Seeing beekeepers on the side of the road one day while traveling through Himachal Pradesh caught me a bit off guard. For numerous reasons I didn’t give much thought to bees or honey during my trips to India. It was only after passing the beekeepers that I learned my friend and driver, Rakesh, had been sourcing real honey for years. In fact, he said he had a bottle of it at his home in the village for me to take back to the US. This was a new and unexpected subject that needed more research.
Once home and able to look into this honey phenomenon, it appears I’m way behind the times. India has a diverse background in apiculture A.K.A. beekeeping. Apiculture is the maintenance of honey bee colonies, commonly in hives, by humans. A beekeeper (or apiarist) keeps bees in order to collect honey and beeswax, to pollinate crops, or to produce bees for sale to other beekeepers. A location where bees are kept is called an apiary. Tools, techniques and traditions in honey bee keeping vary from region to region in India. Some form of beekeeping is practiced between the commercial beekeepers in Himachal Pradesh, to the local honey collectors in the hills and forests of Tamil Nadu to migratory beekeepers of Kanyakumari.
The Indian Government has put many efforts in place to grow this once neglected area of socio-economic activities. Today, beekeeping is a major income source for residents of Himachal Pradesh. In this state alone, the Department of Horticulture maintains 32 bee stations and 1500 bee colonies. Outside business and N.G.O’s (Charities) are providing subsidies and assistance to popularize beekeeping for the poor and unemployed.
Several species of honey bees can be found in India (Information provided by www.beesfordevelopment.org):
These beekeepers are found across the breadth and range of the country. There are rural beekeepers in the high mountains of the Himalayas who keep log hives in house walls and rivetements. Each family typically owns half a dozen bee-logs and honey combs are only removed for local consumption. Beekeeping with Apis cerana has been a growing industry in the central parts of the Bee Research & Training Institute and the Khadi & Village Industries Commission, located at Poona & Mumbai, respectively. The hills of Mahabaleshwar located in Maharashtra were the pioneering areas for beekeeping training and experiments.
Beekeeping is a traditional industry in West Bengal and some North Eastern states like Arunachal and Sikkim. In Karnataka & Tamil Nadu – there is a strong tradition of beekeeping with Apis cerana. Areas such as Coorg in Karnataka & Marthandam in Tamil Nadu are famous for their beekeeping culture. In Kerala, especially in the rubber growing areas, beekeeping is a regular activity and large quantity of honey (from extra floral nectar) is being produced.
The giant rock bees are found in large numbers in the Himalayas. In higher reaches, Apis laboriosa is found and in the lower areas of the Terrai (foothills), Apis dorsata is commonly found. Huge quantities of honey and bees wax are sold to wholesalers from towns in this region.
In the central parts of the country honey yields are substantial from Apis dorsata, primarily due to good forest patches in and around sanctuaries & protected areas. Apis dorsata collectors are mainly tribals. Honey for health and Ayurvedic medicines has been a traditional industry in this region.
The mangrove forests of the Sunderbans are an excellent habitat for Apis dorsata. The entire southern region is rich in Apis dorsata populations – contributing to a large share of the total Indian honey market. In Andhra Pradesh, farmers and honey hunters in the hills of the Eastern Ghats collect honey. Significant quantity of honey is passed on to traders. Intricate technologies and practices have been going on since a long time. Honey hunting is done on rocks and trees. Any accurate estimates of the number of honey collectors is not available.
Commercial migratory beekeepers with Apis mellifera are steadily increasing in the northern hill state of Himachal, the plains of Punjab, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. Rich bee farmers come in trucks bringing hundreds of colonies of Apis mellifera to apple orchards for pollination business in Himachal Pradesh. They move up the mountains during summer and come down to plains for placing the bee hives amongst eucalyptus and sun flower during winter. The introduction of Apis mellifera is going on at a good pace in West Bengal.
Amazingly, Rakesh’s bottle of honey made it through US Customs and sits in my kitchen shelf today. He explained the taste would be unlike any honey ever eaten before, and you what? He was right. The smell is quite different with the most distinctive and familiar scent being that of clover. The flavor is like a perfume starting on a high note, then as you chew it moves into a middle note and finally as you swallow and the taste permeates your palette, you hit the low note or after taste. While not overpowering, it gives you something to think about. And really, when was the last time any of us thought about bees or honey in India?