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Migratory beekeepers toil hard to sweeten Assam’s honey production

There is a growing industry of migratory beekeeping in Assam where beekeepers move from one location to another, across the state, in search of blooming flowers for nectar. While common across India, the industry is fairly new in Assam and is growing as beekeepers are being faced with inconsistent nectar sources and changing weather patterns. Assam’s extensive mustard cultivation and low competition is attractive for migratory beekeepers. Experts suggest a more integrated agricultural system could further support the industry. Barasha Das has the story

As the sun set on the distant horizon of Borsapori Village in Assam’s Numaligarh area, Leela Charan Dutta and his five associates were busy packing hundreds of wooden boxes. As the last rays of warmth faded, the chill of the cold January evening intensified over the sprawling mustard fields stretching as far as the eye could see. Yet the men were toiling away, “as busy as a bee,” with no time to spare. As silence descended, the only sound was a persistent buzz, steadily dwindling into the quiet. The men were engrossed in packing numerous bee colonies for migration to a new location. Dutta, an apiarist, practises migratory beekeeping. This evening, his group was preparing to relocate after spending over a month amid the mustard flowers. They had to pack around 250 wooden boxes and each box contained an average of 60,000 bees.

Bee farming is a lucrative business. However, beyond the native species Apis cerana indica (Indian honey bee), seasoned keepers like Dutta have opted for the European variety, Apis mellifera. While the farming of this non-native bee variety is common throughout India, it is relatively new in Assam and the northeast part of India. Nonetheless, Assam is emerging as a favoured destination for migratory beekeepers, attracting an increasing number of farmers to the state each year.

Migratory beekeepers from Bihar, at Barpeta in Assam.

Dutta is a pioneer in rearing Apis mellifera in Assam, having established a profitable business since 2001. “This variety was introduced in the state by the Assam Agricultural University. After witnessing its potential, I travelled to Punjab, Bihar, and West Bengal to acquire it.” The species was brought to India by the Punjab Agricultural University between 1962 and 1964. Due to its high production capacity, it gained a preference for commercialisation over native species. Apis cerana indica yields a modest 8 to 10 kg of honey under optimal conditions. In comparison, Apis mellifera can produce 25 to 30 kg per season or year, but this requires continuous migration to ensure access to sufficient flower sources,” he said.

Muruli Borah, a beekeeper associated with Dutta, elaborated, “We primarily migrate within Assam, extending up to the borders of neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh. The migration season commences post-monsoon. We typically begin in Pathsala in Bajali District amidst the bogori (jujube) flowers, followed by the mustard. Mustard blossoms early in Pathsala, then Numaligarh (approximately 355 km away), prompting our shift there. Subsequently, we move to Bokakhat for coriander and pumpkin flowers, followed by doronsaak (Leucas linifolia) at the same location. Next, we migrate to Karbi Anglong for rubber, where the bees collect nectar from the new leaves rather than from flowers. After that, we transition to Litchi in Khetri in Kamrup district or sometimes venture outside the state to Malda (in West Bengal) or Bihar. By the time litchi season concludes, the monsoon arrives.”

The migration isn’t fixed to a specific route but can vary based on the availability of flowers. When pollen and nectar are scarce during the monsoon, Apis mellifera colonies are sustained with sugar syrup in dry locations. Each box is given about one kg of sugar syrup every six days. “Additionally, we provide a substitute vitamin concoction during this off-season. However, they still require nectar. We provide maize pollens and manually collect nectar to nourish the young and the queen bees. Any neglect could result in the bees perishing, leaving the boxes empty. Even those that survive would require time to recover and resume active foraging in the next season, consequently slowing down production,” explained Dutta.

Migratory beekeeping, a well-established practice in other countries, is relatively new in India and significantly boosts honey production. This approach involves moving bee boxes from regions where nectar is depleted to areas rich in nectar. In South India, beekeepers often move their colonies to fields of sunflower, safflower, cotton, sesame and other crops. As winter approaches, beekeepers from the Kashmir Valley migrate to warmer regions like Rajasthan, Gujarat and other states. The National Beekeeping & Honey Mission, launched in 2018-19, aims to support migratory beekeeping by providing training on the mode of transportation, timing, preparation of beehives for migration, and more.

Under the night sky
The migration process involves scouting potential sites for suitable flowers and accommodation. Once promising locations are identified, beekeepers conduct inspections and engage with locals to assess flower availability and the feasibility of housing the apian colonies. Only after thorough evaluation and confirmation can they relocate to the chosen destination. Since bees collect nectar during the day, transportation is best done at night. In the evening, once the bees return to their hives, the doors of the boxes are sealed. These are then loaded and transported to the next location. Upon arrival, they are unloaded and prepared for the bees to resume their foraging the following morning. It is important that the entire operation is completed within one night.

“In cases where the next destination is over 600 km away, we have to stop in the morning,” explains Madan Mandal, a beekeeper from Bihar. “We unload the boxes between 10 and 11 am to allow the bees to fly out, then we pack up again in the evening for the next leg of our journey.” Thus, rearing Apis mellifera requires a team of at least four to five people to ensure the smooth operation of the entire honey production process – scouting, camping, and production. Therefore, it is ideal for a single farmer to maintain at least 200 boxes to be financially viable. Those with fewer boxes, about 50 or 100, collaborate in groups of three to four individuals to manage and camp together.

Assam attracting migratory beekeepers
Madan Mandal has been in the beekeeping business for over two decades. Since 2013, he has been travelling from Bihar, his home state, to Assam’s Barpeta District with 200 bee boxes drawn by the abundant nectar of the vibrant mustard fields. He is not alone in this migration. Numerous other groups of beekeepers from Bihar and West Bengal also converge in the Barpeta, Bajali and Morigaon Districts of Assam every winter, and their numbers are steadily growing.

Beekeepers preparing to shift beehives to a different location. In the Barpeta District, locals say there are approximately 50 groups of migratory
beekeepers from other states.

“To ensure sufficient honey production, 200 colonies of Apis mellifera require exclusive access to about 250 acres of crops,” said Mandal. “But with the increasing number of beekeepers in Bihar and neighbouring West Bengal and Jharkhand, overcrowding in cultivations has reduced production. To mitigate this, we began migrating to Assam, which has extensive mustard cultivation but fewer beekeepers. Consequently, production flourished. However, over the decade, migration to Assam has also surged. Within a mere two-km radius, one can find over 2000 boxes of different camps.”

Mandal and his fellow farmers also blamed the changes in crops for adversely affecting honey production. They note that, previously, Assam cultivated coriander after mustard while they could forage on the large-scale sunflower cultivations in Bihar. Over the years, farmers have increasingly opted for maize and other hybrid crops, leading to a decrease in available nectar sources for bees. Maize production in Bihar has doubled over the past three years as the state government moves to boost ethanol production from maize following the Central Government’s approval of 47 new ethanol plants within the state. “Presently, our primary earnings are from mustard. If we don’t get mustard flowers, our business cannot sustain.”

While apiarists from Assam can achieve significant production by restricting migration within the state due to abundant resources and less competition, those from outside the Northeast must travel to several states to attain sufficient production and turn a profit. “In December and January, we are stationed in Assam. Following this, as the litchi blooming season commences in February, we relocate to Bhagalpur in Bihar. Subsequently, we go to Ranchi in Jharkhand for the wild karanja (Millettia pinnata) flower,” Mandal says. This translates to increased transportation costs and expenses for renting agricultural fields in various locations. There is no official estimate, but the number of beekeepers coming from other states is gradually rising. In the Barpeta District, locals say there are approximately 50 groups.

Assam’s honey production potential on the rise
According to the CSIR – North East Institute of Science And Technology (NEIST), the North East Region annually produces five lakh kg of honey, with Assam contributing 25 per cent of the total output, sourced from both wild and cultivated bee hives. “Assam continues to predominantly rear the Apis cerana indica species. However, transitioning to Apis mellifera could potentially better capture market demands. For that, we need dry weather. Too much rainfall is not ideal for honey production. With the changing climate, though, we are witnessing fewer rainfall days, which is actually favourable for beekeeping as the pollens stay longer without getting washed away. Then again, without timely rainfall, if the desired plants do not bloom on time, it will have an adverse impact,” said Dutta.

Mandal explains that in a good mustard season, he produces approximately 3,000 kg of honey, which he sells for about Rs 150 per kg. While the export rates are typically volatile, mustard honey has a natural tendency to crystallise, leading to reduced prices in the Indian market due to false perceptions of adulteration with sugar. This compels beekeepers to sell in the export market at lower rates. In Assam, mustard honey can fetch a price ranging from Rs. 200 to Rs. 300 per kg. Other types of honey, such as coriander, litchi, and Leucas linifolia, can sell for an average of Rs. 400 per kg or more, especially when sold in other Northeastern states. In addition to honey, beekeepers also sell honeycomb, valued at Rs. 1,000 per kg, owing to its use in the cosmetic industry.

The CSIR–NEIST observes a lack of integration between beekeeping and agriculture in the region, contributing to lower honey production. Dutta suggests that Assam should transition to large-scale cultivation of single crops like coriander, sunflower, and sesame to unlock the full potential of beekeeping. This shift is necessary to make raising Apis mellifera financially viable. Dutta also notes that Assam has a fragmented approach to agriculture, with individual farmers cultivating different crops in small patches. This contrasts with regions like Bihar, which has large-scale cultivations of karanja/koroch (Millettia pinnata), and the Sundarbans, known for extensive blooms of khalsi (Aegiceras corniculatum), goran (Ceriops decandra), and keora (Sonneratia apetala).

To address these issues, Dutta recommends that the government take steps to establish an integrated agricultural system, particularly in the oilseed market, from cultivation to processing and production. This integrated approach could encourage collaborative farming, benefiting both agriculture and beekeeping. Mukul Kumar Deka, Principal Scientist at ICAR-AICRP on Honey Bees and Pollinators, Assam Agriculture University, adds that the lack of orchards in Assam is a significant setback for rearing Apis mellifera, especially during the monsoon season. However, efforts to plant moringa, carambola, and new crops like dragon fruit have increased the availability of resources, indicating a positive trend. Despite these improvements, further planned cultivation is necessary to maximise honey production in the state.

(Courtesy: Mongabay India/ india.mongabay.com)

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