The buzz about stingless bees is real and GTCL has proof. Read through our hugely insightful interview with GTCL as they run us through how they stumbled upon their bestselling products and why they’re good for you.
On a mission to prolong illness through food, Singaporeans Terry Tong and Gary Chin first found pili nuts and it was because of that discovery that they learned about stingless bees and the extraordinary honey they produce. They founded GTCL in 2013 with the mission to promote conscious eating and have since evolved from food to also skincare. They source most of their ingredients for their products from the Philippines where they’ve met beekeepers who were traveling around the Philippines educating farmers about the importance of bee pollination, which has now become their knowledge which after this interview becomes our knowledge. Today they still work with the farmers they met and the result is an incredible range of sustainable wellness products pollinated from the stingless bees including their honey, pili nuts and skincare. In fact, people call them the Pili Pushers after their brand of pili nuts that grow wild on volcanic soil. They have another brand called Anaya which is a line of medicinal stingless bee honey, and also Kumuya their new clean skincare brand.
When we got Terry and Gary on the phone, we had a lot of questions and they had a lot of answers, many of which stopped us in our tracks. It’s nice to learn things once in a while, isn’t it?
GITNB: So, it seems like the term natural, when it comes to food as well as skin and body care, is being used a lot these days. So, to you guys, what does natural actually mean?
GTC: To us, natural is defined by using ingredients that are derived naturally and not synthetically, which means they aren’t man-made in the lab.
So I understand that initially, you were interested in food as a way to potentially heal the terminally ill. What surprise discoveries did you make on this journey, and did you find the answer you were looking for?
We kind of started this business because Gary’s Dad, unfortunately, contracted pancreatic cancer. The only option was chemotherapy. To put it bluntly, it was a death sentence. So it was like, do you want to be tortured to the end, or do you want to eat a little bit healthier and try to just see how far we can go? We were hopeful and got him eating healthier. That process actually made him more aware of what they ate as a family. I think eating right is really crucial because it acts as a sort of preventive measure.
What sort of improvements did that make to his life?
It definitely extended his life, but not by much, unfortunately, because as you know with pancreatic cancer, it’s usually discovered at stage four. I think Steve Jobs was probably one of the only people in the world that amazingly lived for a couple of years. My dad had three months, he lived for eight.
So that really drew my awareness towards eating healthy, and we started to go a lot more organic and as you go through that process, you start searching for foods. At the time, however, healthy food equaled not delicious – it was really not enjoyable food. So I think part of that discovery was how can we make or find foods that are healthy and nutritious but also delicious.
We came upon Trigona Honey and Pili Nuts. The big surprise for us was that with Pili Nuts, at that time, were really only known locally. And even locally it still isn’t as widely available. So when we discovered their nutritional benefits, it was kind of like, wow, why are the locals roasting it to death and adding a whole lot of refined sugar? That’s when we figured, let’s activate these nuts because that retains the nutrients and amplifies their nutritional value.
Let’s go back to basics when it comes to pili nuts because they’re relatively new, at least when it comes to common knowledge. I don’t think people know what pili nuts are. So what are they, where do they come from, and what are their benefits and health properties?
Pili Nuts are native to the Philippines. They come from the Pili Tree and have the highest level of Vitamin E of any nut, so it’s amazing for your skin and they have very high levels of Magnesium which is important for stress and heart health and is a master mineral responsible for over 300 bodily functions.
I think what a lot of people don’t know is that a lot of nuts like almonds and cashews are sprayed with pesticides, fungicides and a lot of nasty gunk. When you soak a bowl of these nuts, you’ll find that the water turns grey very quickly – that’s the bad stuff you’re ingesting and a lot of people don’t know that. That’s also why activation is important. For us, activation is not because we want to remove any sort of pesticides or artificial chemicals, as our pili trees grow in the wild, but more so because we want to amplify their nutritional value. And so it’s pre-sprouted and then dehydrated. Super long process but well worth it. And to make them even more nutritious we created our own recipes with ingredients that are healing yet absolutely delicious.
So how are you sourcing or harvesting pili nuts if they’re native to the Philippines and you guys are in Singapore?
We have to work with a community of farmers because there’s no one farm that has all the nuts we need. Actually, the term farm is really a misnomer, because these trees actually grow in the back yards of people’s houses so it’s really more like a scatter of these trees, not a farm.
Because you’re so far away, how can you be sure that they’re practices are sustainable or good for the environment?
We visit the area a couple of times a year, which is very rural. It’s a sustainable practice because, honestly, they don’t really need to do anything with the trees – they just grow in the wild. Easy to care for, very hardy, and they grow to over a hundred years old.
In fact, what we like about this plant is that almost every part of the plant can be used. They tap the bark for Elemi oil, which is used in our skin care. The shell of the nuts are used for charcoal, the leaves can be eaten, and the flesh of the nut can be eaten as well – so every single part of it is used. But best of all, these pili trees are also pollinated by the same stingless bees that produce our honey.
And that goes into your products too?
The honey is used in our natural facial moisturiser from Kumuya, but we also have our own brand of Trigona honey -Anaya. These stingless bees are used to mainly pollinate crops, and because of their tiny size, it makes them excellent pollinators. We actually got to know about them when we were at the Pili nut farms.
Going back to your earlier question about discoveries, the stingless bee honey was actually a big discovery for us. Whenever we say stingless bees everyone goes…what? It’s like no one has heard of stingless bees and the reason for that is because they’re not commercially farmed. These bees produce a very small amount of honey, a lot of the big producers don’t really care for them because it’s not going to give them the big profits that like honey bees do. So in comparison, honey bees can produce around 30 kilograms a hive every year. And when you compare it with stingless bees, they only produce about 500 grams a hive per year.
True story, back when we were visiting the farm, one of the bee-keepers gave this honey to me saying it was a medicinal honey. I didn’t really think about it and at that time apitherapy was a bit foreign for me. I took it back home, and there was this one day when my body was getting a little bit achy which signals that I’m about to get sick. I remembered that honey and thought why not give it shot. So I took one tablespoon and went to bed. When I woke up the next morning, the ache was gone. Normally, I would go into a cycle with my nose dripping and fever, but none of those symptoms occurred.
So we investigated it and we sent our Philippines Trigona honey for a laboratory test in Singapore. We were amazed when the results showed that it was two times more effective at killing bad bacteria than a Manuka of a UMF 25+, which is massive because Manuka of UMF 25+ is really hard to find and expensive. Our first thought? How can we get more? But of course it’s difficult because the bees only produce so little, and it’s not an easy bee to keep because they’re very fragile and very small. So you have to really give it a lot of tender loving care.
So when we hear that the population of bees is dying out, are stingless bees suffering the same fate?
Not as much. There are a couple of reasons why honey bees are facing a colony collapse disorder. One is mites – varroa mites attack honey bees (apis mellifera) and weaken them. The second reason is that bee colonies are dying because of pesticides. When they pollinate a crop that’s been sprayed with pesticides, the bees either die immediately or when they bring back the contaminated nectar shared by others it affects the colony like a slow poison. So those are the main reasons for the collapse of the bee population.
Stingless bees are quite different. First of all, unlike the normal honey bees, they don’t need to be sprayed with miticides because their hive is made from both beeswax and propolis. If you have the chance to see the image of the hive on our website, you’ll notice that it’s very brown and that’s the propolis that they’re using to build the hive with. Propolis is a natural anti-bacterial, anti-microbial kind of substance so they’re actually pest-free naturally, the hives. Unlike some practices in other countries, where stingless bee colonies are harvested from the wild by cutting down trees, the beekeepers that we work with in the Philippines educate farmers on how they can multiply their hives without having to take wild colonies. They are also very selective of the farms that they work with, ensuring that these farms are away from cities and not next to rice fields where they spray a lot of pesticides.
In terms of sustainability, because these bees are producing such a small amount of honey, there was a need to actually encourage more farms to keep these bees, which not only helps them transit towards organic farming but also increasing the population of the bees.
What are your three bestselling products?
That would be our Trigona honey, our Trigona Propolis Throat Spray, as well as our Himalayan Salt Pili Nuts.
And the last question, what does conscious living mean to you?
Living consciously is being aware of what that we do, and what we eat or consume. It’s really about reading labels, understanding where food comes from, and how things are made. That’s why we always advise people to go and find out how their food is produced, find out what honey actually is.
We shouldn’t take for granted that what we see on the shelves are safe to consume because even the authorities can’t always protect us and be proactive about testing products. It’s also being conscious about the impact that you’re making on the environment.
There are still foods that we have yet to be discovered that have amazing benefits but are possibly lost to us due to deforestation or other environmental issues – – which is why we also seek to promote tropical biodiversity.