With more and more health conscious people shifting loyalties from branded honey to natural and more pure varieties,the fruit producing areas of Kangra,Chamba,Kullu,Mandi,Sirmaur and Shimla in Himachal Pradesh are rising to the occasion to cater to the growing demand,transforming the states rural economy and giving locals a popular vocation in bee-keeping.
In turn,honey bees are playing an important role in increasing the productivity of the fruit crops,including apples — a Rs 2,200 cr economy — as pollinators. The demand for pollinators has immensely gone up as a result of crop diversification and new fruit varieties making their presence felt in the apple growing belts of Kangra and Chamba.
As of now,there are more than 85,000 families registered with the state horticulture department for bee-keeping,and the production of honey has already increased to 1,600 MTs against 700 MTs in 2005-2006. Some of the private bee-keepers,who have started exporting honey to the UK,Maldives and Kuwait,say the demand for pure bee-honey has gone up considerably. The state government helps small entrepreneurs,providing incentives and marketing facilities. Himachal Pradesh will become biggest producer of Himalayan honey, says Prem Kumar,who has set up 350 bee colonies in his village near Dharamsala.
He says his annual income was around Rs 6 lakh last year,but dropped to Rs 4.5 lakh this year because of weather uncertainties. His family has been into bee-keeping since 1980 and has found the venture quite lucrative. Despite the fact that middlemen (exporters) are making huge profits,Kumar says,they buy honey only at Rs 80 to 90 per kg. Yet,the business continues to flourish due to the growing demand for sugar-free natural honey.
In Kangra alone,30,000 farmers are engaged in bee-keeping,producing 1,200 MT honey annually for the last few years. Blessed with immense flora and fauna,Himachals quality of honey is of very high grade,the bee-keepers claim. But unfavorable climatic conditions play spoilsport at times. In 2011-12,the production could not reach the 1,200 MT target,stopping at 800 MT only,mainly due to bad weather and fog in the winter.
To cut losses,the bee-keepers have started a new trend of seasonal migration to Punjab,Haryana,Rajasthan,Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh during winter months due to scarcity of bee flora. They take beehive boxes to these states for pollination. Its the best way to bring in better quality and yield, feels Satish Kumar,a bee-keeper in Kangra. He earns Rs 20,000 per month from his venture.
Scientists in the horticulture department trace the states history of bee-keeping to 1934,when it was first started in Kullu valley and then in Kangra in 1936. While Apis cerana indica,the Indian honeybee,was reared initially,Apis mellifera,an Italian bee,was introduced at Bee Research Station,Nagrota (Kangra) in 1961. Apple boom in the state and cultivation of new fruit varieties also gave a fillip to the bee-keeping sector. Pollination is not possible with bees. The pollination in most of the temperate fruits,especially in apples,is done entirely by insect pollinators,particularly honeybees.
Bee colonies are in big demand in the orchards and farmers pay between Rs 400 and Rs 700 per bee-hive box during the flowering stage to facilitate pollination. Bees enhance pollination by 15 to 22 per cent,which in real economic terms perhaps can be more than the value of the honey, says Achhar Singh Verma,Bee-Keeping Development (BKD) officer.
The horticulture department provides bee-boxes to farmers charging Rs 400 per box as pollination rent,while private bee-keepers charge up to Rs 600 per box during the apple season.
Apart from being used in medicines and other Ayurvedic drug preparations,the propolis of the beehive is used in lip balms and tonics whereas the jelly extracted out of it is consumed for improving appetite,preventing ageing of skin,leukaemia etc. Bees are environment friendly insects and play a role in maintaining ecological balance.