“One third of the food that we consume is due to the pollination carried out by the bees.”

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Beekeeper Akshay Borse (25) of Pune, is Director, APJS BEES. Beekeeping is his passion and his profession, though in an earlier avatar he was a sailor with the merchant navy. Here he is in a candid conversation with A. Radhakrishnan.

What made you become a bee-person?
I was a sailor with the merchant navy, having done my diploma in nautical science. As my father was a veterinary doctor / Colonel in the Indian Army, I travelled throughout India, and always felt close to animals and insects, and hence my proclivity. This spurred me to become a fulltime beekeeper. Armed with a beekeeping course from the Central Bee Research and Training Institute, Pune, I became a beekeeper.

Did you have mentors?
Post training, I spent time with beekeepers in Rajasthan, learning commercial bee keeping, and applying scientific methods to uplift my beekeeping practice.

Is it costly to set up an apiary? Isn’t it the least labour intensive farming activity?
Apiary refers to the location where one sets up the bee boxes for honey production or pollination. So ‘costly’ is a very relative term. Bee keeping is the least labour intensive in other countries, as there is less migration, but in India, a beekeeper does a minimum of 7-10 migrations a year. It can be anything from a single bee box to a few hundreds or thousands, but honey extraction and migration are labour intensive tasks, and we have a deficiency of skilled labourers.

Can beekeeping become a profession, or can it only be a hobby?
A person becomes a beekeeper even with one hive of bees. It totally depends on the scale of operation one wants. Hive inspection is carried out twice a week and takes around 10-30 minutes. For me, it’s a profession, as I aim to increase my hives manifold, as this in turn, helps farmers and the environment, due to increased pollination.

What are the challenges and rewards? Any specific advice to beginners?
Migration and site selection for an apiary is the biggest challenge, with around 8-10 migrations yearly. It’s tough and expensive, involving huge losses, as it only happens at night. It implies shifting the whole apiary to another location as the flowering of current location is over. Spending time with Nature and being around bees, are my rewards.
Lack of adequate research on bees impedes fighting diseases, and finding solutions. There is also scarce market awareness on how to export good honey. Also, one should work under active beekeepers for a few years, gain experience, and only then start a business. The don’ts are never travel solo with the bees, and have sufficient man power to handle issues. Don’t dive in directly based on mere online knowledge.

Why do you find bees fascinating?
Bees are fascinating in terms of how they work and live. They start working for the hive as soon as they are born. Every age group of bees has a defined work profile, varying from cleaning, guarding, feeding, gathering of food and scouting, required for the hive’s proper functioning. Bees never stop working, and always help other bees of the colonies, if need arises. Hence the phrase, ‘as busy as the bee’. They don’t sleep or rest. They keep working in rotation, and depending on the amount of work, their lifespan also decreases.

Why are bees important for the ecosystem? With their numbers declining globally (with several on the endangered species list), what is your advice?
One third of the food that we consume is due to the pollination carried out by the bees. Without them, there will not be cross pollination, and the quality of crop yield will go down and with time, all plants depending on it for survival will die, leading to high shortage of food products in the market.
Awareness at root level like schools is required to save them, and also apiary visits must be made compulsory for youngsters.

How many types of bees exist? Where did you get your bees and gear from?
There are the Apis Dorsata, Apis Florea, Apis Cerana, Trigona and the Apis Mellifera, which I prefer, due to their high yield and relatively easier maintenance. I got my bees and gear from the Honey Mission started by the GoI (Government of India), issued by CBRTI, Pune. It can even be sourced from beekeepers.

How do bees recognise their hive? Do bees from the same hive have different temperaments like humans?
Through the smell of the Queen and the location of the box, but they never recognise the beekeeper. Based on their job description, they are aggressive or docile, but when the guard bees sense danger, a signal is sent all over the hive, leading all of them to become defensive and aggressive in nature.

Where are your apiaries located? How many colonies do you manage? 
My bees migrate throughout the year and change location around 8-10 times, depending on the flowering seasons in the states of Jammu &Kashmir, Haryana, Punjab, MP, and Rajasthan. I don’t own land for this, but set it up on land of farmers who don’t grow the same crop. I have 200 colonies purchased from active beekeepers, a list of which is available at CBRTI.

How many types of hives are there?
Traditional types are found in many countries, where they use hollow tree trunk, pots or any other confined space to rear bees, but these are very hard to manage and need to be destroyed for honey extraction.
Scientific Langstroth hives have been designed, keeping in mind the integration of bees and humans and therefore, it’s reusable and easier to maintain and migrate.

How must one maintain and care for a beehive?
Online videos is one way to go about it, but initially a beekeeper can make you comfortable around a hive and teach you better ways to care for it. Hives need to be visually inspected regularly for pollen and nectar load, wax moth, infection, attack by other predators, etc.

What are the effects of pesticides on bees? Have bee mites devastated other bee colonies?
Pesticides make bees die a painful death and lead to colony loss. Mites are easy to deal with, but their sighting is important. The treatment is formic acid fumigation during night, when all bees are back in the hive.

What sort of attacks occur on hives?
Weak colonies are affected by wax moth, ants, bee eaters, termite, crazy ants, mites, and bee diseases. So it is very important to manage the hives and remove excess frames on time, and check the reason for the fall of colonies. A strong colony can easily fight off attacks and seal all entry points of these pests. As attacks are common, one should conduct regular inspections to avoid it.

Why it is important for beekeepers to know that his bee colony is swarmed?
Swarming is a tendency of a hive, when due to overcrowding or lack of resources, the colony decides to split into two or more parts, leading to group of bees leaving the box.
It generally takes away the mated Queen and lots of foraging bees. What is left is sometimes a very weak colony and therefore, one needs to check if the Queen is available in the hive or not, is she mated, and what is the overall condition of the hive, to decide further course of action.

What is the role of beekeeping in the development of rural areas?
A beekeeper can bring in millions of pollinators to a village and help increase production of the farms, without the use of any pesticides or growth enhancers for the plants, due to cross pollination by bees.

How do bees make honey? How to store it? How much honey do you produce and sell?
Bees collect nectar from flowers and store it in the hexagonal cells of the hives, where they reduce its moisture by fanning. Stored in glass airtight bottles, away from sunlight, approximately 10 tonnes a year is produced.

How many varieties of honey do your bees make? How much of honey is produced?
Depending on the flowering, there are different types of honey. India produces around 25 plus flavours. All have different properties, taste, and texture. I have recently started my own brand Indihive, and produce White Cream Mustard, Acacia, Ajwain, Moringa, Sidr, White Cream, Coriander Honey and Eucalyptus honey.
Apis Mellifera can produce up to 50 kg of honey per year, depending upon the flowering in the area of their apiary. I want to bring this natural sweetener to as many as possible.

What are some of the health benefits of honey?
It lowers blood pressure, helps control cholesterol, lowers triglycerides, heals burns and wounds, improves digestion, is a natural sweetener, reduces weight, helps better metabolism, improves the immune system, and helps good sleep.

Why does honey not get spoilt? Is honey superior to refined sugar?
Due to its low water content at 17% and acidic nature, it’s hard for any bacteria or fungi to grow. Yes, it is not empty calories like refined sugar. Honey is natural sugar and has a lot of micro nutrients and bee enzymes, which make it very healthy for consumption. Due to the high amount of sweetness, quantity required is very low to achieve refined sugar sweetness.

What does artificial ripening of honey mean?
For a bee to convert nectar to honey, it requires a lot of time. To cut this time short, nectar is extracted before it’s sealed by the bees, which is then heated to reduce moisture to convert it into honey.

How do you harvest the honey?
Once the frames are full of honey, we uncap the wax caps. These frames are then put into the honey extractor, where centrifugal force pushes the honey out of the cells.

What other byproducts are got through bees?
Apart from honey, we get bee wax, propolis, pollen, royal jelly, and bee venom. India doesn’t have a big market for this. Home apiary is good for local environment.

Where are the future commercial business prospects?
Business, though limited, is expected to grow slowly due to the Honey Mission by the GoI, boosting it into a new era, helping beekeepers to grow and adopt more scientific methods.
I wish to expand in all metropolitan cities where health conscious individuals can avail of this natural miracle. This, in turn, will help me grow my numbers of hives and help the farmers increase their crop yield.

Akshya Borse can be contacted on instagram: indihive / facebook: indihive, Ph: 8788746286/8237887031, and Email: indihivehoney@gmail.com


A.RADHAKRISHNAN

A.RADHAKRISHNAN is a Pune based freelance journalist, short story writer and poet, who loves to make friends and share humour.

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