IMG_081625 January 2017, Kotagiri: Keystone Foundation and Last Forest Enterprise Pvt Ltd conducted two training workshops on sustainable wild harvesting and hygienic collection of honey in Asanur and Kotagiri. A total of 110 honey hunters from different communities and areas were trained during the two days of workshop. Both the trainings were supported by Export-Import Bank of India as part of their CSR initiatives.

The first training was held in Keystone Resource Centre and Aadhimalai Pazhangudiyinar CL production unit at Kalaikudam, Hasanur, on Monday for 50 honey hunters from Bejalhatti, Gali Dhimbam, Ittarai , Thadasalhatti, Geddesal, Kengerai, Borderdodde and Punanjanur villages. The second training was held the next day at the Keystone campus in Kotagiri where 60 honey hunters from Coonoor and Kotagiri were trained.

Wild honey is collected from the hives of the Apis dorsata or Rock Bees by the indigenous communities every year. These bees make their hives on the branches of tall trees or on the underside of overhangs on sheer cliffs. Traditionally, wild honey collectors climb trees or lower themselves down the overhang on ropes ladders made from forest vines. They would use smoke to drive away the bees. Honey would then be squeezed out from the honey combs by squeezing by hand. Some part of the brood comb would be carried back to the village as a source of protein to the shared with the community. Many times, the empty combs and squeezed combs were discarded due to lack of time or inability to extract wax from it.

In the publication Honey Trails in the Blue Mountains, Keystone says, “The honey hunter is a natural born conservationist who gazes at the forest with deference and does not take up a combative stance at it.” But market pressures and need for money over the past decade have forced many hunters to overlook or set aside traditional practices that protected bees and ensured sustainability. Keystone’s trainings over the past two decades have been focused on bringing back these traditional conservation practices and adding hygiene practices to improve quality of honey and sustainability of harvest.

IMG_0662The training began with Shiny speaking about the biology of the bee and explaining the link between bees, pollination and fruit setting, bringing out the important role that bees play in sustaining agriculture and forests. She explained patterns of foraging and the plant species that bees prefer.

Leo spoke to the hunters about several aspects of sustainable and hygienic honey harvesting. Besides reiterating facts that are part of the traditional knowledge of communities, scientific facts were shared. the process how nectar is transformed into honey and what signs to be alert for. For example, the comb should always be harvested once the cells are ‘capped’, an indication that the honey is matured, otherwise called as ripened. Harvesting uncapped cells yields honey that has higher amount of moisture.  Ideally, honey should have moisture content not more than 23%. Higher moisture with higher pollen leads to fermentation in storage.

IMG_0765The hunters were asked to conserve brood combs as far as possible, as this would protect emerging bees and new queens. Conserving brood is a very important practice to sustain bee populations. Bees migrate to the hills during April to July and then to plains during monsoons to seek food as well as to swarm. Swarming is a natural phenomenon resulting in the division of bee colonies. If there is significant damage to brood and queen cells, the colony is weakened and cannot swarm and multiply.

Elaborating on hygienic honey collection, Leo explained that the earlier practice of squeezing and twisting the comb by hand results in a lot of impurities, including eggs, larvae and excessive pollen, finding its way into the honey. The participants were told using a knife to uncap the honey cells and make clean cuts on both sides of the mid rib and place it in a fine strainer mesh net to allow honey to drain out of the comb. This honey is then collected transport in food grade jerry cans.

Besides honey, beeswax is of commercial importance and is collected by the honey hunters. To extract beeswax, the combs are cut into pieces once all the honey has drained out. The pieces of comb are stirred into a vessel filled with boiling water until fully melted. The mixture is then filtered through muslin hung into a vessel of cold water and allow it to cool so that solid wax settles on top.

During conversations with the trainees, Miller was struck by the number of youth who had come in to be trained. These young men from the Kurumba, Irula and Sholiga communities are sons of honey hunters and are carrying on the family tradition. Sathish Kumar (18) from Banagudi said, “This is our home, our forest. We collect honey and beeswax. When I climb down the cliff and there are 30-50,000 bees buzzing around me, I can keep calm and go through the process of collecting honey. This is a source of pride for me. This is what my father and grandfather did and this is what I will pass on to my children.”

These trainings have been supported by Exim Bank, headquartered in Mumbai, as part of their CSR programme. Mr.Utpal Gokhale, General Manager-Exim Bank, was present for both the trainings and presented the participants with certificates. Seven groups were also given equipment essential to honey hunting such as ropes, knifes, filtering nets and honey collection jerry cans. Looking back on the trainings, Mr. Gokhale said, “This training gels perfectly with our objective of grassroots level development initiatives. Exim Bank had launched this (such initiatives) about 5-6 years ago precisely to intervene in such economic activities that would provide sustainable livelihoods to deprived communities at the grassroots.”