Honey and beekeeping have a long history in India. Honey was the first sweet food tasted by the ancient Indian inhabiting rock shelters and forests. He hunted bee hives for this gift of god. India has some of the oldest records of beekeeping in the form of paintings by prehistoric man in the rock shelters. With the development of civilization, honey acquired an unique status in the lives of the ancient Indians. They regarded honey as a magical substance that controlled the fertility of women, cattle, as also their lands and crops. The recent past has witnessed a revival of the industry in the rich forest regions along the sub-Himalayan mountain ranges and the Western Ghats, where it has been practiced in its simplest form.
In India beekeeping has been mainly forest based. Several natural plant species provide nectar and pollen to honey bees. Thus, the raw material for production of honey is available free from nature. Bee hives neither demand additional land space nor do they compete with agriculture or animal husbandry for any input. The beekeeper needs only to spare a few hours in a week to look after his bee colonies. Beekeeping is therefore ideally suited to him as a part-time occupation. Beekeeping constitutes a resource of sustainable income generation to the rural and tribal farmers. It provides them valuable nutrition in the form of honey, protein rich pollen and brood. Bee products also constitute important ingredients of folk and traditional medicine.
The establishment of Khadi and Village Industries Commission to revitalize the traditional village industries, hastened the development of beekeeping. During the 1980s, an estimated one million bee hives had been functioning under various schemes of the Khadi and Village Industries Commission. Production of apiary honey in the country reached 10,000 tons, valued at about Rs. 300 million.
Side by side with the development of apiculture using the indigenous bee, Apis cerana, apiculture using the European bee, Apis mellifera, gained popularity in Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. Wild honey bee colonies of the giant honey bee and the oriental hive bee have also been exploited for collection of honey. Tribal populations and forest dwellers in several parts of India have honey collection from wild honey bee nests as their traditional profession. The methods of collection of honey and beeswax from these nests have changed only slightly over the millennia. The major regions for production of this honey are the forests and farms along the sub-Himalayan tracts and adjacent foothills, tropical forest and cultivated vegetation in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Eastern Ghats in Orissa and Andhra Pradesh.
Resources and Potential
The raw materials for the beekeeping industry are mainly pollen and nectar that come from flowering plants. Both the natural and cultivated vegetation in India constitute an immense potential for development of beekeeping. About 500 flowering plant species, both wild and cultivated, are useful as major or minor sources of nectar and pollen. There are at least four species of true honey bees and three species of the stingless bees. Several sub-species and races of these are known to exist. In recent years the exotic honey bee has been introduced. Together these represent a wide variety of bee fauna that can be utilized for the development of honey industry in the country. There are several types of indigenous and traditional hives including logs, clay pots, wall niches, baskets and boxes of different sizes and shapes. In modern beekeeping, the combs are built on wooden frames that are moveable. This facilitates inspection and management of bee colonies. Three types of moveable frame hive are in common use : the Newton type along with its standardized version ISI Type A, the Jeolikote Villager, and its counterpart ISI Type B, and the Langstroth type. Besides the hives, the beekeepers need equipment and implements like the hive stand, nucleus box and smoker. The industry also needs equipment and machinery for handling and processing of honey, beeswax, for manufacture of comb foundation sheets, and for other operations.
India has a potential to keep about 120 million bee colonies, that can provide self-employment to over 6 million rural and tribal families. In terms of production, these bee colonies can produce over 1.2 million tons of honey and about 15,000 tons of beeswax. Organized collection of forest honey and beeswax using improved methods can result in an additional production of at least 120,000 tons of honey and 10,000 tons of beeswax. This can generate income to about 5 million tribal families.
Production of honey has been the major aim of the industry. Modern beekeeping also includes production of beeswax, bee collected pollen, bee venom, royal jelly, propolis, as also of package bees, queen bees and nucleus colonies. All these are possible only with a proper management of bees, utilizing the local plant resources and adapting to the local climatic conditions. Modern beekeeping makes heavy use of beekeeping equipment and honey processing plant. This results in high efficiency and also ensures the quality of the processed honey.
Seasonal management of bee colonies varies in different parts of the country although the basic management methods are the same. Flow management, dearth management, provision of feeding, and control and cure of bee disorders, bee diseases, pests and enemies, are some of the routine measures to keep bee colonies healthy and strong. There are special management techniques like queen rearing, migration for honey production or for colony multiplication, which the beekeeper takes up after he gains sufficient knowledge and experience in handling bee colonies.
About 10,000 tons of forest honey are produced annually. Apiary honey produced under the KVI sector is estimated to be a little less than 10,000 tons in 1990-91. Over 95 per cent of this was from the A. cerana colonies, the rest being from the European bee colonies. Forest honey, mostly from rock bee hives, is usually collected by tribals in forests and is procured by forest or tribal corporations as a minor forest produce. Quite a large quantity is also collected by groups or individuals on their own. Forest honey is usually thin, contains large quantity of pollen, bee juices and parts, wax and soil particles. The honey collector gets between Rs. 10 and Rs. 25 per kilogram of the forest honey. Forest honeys are mostly multifloral.
Apiary honey is produced in bee hives and is harvested by extraction in honey extractors. Other types of beekeeping equipment like queen excluder, smoker, hive tool, pollen trap, honey processing plant are also used. Beekeepers sell the honey to the co-operative society, if one exists in the area. In many parts of India, the beekeeper gets a much higher price if he sells it directly to the consumer. Apiary honeys are usually multifloral when marketed by state-level marketing organizations, because honeys from different sources are mixed while pooling, storage and processing. Several unifloral honeys are available in markets restricted to small areas within the state where it is produced. Rubber plant contributed to over 60 per cent of the total apiary honey production during 1990-91. Besides this, jamun, hirda, beheda, arjun, neem, litchi, palmyrah palm, eucalyptus, lagerstroemias, tamarind, cashew tree, scheffleras, tun, karanj, false acacia, wild shrubs like shain, crops of different varieties of mustards, sesame, niger, sunflower, berseem clover, khesari, coriander, orchard trees including different types of citrus, apple, puddum, cherry and other temperate fruit trees, coconut tree and coffee plantations are some important sources that provide unifloral honey.
Much of the forest honey is sold to the pharmaceutical, confectionery and food industries, where it is processed and used in different formulations. Apiary honey is usually processed at the producers level. This consists mainly of heating the honey and filtering. A few beekeepers or honey producers co-operative societies have better processing facilities that involve killing of honey fermenting yeasts. About 50 per cent of the apiary honey under the KVI sector is graded and marketed under AGMARK specifications. In 1985 the consumption of honey was estimated to be about 8.4 g per capita, while in other countries this was 200 g. Presently this would be about 2.5 g. Honey has so far been consumed mainly as a medicine and for religious purposes. A small quantity has been used in kitchen as an ingredient of pickles, jams and preserves. With the increasing production in recent years, there is an increasing trend to use honey in food. This is obviously the case with the affluent segments of the population. Forest honey is used in pharmaceutical, food, confectionery, bakery and cosmetic industries.
One often finds a good demand for local honeys like honeys from Mahabaleshwar. People in Maharashtra have a strong liking for jamun, hirda or gela honeys which have acquired special individual medicinal significance. Similarly, kartiki honey in Kumaon, Uttar Pradesh is locally much favored. Some honeys have an essentially non-local market. Rubber tree honey can only be sold in non-local markets. Coorg honey with its characteristic flavour was well-known during 1950s and 1960s. Shain or sulah honey from Kashmir has been very popular. Presently litchi honey from Bihar and other northern states is in great demand. The price structure is regulated by the market forces of supply and demand. Beekeepers in well-known hill stations and other places of tourist attraction take advantage of the popularity of honey and can market their produce at remunerative prices.
Indian honey has a good export market. With the use of modern collection, storage, beekeeping equipment, honey processing plants and bottling technologies the potential export market can be tapped.