Parulben Pawar has to walk through the forest of Dharampur, in Gujarat, to reach her bee boxes. A path of four kilometers crossing a forest of teak (Tectona grandis), tamarind (Tamarindus indica), and palash trees (Butea monosperma) until her apiary. Usually, she follows this routine every ten days to take care of the bees. On March 25, 2020, when the COVID-19 associated national lockdown began, she had to leave work halfway, as other beekeepers did.
Parulben, 30 years old and mother of two, lives in Dang district, close to Purna Wildlife Sanctuary. The lockdown began during the harvesting season when she was extracting honey with her neighbors. Parulben is an experienced beekeeper working also as a master trainer in her community to support new beekeepers.
She wasn’t able to complete the harvesting the honey characterised by a mix of flavors of mango, cashew, and wildflower of the forest, that she would sell in local markets. Several honeybee farmers across the country faced similar issues with the lockdown. But Parulben and her peers are back now — tending to their precious bees and offering support to other women. Thanks to the bees, the women said, they were able to access fresh produce from their kitchen gardens pollinated by the industrious insects.
Parulben, as well as more than nine hundred women beekeepers, are part of the Under The Mango Tree (UTMT) network, a social enterprise working with bees to generate income and ecology enhancement.
Most of these women were honey hunters; they became beekeepers after the training. The beekeepers found feral colonies of indigenous bees such as the Indian honey bee (Apis cerana indica), giant Asian honey bee (Apis dorsata), and the Indian stingless bee (Tetragonula iridipennis). The colonies are found in mud or in tree cavities and then relocated into a beebox. The time taken can be anywhere between half an hour to a couple of hours, depending on where the colony is located. The boxes are kept closer to the homes or agricultural lands of the beekeepers to facilitate pollination.
“Our network of beekeepers [in Gujarat] normally achieve one metric ton of honey in a year, but now they reach only 500 kg, primarily caused by mobility restrictions during the pandemic,” said Sujana Krishnamoorthy, executive director of UTMT. “No honey means loss of extra incomes, mostly used to improve the lives of their families in terms of health, education, and a bit of saving.”
More than 9600 government-registered entities, including individuals and societies, depend on beekeeping for their livelihood in India. More than 15, 59, 700 registered bee colonies dot India. Apiarists in regions such as Kashmir (where beekeeping dates back to the 15th century) underscored the lockdown had initially crippled the industry but revised guidelines by the Indian government eased the transport of bee boxes in states such as Uttarakhand where nearly 7000 beekeepers are active.
As much as 75 percent of the world’s food crops depend at least or in part on pollination, according to the Food and Agricultural Organisation, which adds that the recent COVID-19 pandemic has “had an undeniable impact” on the beekeeping sector affecting the production, the market and as a consequence, the livelihoods of beekeepers. As humans stayed home, bees have faced less pollution and disturbance.
The pandemic has also spotlighted emerging infectious diseases in bees, some of which have been implicated in large-scale population (colony) losses. A study finds that the massive expansion in global trade in honey bees, owing to their use for managed pollination and honey production, can also increase the geographic distribution of viral, bacterial, and fungal honey bee parasites and pathogens. In many countries such as strife-torn Yemen, Colombia, Kenya, despite constraints, beekeeping is seen as a path to empowering women.
Beekeeping for empowerment
India, women beekeepers of the network are scattered in remote and rural areas; some in Gujarat, others in Madhya Pradesh, and a considerable part of them are in Maharashtra, one of the worst COVID-19-hit states.
In Palghar district, Maharashtra, some beekeepers’ homes are located in villages with COVID-19 cases. Among them is Anita Khebla, 34 years old and mother of two, from Girgaon village, roughly a three-hour car trip moving north from Mumbai.
“In our village coronavirus outbreaks have affected our lives very adversely,” explained Khebla, beekeeper and master trainer, “Many people lost their job and source of income. Those who had migrated for work came back to villages.” During the pandemic, several migrant workers returned to Girgaon village, which has a population of 2735 inhabitants.
There are more than 40 million migrant workers in India: pandemic triggered reverse migration from the cities to the countryside, as a point of return for people who lost their informal job in the construction business, transport, domestic workers, and services in the cities.
“Each of our beekeepers’ families was affected,” explained Sujana Krishnamoorthy, “because all of them have at least one family member working in a city.”
Since the pandemic started, migrant workers returned to the countryside, with every possible means of transport and no possibilities of social distancing, in some cases suffering police repression.
Lush kitchen garden among bee boxes
During the sting of the pandemic, bees became a lifeline in terms of an increase in the kitchen gardens’ food production, courtesy of pollination.
“I have developed a kitchen garden plot in my backyard which was very helpful during lockdown times,” tells Nita Dhoti, 39, a beekeeper of Girgaon. “We eat vegetables from our kitchen garden which saved visits to market during the lockdown and our money. Beekeeping is a very simple activity and we shall continue it.”
According to UTMT data, the beekeepers’ community has seen increased productivity of above 60 percent in crops that benefit from pollination, like tomatoes, guava, mango, and aubergine, generally, in a year of production.
“The associated value chain of beekeeping is better pollination that increases the agricultural yields,” continued Krishnamoorthy. “Beekeeping has the potential to avoid migration to cities and earning a sustainable living is in the hands of women; giving them social and economic empowerment. For more than a decade, they have been trained to take care of bees and are continuing during times of social distancing. Farmers tell us that despite mobility restrictions they don’t need to go to the market because they have everything in their backyard. So the nutrition of the families was not affected once their incomes came down during lockdown.”
Spinach, red pumpkin, green coriander among others composed the lush gardens that beekeepers planted before the lockdown. This meant, more food for the families in a rough time, thanks to bee boxes.
Beekeepers become more phone savvy
“Lockdown made the beekeepers more mobile phone savvy. Many of our master trainers now refer to their phones as ‘pocket offices’ as meetings and reporting take place online,” explained Kinal Jain, manager of UTMT. “Many beekeepers have a basic phone. Master trainers are provided with an internet connection by the organisation to keep in touch with beekeepers. It has also made them more self-sufficient as they try to manage most of their tasks on their own instead of waiting for master trainers to come.”
UTMT trainers weren’t able to reach the beekeepers due to travel restrictions and they organised virtual teaching or asking beekeepers of the community to help each other. WhatsApp audios or videos were fundamental, despite only a few parts of them having a mobile phone or living in an area with an internet connection.
According to the latest data, women have the least internet access. Data from the Association of Internet and Telephones of India (AMAI), reveals only 33 percent of the users are women and the percentage is reduced to 28 percent in the rural areas. Women beekeepers network tried to find a collective solution, using the few phones available in the community or reaching by foot the nearest point with connection to attending the training.
Beekeeping no longer a ‘male’ activity
“Beekeeping certainly has the potential to support livelihood for a larger number of people than what is currently, it is beneficial to people as well as nature,” said Geeta Nayak, Indo-German Biodiversity Programme at GIZ India, who specialises in pollination and bees. “I am sure by popularising different options of deriving income, using traditional wisdom or skills, there is a great potential to explore avenues such as beekeeping.”
“Beekeeping was seen as a ‘male’ activity until our teams reached out to the community,” said Sujana Krishnamoorthy, “During the meetings, many women Master Trainers and beekeepers shared their experiences which inspired women and made them feel, if she can do it, I should also at least try. Today many of our best beekeepers are women,” Krishnamoorthy adds.
Women beekeepers continue to explore the potential of beekeeping, thanks also to the help of master trainers such as Parulben, Anita, and Nita. Since travel restrictions have been relaxed, Parulben is back to the forest of Dharampur, her honeybee colonies remained healthy during the lockdown. Anita and Nita, master trainers of Girgaon village, return to offer support to the other beekeepers of their communities, taking care of these precious buzzes.
This article was originally published in The Mongabay.