Oh Honey !: Gift of the Honeybee

Features Issue 52 Jul, 2010
Text by Dinesh Rai / Photo: ECS Media

For so work the honeybees, Creatures that by a rule in nature teach The act of order to a peopled kingdom King Henry V, Shakespeare.

Govinda Shrestha grew up following honey bees around his village. Born and brought up in Ramechhap, he remembers how few families kept honeybees in those early times. Since childhood, Govinda had a fascination for these amazing creatures and used to run after them and actually capture them to bring back home. “In the villages, they use tree-trunks for beekeeping. The bees are very important for flowering plants and when I noticed some flowers were dying in my village, I turned to the bees for help. I started keeping bees and they helped save the flowers by pollinating them. Bees and flowers need each other. The bees need the nectar and the flowers need pollination, so they go hand in hand,” says Govinda.

Once Kathmandu was covered in lush green vegetation with enough cultivated land that ensured there was plenty of flowers, especially mustard. But today the valley has been transformed into a concrete jungle and agricultural land is rapidly vanishing. As a result, today beekeepers are taking their hives to the tarai region where the bees can find sufficient flowers to forage on.

Govinda came to Kathmandu in 1973 and started beekeeping with the local species Apis cerana, which is small in size and also produces less honey compared to the larger European honeybees, the Apis mellifera. But in 1991, he acquired the mellifera, which was imported from Punjab in India. The mellifera was brought to India much earlier and it is found in large parts of the subcontinent. Although initially there were problems of disease, they now seem to have adapted and are thriving. Govinda began his project at Koteshwar where he still lives, but shifted his bees to Taukhel five years ago, as there is still an abundance of cultivated land around. Koteshwar on the other hand, is now part of the city with tall buildings and heavy traffic.

Govinda at 73, not only produces and sells honey, but also has honeybees for sale. He is happy to see the proliferation of apiaries. Twelve years ago, he received training on beekeeping at SNV’s Bee Keeping Training Extension & Support Project at Godavari. Today the site is being used by ICIMOD for research on Apis cerana. “Most people keep the cerana variety because they are local and well adapted. The mellifera need a lot of care otherwise they will die,” informs Govinda, “more people in the tarai keep mellifera as they are flourishing there.” He produces about 3 quintals of honey a year and sells them in ordinary bottles from his home. At Taukhel, he has twenty box-hives and harvests about four times a year. But in a good year, he can harvest up to five times. These days only the honeycomb is taken out of the hive and put in a centrifuge to extract the honey without destroying the comb. The honeycomb can thus be reused, and it saves the bees time and energy that would otherwise be spent on making a new one.

On our visit to ICIMOD’s research facility we were lucky. We came upon a pad-locked gate and were on the verge of turning back, when a man on a motorcycle arrived and opened the gate, inviting us in. He happened to be the man who conducts the research, Aniruddha Nath Shukla. The facility has box-hives with colonies of Apis cerena, the local species on which research is being conducted here. The office is full of instruments, but what caught our attention was a trap for wasps that was near the hives. “They are a big menace to beekeeping and have to be kept off the premises, otherwise they will kill the bees,” Shukla informed us. The trap had about a hundred dead wasps. On his advice we also visited the government facility inside the Godavari Botanical Gardens. Here we discovered that a six-day beekeeping training course is conducted, which is attended mostly by farmers. People who attend through the district program are given free training, while those who come privately are charged NRs 200/day.

In her book, “Cooking with Honey”, Hazel Berto writes, Unlike men, honeybees have never faltered in their design for organized living. Shuffled about by men and their civilizations, bees live as they did thousands of years before Christ. They continue to build perfectly engineered six-sided cells with wax oozed from their bodies; to convert larva from worker bee into queen if needed; to feed and caress and even die for their queen; to air-condition her nursery; to houseclean; guard her entry, and at last to graduate into nectar-gathering workers.

Honeybees are one of the most fascinating and useful creatures on earth. Much like the ants, they form colonies and each one fulfills his given responsibilities. If we look inside their hives, we will find an incredibly efficient and productive honey factory—a classic example of organized living. The honeycomb that they manufacture seems made to order with symmetrical hexagonal cells that are either filled with nectar that turns into honey; pollen that is stored as food or is used by the queen bee for laying eggs.

“She can lay as many as 2000 eggs in a single day,” informs Rita Koirala, Govinda’s enthusiastic assistant, on our second visit. “The queen goes from cell to cell poking her head in to see if conditions are good. If she doesn’t like it, she won’t lay the egg and move on to the next cell. A colony’s productivity depends a lot on the queen bee. Some lay a huge number of eggs while others lay less. Some of the larvae die and are immediately ejected by the worker bees. Dead bees are also thrown out immediately as honeybees are extremely efficient and keep the hive very clean,” adds Rita. When we visited Govinda’s apiary, they were on the lookout for the right farm to take their bees for foraging. “Some of the farmers ask for too much money,” claims Rita who travels all the way from Sitapaila behind Swoyambhu to Taukhel to take care of the bees. Her remarks make me think of beekeepers in the US, who are paid good money to bring their bees to other people’s farms. The farmers are willing to pay, as increased pollination ensures a bigger harvest for them. Many Nepali beekeepers in Kathmandu take their colonies to Dang or Chitwan.

It is believed, that honey was first discovered by prehistoric man some eight to ten thousand years ago. Ancient paintings found in the Spider Cave at Valencia, Spain clearly depict a person harvesting honey from a rock face with bees flying around him. This piece of art dating back to about 8000 B.C. also shows him carrying a basket to collect the honeycomb. Honey played an important role in the lives of ancient people. The Assyrians are said to have buried their dead in honey while the Babylonians, Phoenicians and Egyptians left honey beside the body or at the grave as offerings to the gods. The Hebrews, Greeks and Romans are known to have fed their newborn babies with milk and honey. It was an important ingredient in the cuisine of classical Greece and Rome. Honey was almost the only source of sugar available to the ancients. It was only when sugar cane was discovered that honey lost its exalted place in society.

The nectar goes through an amazing transformation and results in honey, which we are all familiar with. These industrious little honeybees ripen the nectar by inversion of the major portion of its sucrose sugar into the sugars levulose (fructose) and dextrose (glucose) and by removal of excess moisture. Each bee has a pouch in her body called a honey stomach, where the nectar is temporarily stored. In the pouch, enzymes produced by the bee mix with the nectar. It is these enzymes that promote inversion. Honey contains 18 % water, is water-soluble and may granulate between 10 to 18 deg C. Contrary to popular belief, (especially among Nepali people), granulation does not indicate adulteration, but is one of its properties.

Honeybees belong to the genus Apis and the predominant species found in Nepal are the Apis cerana. The other species are the florea, dorsata (found on rocks), and laboriosa (giant bees whose hives are found on rocks exclusively in the colder and higher regions) and the European variety, Apis mellifera, which has been introduced to Nepal and other Asian countries.

Bees are divided into workers, queens and drones and have their own work cut out. The workers are undeveloped females and the drones are males, which are larger than workers. The queen’s duty is to lay eggs and only the queens are fertilized by the drone’s sperms. The drones die soon after mating. Queens (which are almost twice as large as the other bees) are not hatched queens, but become so, when fed the royal jelly; a substance produced by the salivary glands of the workers. The bees are constantly traveling from the hive to the flowers collecting nectar and pollen. The total flight path required for a bee to gather enough nectar for a pound of honey has been estimated at 3 orbits around the earth. The foraging bee hands over the nectar to another worker bee inside the hive, who then pumps the nectar in and out of its body bringing down the carbohydrate content to 50 or 60 %.  The nectar is then placed in the honeycomb where it dehydrates to 20% water. They fill the fresh nectar cells to only one-third capacity leaving a large surface area exposed to the air. The almost ripe honey is then transferred to cells that are filled up to three-quarters full. The cells of fully ripe honey are filled to capacity and capped with a layer of wax. All this time, worker bees fan their wings to provide a constant flow of air providing air-conditioning.

Dev Bahadur Gurung of Gandaki Bee Concern, one of the major establishments dealing in honey says, “There are basically two types of honey being produced and marketed in Nepal; domestic honey and wild honey.” The latter has a bigger demand in the international market. Gandaki Bee Concern was established in 1990 with the objective of promoting beekeeping and honey marketing in Nepal as a private enterprise. At present, they have more than 1000 Apis mellifera and 500 Apis cerana colonies and annual sales reach 300 tons. Gurung further states, “We have been giving beekeeping management training, counseling to beekeepers and also training for trainers. We have also jointly launched beekeeping programs with the government and various INGOs.” For his contribution in promotion of beekeeping in Nepal, Gurung was awarded the Gorkha Dakshin Bahu IV.

In 2005, world honey production reached 1.25 billion Kg. The two leading producers are China and the USA. Nepal exported natural honey worth NRs 3,664,089/- in the fiscal year 2004-2005. The major buyer was Bangladesh which imported honey (from Nepal alone) worth NRs 2,951,866/- The other buyers were Japan, Republic of Korea and the UAE. On the other hand, we imported honey worth NRs 582,929/- from Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, USA and Spain. (Source: Trade Promotion Centre, Lalitpur.)

Contact Ph. nos
Govinda Shrestha, Koteshwor 4473316.
Gandaki Bee Concern, Gongabu: 4351093, 4354940, 4355044.
Mahalaxmi Shrestha, The Beekeeping  Shop, Kumaripati:5547278.
The Beekeeping Workshop, Godavari: 5560395.
Himalayan Honey,: 4432190
Stone Bee Concern, Satdobato: 5523853
Garden Apiary, Bansbari: 4372872,  HMG's Beekeeping Development Sector, Godavari: 5560738