Drought and low crop yields have led to poor living conditions for many Indian farmers. Now an NGO is trying to increase farm income through beekeeping, while saving threatened local bee populations at the same time.
Beekeeping helps farmers to improve their living conditions
Monsoon is Somar Devji Maghi's favourite time of year.
An iridescent green has swept across the ground and for the next four months, Somar will plant, turn soil and watch his farm grow.
The 26-year-old lives in Dandwal, a small village in Gujarat, in India's South. Somar wishes he could spend his whole year here but he can't grow enough to support the family. When monsoon ends he works on other people's farms making just 60 Rupees – or one Euro – a day.
As India pushes forward with its quest for development, small farmers like Somar are getting left behind, according to Vijaya Pastala.
"Gujarat is the fastest growing state but there are still many tribal villages that don't have electricity. Not many finish school, not many go to college, women are married early. A lot of them are loan-dependent, money-lender-dependent."
A sustainable solution
There are still many tribal villages without electricity
Vijaya Pastala is the CEO of Under the Mango Tree (UTMT), a company that links organic small farms to a national market.
After witnessing tribal life in Gujarat, Vijaya was determined to help. In March 2009 she launched the not-for-profit Bees For Poverty Reduction Program.
Farmers buy a starter kit of two bright blue bee boxes at 2,500 Rupees or 42 Euros. They then undergo an intensive training program, where they learn how to find, capture, box and care for the indigenous bee – Apis cerena.
Beekeeping in India is not like beekeeping in the West. There is no protective suit, it's just your bare skin up against thousands of potentially angry bees. It takes patience, persistence and courage.
"I've been stung up to 100 times in a single day when boxing hives," UTMT's bee expert Atar Singh said. However, as Jhula Mahado found out, the pain pays off when you hit pay dirt for the first time.
For months, Jhula has been carefully tending his hive. Every two days he checks the combs making sure that they are sheltered from the wind and rain.
Each day he watched as swarms of black and gold entered the box carrying packs of pollen.
As Atar opens the box to show, more than 45 thousands bees swarm around rich yellow combs, oozing with honey. The combs are cut and the honey extracted.
Jhula will make 16 Euros from this batch. He should be able to collect honey every 15 to 20 days for the next four months. It's a huge boost to his average annual income, which is less than 170 Euros per year.
The fresh honey makes up for numerous painful bee stings
More than just honey
According to Atar, the rewards of beekeeping go even further.
"Honey is just a by product or direct advantage to the beekeepers. The indirect advantages are much more, even in terms of monetary benefits. Having bees helps to increase their agricultural productivity through pollination. Bees are responsible for 80 percent pollination for the crop, which increases about 35 to 40 percent of yield," he explained.
More importantly, Atar said, beekeeping is helping his favourite bee, Apis cerena, make a long- needed comeback.
The Cerena is an indigenous Indian bee – famous for its small size and ability to crawl into delicate flowers. But their population is dwindling due to loss of habitat and disease.
One of the worst health scares, Atar explained, started in 1972 with the introduction of Apis mellifera – a European bee.
"Apis mellifera could actually produce 75 to 85 kilos of honey versus Apis cerena which could only produce 5 to 7 kilos of honey. But within six months a viral disease known as sad brood had been introduced and it caused a lot of harm to the indigenous bee population."
The other threat has been India's tradition of honey hunting.
Searching for gold
The population of India's indigenous bee is dwindling
Somu Sotru is a traditional honey hunter. He goes into the forest, finds a hive, smokes it until the bees leave and then crushes it to get the honey.
"We go into the forest with an axe and cut the honey comb. We squeeze the honey and throw the combs away. We collect it into plastic bags and then sell it," Somu said.
Somu has two bee boxes on his farm, but when Atar opens them, the hives are empty and covered in white webs, created by wax moths. Somu lacks the patience required to care for bees, and still views honey hunting as a quick fix.
Although some older farmers like Somu remain unconvinced of the benefits of beekeeping, others like Somar Devji Maghi have embraced the opportunity.
The program has trained 600 farmers, out of which 100 are master trainers like Somar. They help farmers catch, keep and care for the bees.
"Now it's just seven people who have taken up this activity. I want more people to take up this activity, as well as the landless. I want the activities to be so good that you take the name of our village everywhere you go," Somar said.
Somar has already noticed an increase of productivity this year. He has collected cucumbers every three days, compared to every six and hopes to have eight to ten bee boxes on his farm by the end of next year.
Author: Lauren Farrow
Editor: Nathan Witkop