The Many Flavours of Honey
Honey is a well-loved food; hardly anyone will disagree. Honey can come from many floral sources, giving it the distinctive flavour of the flowers the nectar is drawn from – wildflowers, multi-flora, mustard, orange…wherever the bees go foraging, they regurgitate honey of that flavour.
Some time ago Zizira explorers had got in touch with a beekeeper from Assam’s Kamrup district for his honey derived from the nectar of litchi blossoms. As unprocessed honey is a product health conscious people are looking for, the team decided to visit the beekeeper and find out more. In late June 2017 we took a tourist cab to Jorabad, 80 km north of Shillong on the Shillong-Guwahati highway, and from there another vehicle eastwards to Khetri, 35 km away.
Rendezvous with a Beekeeper of Assam
Mr. Arun Mitra, the beekeeper, was waiting for us at an appointed place, ready with his motorcycle. A pleasant man of 48, he welcomed us warmly and, wasting no time, lead us to the apiary, inside a sparsely populated farmland. It was located in a corner of a field, dotted mostly with arecanut palms. Mr. Mitra rents that small portion from a farm owner, to position his 80 or so beehives. He opened one of the beehives to show and explain the different chambers and parts of the hives and how the colony functions.
The rainy season is not the season for the bees to go out foraging, explains Mr. Mitra, as he pointed to the honey that sticks to one of the frames. Nectar is scarce and the weather unsuitable for flight. So, for the most of the season they remain close to their hives. That is why enough honey is left inside the hives for them to eat till the rains last. If, by chance, honey is scarce, sugar syrup is provided, otherwise they will not survive or desert the colony. This is called swarming and swarming is a discredit to the beekeeper.
The bees Mr. Mitra rears are of the European species Apis Mellifera. They have a larger body structure than Indian species and each hive yields 35-40 kgs per season. Honey is collected once a year, around December/January. Collection takes an entire day. It takes approximately 15 minutes to extract honey from each hive.
How Honey is Extracted
The honey collectors must be very careful and try not to agitate the bees too much, or they will sting. Bee stings are quite common and very unpleasant. So, a protective gear or ‘bee-veil’ has to be worn over the face. The roof and the crown board are first removed, to expose the super chamber and the frames that store honey. Some bees will swarm there, which must be ‘smoked’ with a ’smoker’ to calm them. Then, one by one, the frames are taken out, shaken gently once or twice, so that all bees drop into the super chamber. A slight brush, with a clean brush or broom, will push the remaining bees into the super chamber.
The frames will have wax capping which need scraping off. After that, the frames are fixed onto spokes inside a cylindrical honey extractor, which is then rotated manually. By centrifugal force, all the honey separates, and falls to the bottom of the reservoir. The honey is then drained off through an attached tap. The honey collected is allowed to stand for 24 hours for the air bubbles to rise to the surface before bottling.
Mr.Mitra says care should be taken not to rotate the extractor at speeds above 400 rpm. Otherwise, the honeycombs will break. That is why manual extractors are safer than motorized ones.
The Litchi Orchard
We were curious to know how Mr. Mitra called his honey ‘litchi honey’ when all we could see was arecanut palms all around. We then drove to the other side of the field, and through a large gate, entered a pathway lined on either side with hundreds of litchi trees. This is a hundred acres of litchi orchard, says Mr. Mitra; it’s where the bees get their nectar. It was an awesome sight!
What is The Yield and Where Does He Sell
The previous year he got about 1200 kgs. This year he expected about 1600 kgs. His customers are mostly regular government outlets, exhibitions and shopping complexes. He also retails from home. Mustard honey and litchi honey are two popular brands his farm produces. Besides bee-keeping, Mr. Mitra has other engagements. He cultivates paddy, arecanut, vegetables etc besides pisciculture and cattle. Does he have labour problems? Not in beekeeping he says. That’s because he is also a bee-keeping instructor. But that’s another story altogether.
A True Honey Bee Farming Entrepreneur
All packaging and labeling is done in his home. In fact, Mr. Mitra is quite an entrepreneur. Besides honey and beeswax, he also manufactures and supplies all bee-keeping equipment. His home is a virtual factory. Bee-boxes, smokers, queen excluders, bee catcher boxes, bee-veils, honey extractors and others are manufactured by him. He does have about 20 bee colonies in his home site but these are the Indian Apis Cerana Indica honeybees. They are hardy bees, but they yield only about 12-15 kgs of honey per colony.
Zizira’s Good Fortune
It is Zizira’s good fortune to have met Mr. Mitra. He is very passionate about his bees and his work. He was sorry that not much bee activity could be seen when we visited, as it was the rainy season. The best time to visit, he said, is blossom season, when one can see the bees at their busy best!
Zizira is happy to bring Litchi Honey to you, from an authentic and organic source.
It is Zizira’s endeavor to bring to you real-life stories about the farmers of the Northeast, the real heroes, mostly unsung and unheard of.