Fortunately the answer to the question 'To bee, or not to bee,' is a lot simpler than the similar-sounding one that Shakespeare posed to the world, in his play Hamlet. We need the bees!
An S.O.S state of affairs
Bees are magical beings! Did you know that a third of the world’s food production depends on bees? Seeds can only be produced when pollen is transferred between flowers of the same species. In simple words, the transfer of pollen from a male part of a plant to a female part of a plant, later enabling fertilization and the production of seeds is called pollination. And bees are responsible for 75% of pollination in global food crops and also crops used as fodder for livestock. They ensure the survival of different species of crops. So, if we don't have bees, we are most likely to face food shortages.
The global bee population has been facing a rapid decrease in numbers over the last few decades. There are various reasons for that. Luckily, most of them seem to be problems that can be easily fixed by us, with some dedicated efforts.
Raghubeer Negi has been a beekeeper for 22 years. Since 2014, he has been associated with Trishulii, a co-operative of farmers based in Uttarakhand which is supported by Himmotthan Society, an associate organization of Tata Trusts. He tells us that there are multiple reasons why bees find themselves endangered today.
"In earlier times, village folk would factor in space for wall hives in their homes. The bees were a part of their lives. The concrete homes of today hardly have any space for these wall hives," he says. He also blames the cutting down of trees, climate change and excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides in crops for the decrease in the bee population. "The village elders always had more wisdom. They knew how to live in sync with nature. The generation that had in-depth knowledge of when and what to feed the bees, how to look after them, is now hardly present and their knowledge seems to be gone with them," he adds. Negi also believes that mobile network towers of today interfere with the frequencies of the bees, making it difficult for them to trace their way home.
On a sweeter note
One of the most popular products one gets from bees is honey. For several decades now medicinal practitioners of the world have acknowledged that honey has many medicinal qualities. The most important amongst these is its unique antibacterial properties and the fact that it is rich in antioxidants. Apart from the boost, it gives our immunity and how it heals a troubled throat, honey has also found a place in the various beauty regimes including face and hair packs owing to its anti-inflammatory qualities. It is also considered the healthier alternative to sugar.
Balancing the modern with the traditional
Under Himmotthan Society's brand Trishulii, Negi and his 600 fellow beekeepers work on rearing livestock and procuring honey from bees. Beekeeping provides an alternate source of livelihood and helps them sustain themselves. Interestingly, they have managed to find the fine balance between retaining some of the beneficial traditional techniques of beekeeping and replacing some of them with modern ones that are better for the bees, the environment and us.
"We work with Apis Cerana Indica bee (an Indian honey bee, is a subspecies of Asiatic honey bee) in different districts in Uttarakhand. Earlier we worked mainly with bee boxes that The National Bee Board, horticulture, and agricultural institutes make. They usually make a box using a 1 or 1/2 inch wooden box," says Negi. "Keeping the weather in the hills under consideration, where it's suddenly, sunny, cold, or raining, we are increasing the thickness of these wooden boxes to 1 1/2 inches. These boxes in the city cost about Rs 2000 and our beekeepers and farmers can't afford this. They also didn't know how to manage the bee box in the rains and in bad weather. The honeybees wouldn't stay in the bee box for 12 months because of this and went absconding. Keeping this in mind we started making mud hives using easily available materials like mud, cow dung, and chaff," he explains.
While in the case of bee boxes Negi's team found it was better to stick to traditional methods, there were also areas where they thought it was necessary that modern techniques be adapted. "In the traditional method of extracting honey, people would create smoke using cow dung so that the honey bees left the hive and it was easier to remove the honey without being stung. With that 20% of the honeybees would perish because of the smoke. They would also cut out the honeycomb to remove honey damaging the larva, pupa, and eggs in the process. Today scientists after research have created smokers where some air is produced and we keep a burning cotton cloth inside it. This method ensures smoke being created in a controlled environment thereby producing only the necessary amount of smoke. In the new technique using a frame we also do not need to cut the honeycomb. We just remove the honey using a small honey extractor which helps us extract the honey without damaging the eggs or the honeycomb. The bees can continue living there," he shares.
Less is more
If you're wondering what the difference between the honey from this small group of beekeepers in the hills and the mass produced lot that usually populates the shelves of departmental stores is, Negi brings up a few details that you may want to consider."Large-scale beekeepers, with up to 1000 bee boxes, who supply to mass-producing companies, extract honey at least twice or thrice from the same lot, while we do it only once. Another important thing to note is that when the bee colony collects nectar in their comb the honey is cooked with wind inside the comb. then it is sealed. When we extract this sealed honey it is considered the purest form of honey. In large-scale productions these days beekeepers are not giving the bees enough time to cook this honey and seal it before they extract it in 10-12 days. Where they should have had 20 kilos of honey from one hive they now have 40 kilos. They don't take into consideration the quality of this extracted honey. The water percentage in this honey is more and fermentation happens quickly. Then to reduce this fermentation some companies use chemicals," says Negi.
As pure as mountain air
The honey from Trishulii is collected from pollution free, high altitude areas blessed with a variety of flora and medicinal herbs, where no pesticides, fertilizers or chemicals are used on crops. The Apis Cerana Indica bees pollinate for all of these plants and the nectar extracted is usually multi-flora and considered healthier. The taste and smell are neutral."Earlier in the hills, they didn't sell honey, they extracted it for personal use. They are used to pure quality and that's the only variety they knew. We are trying to follow that too. There are fixed times and months when we know that the honey has been cooked and sealed and they extract only then. The honey we consume at home is the honey we sell," Negi says before signing off and heading out to another busy day of beekeeping.
Meanwhile you can buy the pure honey that Negi Ji and his team painstakingly collect, from our product section and we’ll deliver the goodness from the hills to your home.
To buy pure honey, directly from a community of 600 beekeepers, who live in the pristine mountains of Uttarakhand, please click here!