonies, I was responsible for cutting down 300 trees.
The chopped log will eventually decompose, forcing the bees to relocate or die. Keeping the hive inside the log also limits beekeepers’ control over a complication. For example, Dino tells us about a company that imported hives from Thailand that ended up being infested with a type of maggot called the black soldier fly. Not knowing what to do, the staff ended up burning all the affected colonies for fear that the maggots would spread.
Dino eventually developed the Technohive, which means fewer trees are injured and beekeepers have more control over colonies. For example, if a hive is weak enough, they can import soldiers from a stronger hive, or if a queen is missing, they can find a new one. The Technohive gives the team easy access to the bees for harvesting as well as to check their progress non-invasively.
“When I started, I didn’t expect to do this full time. Eventually, the passion grows. At first I didn’t want to sell, but people kept asking to taste our honey.
This is how Dino Kelulut was born, a brand whose goal is to be the largest producer of high quality, healthy and premium Kelulut honey in all of Asia.
In 2018, Dino Kelulut was approached by Four Seasons Hotel Kuala Lumpur for their aptly named Bar Trigona. “They were looking for something Malaysian and unique. They were trying to get real honey and were impressed with what they saw. We’re really grateful because they actually helped introduce our honey to many tourists, which is great because it’s like a Malaysian treasure, our national treasure,” adds Dino.
This partnership has also raised awareness about stingless bees, many of whom are surprised at their existence. Since then, Dino Kelulut has greatly expanded his farms.
In 2019, Bar Trigona launched the “Save the Bees” program to help support bees and biodiversity. As part of this initiative, customers are invited to adopt a beehive at Dino’s Kelulut Organic Farm for RM500 per year. In return, customers will receive a bottle of bee propolis, six jars of handmade Trigona honey, a personalized adoption certificate, as well as quarterly updates on the busy bees’ progress. As these buzzing creatures are responsible for pollinating approximately 80% of the world’s fruits and vegetables and are integral to our survival, this initiative will encourage natural beekeeping methods and help preserve the environment.
With the help of Bar Trigona, we had the opportunity to visit one of Dino Kelulut’s production farms in Negeri Sembilan. Situated behind a few unassuming houses – with no signage as settlements tend to be stolen and sold for profit – there are five acres of land that are home to around 100 Technohives. Assistant Bar Manager Julian Benjamin Brigget and new Bar Manager Rohan Matmary joined us on this excursion, while Dino explained how Technohives work and told us about the different species on the farm.
Another unique quality of Kelulut honey is that it tastes sour with a sweet finish. These stingless bees are multifloral, meaning they have a variety of food sources. Thus, the species and location of each hive would determine the flavor profile of the honey.
In Brazil, the same species of Trigona is said to produce an intensely sweet product, while the Malaysian counterpart has a layered, more sour flavor. Hives placed near a starfruit or rambutan are more influenced by its flavor than those farther away, and since these plants are seasonal, the taste of the honey changes accordingly. The very small Trigona bee species, which can crawl even deeper into flowers, have sweeter honey than most, but Dino notes that they also produce a much lower yield.
There are many shortcuts in the beekeeping industry, which often affect the quality of golden nectar. Some feed bees sugar water to ensure they don’t have to travel far, but we have learned that bees can get diabetes too, which also affects the health properties of their honey. Other beekeepers dilute or flavor the nectar in the propolis pods so that when guests come to taste the honey, it ends up tasting “perfectly” sweet. There are also farms that harvest honey immediately once the pods are full, instead of waiting the recommended 40 days, resulting in an instant reduction in quality. While aware of these tricks, Dino is adamant about maintaining the quality of the honey it produces, as many customers have returned to applaud the benefits they have reaped, from better digestion to their overall health.
Dino has worked hard to develop technology that will improve his business and beekeeping in general. Thanks to a grant from Sirim Bhd, he created a prototype device capable of measuring the amount of honey collected during harvest to prevent any disappearance. Collected data is also directly uploaded to a cloud server for convenience.
Initially, Dino Kelulut’s honey had to be permanently refrigerated. “Our honey is hygroscopic and therefore absorbs moisture from its surroundings. Malaysia is very humid, so a lot of moisture goes into the honey. That’s why it’s more runny and very watery,” he says.
This honey also continues to ferment if not refrigerated, and keeping the bottles in warm spaces can lead to unexpected explosions (which has happened more than once). “We didn’t want to lower the water level earlier because the only way to do that was to apply heat to the honey. This will affect the honey – it will not maintain the natural state and health benefits,” adds Dino.
Working again with Sirim, they developed a kind of ceramic dehumidifier to remove the water from the honey, stopping the fermentation process and allowing it to be stored safely at room temperature. From now on, Dino Kelulut can start exporting his honey and customers of Bar Trigona can travel with their bottles in complete safety.
Dino focuses as much on education as it does on the business side. He hopes people will be more aware of the hard work of beekeeping as well as the many benefits bees have on the environment and the positive impact of consuming kelulut honey.
“Now we’re working with local universities to research the use of this honey and why it’s so good. Because it’s already Malaysia’s first superfood, we want to see how we can maintain the quality and eventually make it a commodity in 2030, like rubber and palm oil.
For more information or to adopt a hive see here or call (03) 2382 8888.
This article was first published on October 24, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.