Beekeeping in Northern India - lessons for and from Africa

By Dr Garth Cambray

In Jan/Feb 2007 Garth Cambray visited many beekeepers in Northern India as
part of a Rotary International Group Study Exchange between South Africa (9320)
and India(3100). From an apicultural and apidological perspective, India, he
believes, is a promised land.

Apis dorsata on the Sahel Mahel - this building is 100 years
older than the Taj Mahal, which also has bees on it. Photo credit: G.
Cambray

Three indigenous species of honeybee are found in Northern India. The first
is the ultra small Apis florea, little bigger than fat a mosquito which
builds little hand sized combs hanging from branches in hedges. The second is
the conspicuous giant honeybee, Apis dorsata which builds monstrous
single comb nests hanging from trees, water towers and temples (including the
Taj Mahal). The third is the bee which occupies the equivalent ecological niche
as the Africa and European races of the western honeybee, Apis mellifera.
This bee is Apis cerana indica, a slightly smaller bee which also builds
its nests inside holes in trees and walls and so on. In addition to the three
indigenous species, the European honeybee, Apis mellifera ligustica
(Italian race) has been introduced and is the dominant bee kept by beekeepers.

The Ganges basin comprises about a million square kilometers of land, much of
which is intensively cultivated. Rich fertile soils and irrigation water from
the water table and mighty river combine with India's hard working people to
produce one of the most productive agricultural regions on Earth. In the 1970's
the Indian Government implemented a program to plant Eucalyptus and teak trees
along all roads in the state of Uttar Pradesh. These trees flower concurrently
with the winter mustard which is planted over about 50% of the arable land in
the Northern Ganges basin. This translates into an absolutely monstrous honey
production potential, something which is only just beginning to be developed.

Much of northern India is covered in a field a mustard in winter,
providing a very strong source of nectar for the bees. Photo credit: G.
Cambray. 

In Old India, honeygatherers were the dominant source of honey for Indian
consumers. Honey gatherers tend to collect the honey from wild Apis dorsata
hives. In certain places I saw as many as 200 of these monstrous beehives, some
measuring more than 1.5 meters across and nearly 2 meters long, hanging from
trees and water towers. Typically honey gatherers will bid at an auction held by
a landowner for the honey in such a tree and may harvest as much as 20kg per
hive in good years. That would mean a successful haul could be up to 4 tons of
honey. However, the honey is of a low quality from these hives as the honey
gatherers tend to be rather simple tribal people using very old, and largely
unclean equipment.

Indian beekeeper Santi shows his Apis cerana indica high in the
foothills of the Himalayas. Not that the beehive box is very small.
Photo credit: G. Cambray.

In the increasingly prosperous New India the government is actively
transferring technology for modern beekeeping into rural areas with beekeeping
in some areas achieving 100% growth year on year. Beekeepers whom I visited used
the global standard Langstroth beehive, consisting of a specific size brood box
with 10 frames in it for comb building, with additional boxes placed on top as
the bees get stronger so that more honey can be produced and harvested. Beehives
were constructed from either wood, high density polystyrene foam or concrete.

The modern beekeepers keep predominantly the western honeybee, Apis
mellifera
, although in the Himalayas the more cold adapted Apis cerana
is kept in very small little beehive boxes. These bees produce very limited
crops of only 2-3kg per year, but are capable of being kept organically without
any added medications.

An effective, robust Indian honey extractor made from parts which are
all lubricated with a mixture of wax and honey.

Most beekeepers live with their beehives during the honey flows produced by
mustard, eucalyptus and then post monsoon summer honey flows. In many cases I
saw beekeepers using a clever tent which is completely sealed for honey
extracting - honeycombs are taken from the beehives to the tend, then the honey
is spun out of the combs in a honey extractor and the empty combs are returned
instantly to the hives - in this way, poor beekeepers with little money for
extra equipment are able to get maximum use out of the infrastructure they have.
Given that many apiaries have 200-300 colonies on either side of a road, this
means that the beekeeper constantly extracts honey at roughly the rate the bees
produce it.

A central honey buying company, Darbur Honey, purchases honey from tens of
thousands of small producers and processes this into high grade A, grade B and
then cooking grade honey, as well as a range of value added products such as
traditional Indian medications. A professional brand development agency has been
contracted to develop very attractive packaging which appeals to the local and
export markets. In India the local market is the most important market and is
undersupplied.

From an agricultural perspective, the Indian and Chinese economies are far
luckier in terms of their pollinator populations than their western equivalents.
In the USA, Europe and South Africa, massive die offs of Apis mellifera of
various races have resulted in catastrophically reduced agricultural production
periodically over the last 100 years. In India, wild bees provide adequate
pollination for most crops, and bees are kept for honey production more than
anything else. Hence if one species of bee were to become sick, there are still
always at least 3 other species of bee present to provide pollination services.
Given that most bee diseases are as a result of one species of bee being
infected by diseases from another it also follows that one of the most logical
places to breed disease resistant bees for western use will be in places where
all the other bees are present. With increased global trade these diseases will
spread around the planet when people take honey home with them, so rather deal
with the problem than try to avoid the inevitable.

Garth Cambray exploring a beehive with beekeeper Shiv near Meerut,
India. Photo courtesy of Raju and Swati of the conservation NGO Saviours.

Lessons which we can learn from how India has harnessed beekeeping as a way
of creating wealth are many. Firstly, one needs to replace old methods with new
methods - the replacement of honey gathering with beekeeping is the most
important - teaching honey gatherers to keep bees in boxes increases the
productivity of the bees, as they don't get destroyed each time honey is
harvested. Similar programs have been attempted periodically throughout Africa,
but often fail due to the costs of technologies used. Consequently, in a
developing context, one needs to use technologies which are not ridiculously
expensive - Indian beekeeping development uses simple, low cost high tech
beekeeping systems. The equipment is robust and can be fixed by the numerous car
mechanics on the sides of roads all over. In the development context, it is
often better if a technology is designed by the same people using it - then the
concepts of its construction are less alien and it can be maintained. A classic
example in Africa is the typical EU funded beekeeping project which places
beautifully constructed stainless steel EU made honey extractors in a rural area
where replacement parts are unavailable and soon the machine and project dies
with it. The methods of beekeeping in India allow beekeepers to process their
products on site, without requiring vehicles to transport products. The honey
extractors in India are interestingly designed to use a mixture of beeswax and
honey as a lubricant on all moving parts - one of the biggest sources of
contamination in honey globally is lubricating oil and grease from moving parts
in honey extractors. By using this simple alternative, the beekeeper avoids a
potential honey contaminant.

As a beekeeper it was exciting to see a nation doing bootstrap beekeeping on
the scale evident in India, and the proximity of India to Africa means that with
time Indian technology and thought patterns will help us in Africa to
effectively harness the massive honey production potential of our continent.

More information:

  Dr
Garth Cambray is a beekeeper and fermentation scientist based at Makana
Meadery