Daily Bangla Times :

Published : 2023-02-22 21:19:50

Daily Bangla Times :

Published : 2023-02-22 21:19:50

In search of honey

In search of honey

Daily Bangla Times: It was mid-January. The highway leading to north Bengal was adorned with a beautiful yellow hue on both sides. With the edible oil price going high, farmers found special motivation in cultivating mustard this season. So the yellow view lingered, and when the car was navigating through a zonal road through the Chalan Beel, there were only mustard fields as far as the eye could see. 

And then, on a small piece of land which was not cultivated, an unusual sight caught our eyes: scores of small boxes organised in an orderly fashion, a makeshift tent and a toilet at the corner of the field.

As we got out of the car and approached the scene on foot, we noticed four men – wearing hats with netted veils protecting their faces – tending to the boxes. A little closer and bees were buzzing all around us.

It was a beekeeping farm, and the boxes were artificial beehives. Turns out, we had come across a group of nomadic beekeepers who travel from one place to another in different seasons, in order to harvest honey from different crops.

As we stopped advancing further fearing the bees might get upset, the leader of the band – a young man aged 23 named Ashikur Rahman – welcomed us, assuring us that the bees would not sting.

Ashik hails from a village called Chunkuri in Shyamnagar, Satkhira. "We came here a month and a half back, in December, at the beginning of the mustard season," Ashik said. 

The small band came here on a truck loaded with 150 honeybee boxes. The boxes, about two feet long and one and a half feet wide, with a similar depth, are placed three-four feet away from each other. The bees collect nectar from the mustard flowers adorning the hundreds of acres of land around. 

Ashik started this business in 2013, in his early teens. He learnt it from his elder brother. Just around Tarash upazila in Sirajganj, we came across three such farms in two days. A few kilometres north, beside the same road, we met another group, led by Yasin Arafat. And on the Tarash-Mannan Nagar road leading to Pabna, we saw another group, led by Abdur Rahman. These groups, too, hailed from Satkhira. 

Turns out, the highest number of nomadic beekeepers originate from Satkhira, but there are beekeepers from other districts as well. However, these beekeepers have little time to spend in their home districts. From Tarash, Ashik's team moved to Pabna. Then it will head to Madaripur or Shariatpur, targeting kalijira (black cumin) and dhonia (coriander) crops. After that, the group will go to Natore for lychee.

Before coming to Tarash, Ashik's bees were stationed in Gopalganj, where he had to take care of the bees and feed them sugar, as monsoon is the lean season for the bees. However, some honey can be harvested even during this time, thanks to boroi (Indian jujube but farmed hybrid variety) flowers.

Other groups moved as well. From Chalan Beel, Abdur Rahman headed to Manikganj, to harvest honey from the coriander and black cumin. Yasin Arafat moved to Madaripur for the same crop.

After lychee, these beekeepers will go back to the Sundarbans, where the bees will be busy collecting nectar from the forest's flowering plants in April-May. The boxes will be placed outside the forest, but the bees will fly in and out every day like the industrious workers they are.

"There are hundreds of such farms in Satkhira," Yasin said. "They all travel to different places in the country to do the job," he added.

The beekeepers collected honey five times from each box during the mustard season, which produced around 20 kg of honey. The production, of course, varied to some extent from farmer to farmer. "My target was to collect 80 maunds [1 maund = 37.4 kilograms] of mustard honey this year, but the target was not fulfilled due to bad weather," said Ashik. 

During his stay in Tarash, the farms had to undergo a rainy week. In bad weather, bees do not leave their shelters. "At this time, bees survive on stored nectar. As a result, I was able to harvest 70 maunds of honey, which is not bad either," Ashik said.

Yasin Arafat, on the other hand, said he could collect 60 maunds of honey. The honey produced is sold right from the fields. There are regular customers, wholesalers, and BSTI-approved companies, who maintain communication all the time with the beekeepers. The honey goes to every district of the country, on-demand, by courier.

In 10 years of business, Ashik has developed a lot of contacts. Some businesses also come and collect the honey directly from the spot. This year, Ashik sent consignments to 18-20 districts, he said. He also sells through his Facebook page, which has 5,000 friends and hundreds more followers. He is also a member of entrepreneur groups, which further his connections.  Ashik said he earns Tk50-60,000 every month, after paying the salaries of other employees. 

Beekeepers contact the crop farmers beforehand and rent a piece of land beside the croplands where they will operate. Ashik had paid Tk6,000 for the place he camped on. He has been coming to the same spot in Tarash for the last seven years. Other beekeepers, too, revisit their spots on a regular basis.

Beekeeping operations are also beneficial for the farmers, as bees help pollinate the flowers. The rate of pollination increases when there are bee farms around farmlands. According to locals, per bigha mustard production rises from 3-4 maunds to 5-6 maunds in that case.

As we were speaking, Ashik's teammates were packing the boxes and preparing them for transportation the next day. They were basically sealing the boxes with plastic sheets, temporarily trapping the bees inside. Some bees, of course, remain out of the box and are left behind. 

According to Wahidul Islam Sheikh, the organising secretary of the National Apiculture Foundation, 50,000-tonne honey is produced in Bangladesh every year.

The honey collected by these farmers is marketed by different local and multinational companies, such as AP, Hamdard, Dabur, and Aadi Honey, the farmers said. Often, the honey reaches the companies through middlemen. Some of the honey is exported too.

The rising price of sugar is making it hard for farmers since bees survive on sugar in the lean season. Wahid also pointed out that bees produce honey even from the sugar they are fed in the off-season, which is also sold by many bee farmers.

Different honey has different properties, Wahid said. Mustard honey will crystallise in the cold, which is normal. Kalijira honey will smell like jaggery at some point. Honey is supposed to hold around 18% moisture. But sub-standard honey produced by some beekeepers may hold up to 30%, he said. 

It is the bees who control the moisture. Using their wings, house bees furiously fan out the moisture until the nectar comes to approximate thickness. Any honey collected prematurely would be of low quality.

Beekeepers said a syndicate of middlemen control the price of the honey, and the farmers get a lower price as a result. They stressed that the government must intervene and put a monitoring mechanism in place so the farmers are not affected.

Nomadism in beekeeping is practised in most continents, with India, China, Turkey, Iran and Ethiopia leading the industry. In Bangladesh, there are some 12,000-15,000 such nomadic beekeepers, with three to seven employees on each farm.