Even at 70, T Chuba of Nagaland’s Mokukchung district, is all about his bees. “They are my friends,” says the septuagenarian, who started beekeeping almost 35 years ago. Rows of shaded bee colonies (137 to be precise) comprising concrete bee-stands and ant wells, line Chuba’s home located in the village of Yisemyong in Mokukchung district. In them are reared Apis Cerana (a commonly-found honey bee in East and Southeast Asia) and Trigona Iridipennis (a type of stingless bee), which produce the sweetest of honeys, bottled and sold in the nearby town of Mokukchung.
Over the years, Chuba has mastered the art of beekeeping: he delivers lecturers on the subject in seminars in Arunachal Pradesh and even Burma, he has written a booklet for beginners in beekeeping in their local Ao dialect, he even concocts bottles of something called “honey cure”, a medicinal drink to treat high blood pressure, indigestion and other ailments, made from indigenous herbs, curing plants and honey. For the last decade or so, the beekeeper has been producing 600-800 kgs of honey per annum—a quantity that fetches him between Rs 4,00,000 – 4,50,000 every year.
But Chuba remembers a time when beekeeping wasn’t a lucrative source of income. In fact, it wasn’t a source of income at all. The change in fortunes of Chuba — and farmers of about 478 villages in Nagaland — is courtesy the Nagaland Beekeeping and Honey Mission (NBHM), a 2007 government initiative to train villagers in the science of beekeeping.
While Nagas have been inherent beekeepers since time immemorial (presence of abundant nectar-rich flowering plants and favourable climatic conditions in the region), bees were mostly reared for personal consumption by using bamboo boxes, log hives etc. “In our village, there was one bee-box per family minimum,” says Kekhrowe Tsido, a villager from Phek District. “Our forefathers would tell us if we take honey, we would become stronger and healthier.” However, despite this proclivity, beekeeping was never considered a viable source of income in the state.
In 2007, NBHM came into the picture. While Chuba first learned the art of beekeeping at the Nagaland Gandhi Ashram in 1974, he started earning money from it only after the NBHM intervention. Like him, many other farmers, too, took up beekeeping as a commercial activity around 2008. Longkhangba Yimchunger, a farmer from Tuensang district’s Yakor village used to consider bees as “ferocious wild insects” but a basic training provided by the NBHM in 2009 in Chendang village changed his stance. Today Yimchunger, apart from practising subsistence agriculture, also has a homestead apiary.
“Beekeeping neither requires additional land nor do they compete with agricultural or animal husbandry for their input. In fact, honey bees function as major pollinators and enhances crop productivity. The villagers had no idea about these benefits,” says Imtiwapang Aier, Team Leader, NBHM.
In 2008, the Mission started training young farmers: educating them about the benefits of beekeeping, providing them technical and material support, and even forming District Beekeeping Federations for better streamlining and organisation.
Today, post the intervention of the NBHM, families have started keeping multiple boxes (as opposed to one), and are rearing bees through a combination of traditional and scientific methods. The result — sold and packaged in bottles labelled “Nagaland Honey” — is travelling beyond Naga villages, and seeping into the organic markets of mainland India. “Our honey is from bees that pollinate in the rich, natural landscapes of Nagaland,” says Aier, “Therefore, Nagaland honey is special: raw, organic and natural.”
The success story, however, has unfolded slowly over the last decade. “In 2007, about 120 metric tonnes of honey was being produced in Nagaland. After our intervention, this has increased to 420 metric tonnes per annum in 2017” says Aier. This led NBHM to declare December 5 as National Honey Bee Day starting this year— the first of which was celebrated on Wednesday.
Apart from training the bee-keepers (17,200 people in 378 villages so far), the Mission’s major role involves processing and marketing. “It’s not just honey, but also by-products such as lip balms, candles, ointments etc from beeswax, which the women make,” says Aire.
Nagaland honey comes from four kind of bees: the Asian Honeybee (Apis cerana) and Stingless Bee (Trigona iridipennis) which are reared domestically; while the wild species include the Rock Bee and Little Bee (Apis florae). Honey from the stingless bees — runny and sour in taste — is the most expensive and sold at Rs 800-2,000 per kg.
Adds N Ntsemo Ngullie, Chairman, NHBM, “The traditional practice of bee keeping goes back centuries. While there is a lot to learn from the old ways, the NHBM is trying to make it a more scientific process. That way, even young, educated people might want to pick it up.”