The buzz of bees: how Bihar is netting the sting to make money

Beekeeping raises the standard of living in Muzaffarpur district of Bihar

pankaj

Pankaj Kumar | December 23, 2013




Something is sweet in the air of Muzaffarpur.

Take Jhapha panchayat of the district, for example. Prosperity is quite visible in the villages here – there are very few huts, there is no dearth of four-wheeled vehicles and almost everyone owns a two-wheeler. That’s unlike most villages in not only Bihar but most places in India. And it’s all down to something otherwise shunned like the plague: bees.

Almost every other resident of Jhapha is involved in beekeeping, and honey production – an occupation that has raised the standard of living in the district. With Muzaffarpur head and shoulders above other districts of the state in production of honey, a large percentage of people in panchayats such as Shivraha, Patiyasa, Turna, Raghopur, Mustafapur, Khemaipatti, Sujanpakdi, Paigambarpur and Damodarpur are involved in  the honey business.

In fact, the honey business has been one of the sweeter stories to emerge out of Bihar over the last few decades, as the state contributes handsomely to the nation’s honey production. Just for records, Bihar produced 11,000 metric tonnes of honey and generated ' 88 crore in revenue in 2012-13 fiscal out of India’s total production of 60,000 metric tonnes. In the same fiscal, India’s export of honey was to the tune of 25,780 metric tonnes of natural honey, earning ' 356.28 crore.

Suresh Prasad, a honey producer from Shivraha village of Jhapha panchayat whose family has the unique distinction being the first one in the district to pay sales tax from the proceeds in 1990, says the story of his life, as well those of most others now in the profession, would have been “completely different” – and in the negative sense – but for the bees. Shorn of much land, Prasad said they would have had to eke out their living as marginal farmers at best.

“We (farmers of Shivraha and villages in the vicinity) own very little land in kathas (a measurement equaling few thousand square feet) and cannot farm on these small plots of land. But this art of honey production has changed our fortunes,” he said.

He says the population of the panchayat is approximately 8,000 and the main occupation of most of them today is honey production.

A slow beginning
Significantly, Suresh Prasad comes from the family that is credited to have trained and inspired most people in areas in and around the panchayat in honey production.

Satyanarayan Prasad, Suresh’s elder brother, was the pioneer in starting honey production in the area. Now in his late 60s and ailing, Satyanarayan says he got associated with Khadi Gramodyog in 1962, when he started cultivating Indian bees.

But it was not a profitable business, he says. “We sold all our honey to Bihar State Khadi and Village Industries Association till 1980 due to non-availability of the market. They gave us edible oil and rice in lieu of honey; otherwise we had to wait for a minimum of two years to get the payments,” he says.

Something devastating happened in the beginning of the decade that came as a blessing in disguise for the Prasads: ‘Serena Indica’, the biological name of bees of Indian breed that they cultivated, got infected with a disease, leading to very little production of Honey. So the following year – 1981 – an Italian variety of bees, called Apis Malefera, was introduced in Bihar via Punjab.

And the Prasads, among others, took to it.

According to district officials and locals, the Muzaffarpur beekeeping research centre brought 100 boxes of the Italian variety  and gave 10 boxes each to 10 people. The same variety was brought to adjoining Vaishali district and distributed to a few interested farmers keen on beekeeping and honey production.

“The Italian variety has proved to be a boon for us as they are very productive and the quality of honey from these bees is of world standard. The best quality of honey, in fact, is produced during the time litchi starts flowering,” says Kailash Prasad, who took the lead from Satyanarayan and continues to do a flourishing business of beekeeping in the area.

According to Kailash and others, litchi honey is sold at prices at par with top quality honey in the global market. The Italian honeybee species also produces more honey, say cultivators – annually about 40 kg and 60 kg honey per hive, respectively for stationary and migratory bees.

The problem area
While Bihar remains a leading producer of honey, with Muzaffarpur, Vaishali, Sitamarhi, East Champaran, West Champaran, Madhepura, Katihar and Begusarai being the key beekeeping districts, cultivators say the state lacks large processing units.

Explaining lack of official support, Suresh Prasad says: “We don’t get any help from the state government, though we still do decent business because we have got the market in other states. We supply to several exporters who make huge profits from selling them further.”

Suresh says his family sells its product to states like Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, with annual profit at over ' 20 lakh. In all, Jhapha panchayat has an annual turnover of more than ' 10 crore, he says.

But beekeeping could be a much more profitable business if the government lends more support and makes it a popular business in Bihar, he adds.

Stressing that Bihar has the potential to produce about 40,000 metric tonnes of honey per year with an estimated annual turnover of ' 200 crore, Neeraj Prasad, another honey producer from the panchayat, says: “We sell it to people in other state, who then export it. Why can’t we export it directly? Unfortunately, the state government has done precious little to create a suitable environment.”

The business of bees
According to cultivators, Muzaffarpur being the largest producer of litchi, the district is especially favourable in the months of February and March, when bees get the maximum pollen and nectar from blooming flowers.

From April onwards, cultivators say they take their bees to Jharkhand, where a flower called karanz provides ample amount of pollen and nectar. There, bees thrive till the end of October, when the flower blooms. When this season passes, beekeepers go to Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh or Uttar Pradesh, where mustard flowers bloom at the time.

According to the farmers, bees are attracted to eucalyptus as well because they get enough nectar and pollen from it. Eucalyptus trees are found in abundance in Uttar Pradesh, a favoured destination of beekeepers from November to February.

In fact, eucalyptus is especially valuable as bee pasture because it blooms year round and gives honey a distinctive peppermint taste.

So how do they keep track of their bees over such a wide tract of land? “Bees never lose their sense of direction since they decide course with the help of sunrays. They have an extraordinary smelling power and return to the same box which they leave early in the morning,” Kailash Prasad explains.

According to state officials, Bagwani Mission, which began in 2006, led to an increase in honey production in Bihar. As part of the scheme, the government gave 50 percent subsidy on bee boxes. The subsidy went up to 90 percent from 2012.

Explaining that the government is thus focusing hard on promoting honey production in the state, deputy director (horticulture) Sarvjeet Kumar says: “Apiculture can be taken up by the poorest of the poor and the landless. The government is determined to promote it (beekeeping and honey production) and that’s why Bihar leads in honey production and Muzaffarpur is the largest contributor in the state.”

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