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Honey Bees – Farmers best friends

Low cost beekeeping has the potential to increase and even double the yields of local crops with no extra efforts. Recognising this fact, Under The Mango Tree (UTMT) promoted indigenous bee keeping among the small farmers in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh with good results.

Rearing bees in boxes has increased family farm incomes

Rearing bees in boxes has increased family farm incomes

Bees play an important and irreplaceable role as pollinators in the environment. Besides providing honey and beeswax, honeybee pollination is crucial for putting on our table four out of the five foods we eat – oilseeds, pulses, vegetables and fruits.Given this important role that honeybees play in our food chain, the National Audit Office of the UK estimated that the economic value of pollination effected by honeybees is worth £ 200 million pounds a year with the retail value of the pollinated products touching £1 billion pounds a year. Similar estimates for India do not exist, but one can imagine the extent, given India’s size and variety of crops.

While pollination can be done by a number of insects such as butterflies, bumblebees, beetles, flies and even ants, honeybees are the most efficient pollinators. It is estimated that under normal conditions a hive of fifty thousand bees pollinates half a million plants in one day – making any other kind of pollinator pale into insignificance. Honeybees of the Indian subcontinent, especially Apis cerana indica are found extensively in the natural environment. A. cerana indica is an extremely hard worker (as compared to the hybrid bee Apis mellifera which is commonly used by commercial beekeepers). She works long hours and even through extreme weather conditions. Studies have pointed out benefits of increased yields through pollination.

Indian agriculture is characterized by a predominance of small and marginal farmers, who account for 80% of all farmer households. Agriculture has been plagued by declining productivity over the last few decades. The ability of agriculture to generate new jobs has also reduced with various policy documents highlighting almost the urgent need for rural livelihood diversification.

Recognising that the benefit of beekeeping is 40 times more than the value of honey and beeswax, the first National Commission on Agriculture (1976) in India had recommended beekeeping purely as an agricultural input and put forth a plan for apiculture until 2000. However, subsequent agricultural policy unfortunately did not give beekeeping the importance it deserves.

Bees for poverty reduction

Somajibhai Devjibhai Magi (age 26) belongs to Dandwal village which is in the interiors of Pindwal area of Dharampur taluk. He has a oneacre wadi on which he has planted mango and cashew. In other patches close by, he cultivates rice, niger and nagli (finger millet/ ragi) for his household consumption. Somajibhai earns around Rs 10,000-15,000 per annum through sale of produce from his land and manual labour.

As a young boy, Somajibhai used to spot hives in the forest and extract honey from them, as a hobby and for fun. But he never ever imagined that bees could be kept in boxes. He attended a 2 day training organised by BAIF and UTMT.

He then filled 2 bee-boxes and installed them in his wadi. Since then, he has been collecting cucumbers almost every third day from his small cucumber patch. He sells it at the neighbouring village bazaar. He attributes this increase to the bee boxes as earlier the same patch used to give cucumbers every 6th or 7th day only. For the last 2 months, he has earned around Rs 200 more per month due to this. He says,” Now I would like to keep more boxes, not so much for the honey but for the increase in yield”. He is very hopeful about increased yields for cashew in his wadi this year. Thanks to the bee boxes. He plans to increase the number of boxes he has to at least 8-10 !

Recognising the crucial role that low cost beekeeping could play in increasing agricultural yields for the small farmer, Under The Mango Tree (UTMT) piloted the Bees for Poverty Reduction programme in 2009 in collaboration with BAIF DHRUVA and BAIF MITTRA.

UTMT works with small farmers in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh to promote low cost beekeeping with the indigenous bee, the Apis Cerana Indica, to increase agricultural yields, diversify and improve rural livelihoods.

The pilot aimed at promoting beekeeping with the indigenous bee Apis cerana indica to improve the livelihoods of tribal farmers in Valsad district, Gujarat and Nasik and Thane districts (Surgana and Jawahar blocks) in Maharashtra. The pilot was supported by NABARD.

Farmers in these areas were familiar with bees due to their traditional honey hunting practices. In the course of preliminary assessments they admitted that these unsustainable practices had lead to a reduction in local bee population.

The key aspect of this model is that it exclusively focuses on the honeybee A. cerana indica which is available in the local environment. Commercial beekeeping especially that promoted by various government agencies focuses on the hybrid bee A.mellifera. The latter is a good producer of honey but has to be procured from outside and is often at risk of disease. From a small farmer’s point of view, the A. mellifera is expensive to maintain and also requires migration as it does not pollinate all local crops.

A.cerana on the other hand is locally available, does not require migration and is an excellent pollinator of local crops. It is also an extremely hardy bee with the capacity to live in hot summers and cold winters, right from Jammu and Kashmir to Kanyakumari. It can also withstand sudden temperature fluctuations and is ideal for the small farmer.

This is an area where agriculture is rainfed and is of subsistence nature. Average annual incomes are around Rs 20,000 – 25,000 per annum. The economic value of crops grown for the family’s consumption like rice, finger millet, niger and other pulses is another Rs 20,000 per annum.

Increase in crop yield due to bee pollination
Crop Percentage increase
in crop yield
Capsicum 227%
Tomato 160%
Cashew 157%
Pigeon pea 133%
Flat bean 128%
Chick pea 79.5%
Mustard 75%
Mango 68%
Banana 63%
Niger 60%
Papaya 60%
French bean 41%
Jowar 33%
Brinjal 31%
Ridge Gourd 27%
Source: Rapid Impact Assessment Study, 2011, UTMT

Initially, farmers were unwilling to believe that bees would actually live in a box. Many saw a bee box for the first time during the trainings. In the course of one year, farmers became familiar with beekeeping and those with just two bee boxes in a one-acre wadi (farm) began to report better yields of local crops like cucumbers, mango and niger. Increased yields of cucumbers, brinjals, flat beans and other vegetables due to better pollination by bees meant that that the farmer was able to sell this at the local haats and get increased incomes. Anecdotal evidence began to pour in. There was a ground swell of demand for beekeeping trainings. Farmers began expressing a preference to increasing the number of bee boxes. Honey from the boxes was seen as only secondary benefit.

Fig 1. Farmer’s return on investment
Fig 1. Farmer’s return on investment

Improving agricultural productivity

Evidence from a field study

UTMT conducted a scientific impact assessment study to quantify the extent of increase in agricultural yields due to beekeeping in Dharampur taluk of Valsad district in 2010-11.

Data was collected over four months from November 2010-March 2011 at 7 locations in 3 villages (4 wadis with beeboxes and 3 without bee boxes).

Fifteen crops showed a considerable increase in productivity as compared to farms with no bee boxes. Niger, an essential crop for farmers’ incomes, recorded an increase in productivity by 60%. Important fruit crops in the region such as mango and cashew also showed remarkable productivity increases due to beekeeping.

Implications for small farmers

Low cost beekeeping has the potential to increase and even double the yields of local crops with no extra efforts. This could be a crucial input for smallholder agriculture and is worth replicating on a larger scale. Given that the majority of India’s farmers are small/marginal farmers, the ability of beekeeping to impact incomes needs to be explored on a larger scale.

Vijaya Pastala and Sujana Krishnamoorthy

Vijaya Pastala
Email: vijaya@underthemangotree.org

Sujana Krishnamoorthy
Programme Leader
Email: sujana@underthemangotree.org

Under The Mango Tree
54 Naju Mansion, Wodehouse Road, Opposite Naval Transport Camp, Colaba, Mumbai 400005. India.