The man and the thousand bees

T. Justin Raj has been a beekeeper for 25 years and has taught hundreds of aspiring bee-enthusiasts in Nilgiris.
He says the bees are buzzing in his blood.
– My brother and my father are beekeepers too.

Justin hails from Marthandam in the Kanyakumari district which is said to have Asia’s largest concentration of beekeepers. He was 12 when he first had a slightly traumatic encounter with the majestic buzzing insect of the hills.

– There was probably 50 or 60 bees and they all started stinging my face, the now experienced beekeeper reminisces.

That time his brother had to come to his rescue, but the stings did not prevent him from pursuing a career in this noble art. A self-taught beekeeper, Justin’s skills have been enhanced by training courses at the YMCA, Bee Research and Development Centre in Hanoi, Vietnam and Kerala Agricultural University, Thiruvananthapuram. He joined Keystone Foundation in the late 1990s to develop appropriate beekeeping systems for the mountain-dwelling communities in the Nilgiris and today he is known around Nilgiris for his excellent bee-rearing skills. And he eagerly shares his knowledge through pieces of training for community members, NGO staff, horticulture staff, forest officials and hobbyists.

– I teach them how to handle Apis Cerana and Dammer bees.


Beehaven is the heaven

We find Justin in the beehaven he has established right outside his house in the picturesque region of Sigur. Here, nestled amongst shrubberies and tree branches with the majestic mountains as a backdrop he nurtures and cares for his lifework.

– I have 15 colonies, sometimes it is 20.000 bees here.

He sells the colonies or gives them to passionate beginners in the area.

– The last year I sold 16 colonies.


Patience and steady hands

The biggest challenges in his work is to keep diseases and bears away from the buzzing hives. Otherwise, he seems to enjoy each and every aspect of the tasks entailed in the maintenance of the colonies. With patience and a steady hand, he shows us how to extract queen-cells from the golden yellow hives.

– I like everything about this. The bees, the beeswax, the pollination, the processes and the whole service that bees provide.

And of course, the honey. He chops a sweet comb in half and glistens at the sight of it.

– My children put it on dosa and idly. But I only eat it maybe 2-3 times a week, he says with a twinkle in the eye and laughs.


Profession with a sting

As he finishes up the work on the hive, he calms the buzzing bees with a smoker. Usually the only protection he has going up against thousands of bees.

– There is a mirror on the back of it, so if you get stung in the face, you can just take it out, he says as the smoke fills the air and he eloquently closes the boxes. Unharmed and un-stunged.

Text: Heidi Hendersson