Thinking out of the beebox

Create a buzz: Kalpana Jevalya and Gangu Ravte from Palghar, Maharashtra, belong to the new generation of testosterone-defying beekeepers   -  IMAGE COURTESY: UTMT SOCIETY

Only men went hunting for honey in the tribal communities near the Maharashtra-Gujarat border, but women did better by turning beekeepers

“Bees don’t discriminate between men and women when they sting. Then why should we wonder if working with bees is more suitable for men or women,” jokes Kalpana-taiin Warli, the spoken language of Adivasis living in the mountainous and coastal areas near the Maharashtra-Gujarat border. Kalpana Jevalya and Gangu Ravte, who belong to the Warli tribe, and scores of other women in the region from the Katkari, Mauchi and Konkanaare tribes are the new generation of testosterone-defying beekeepers.

Primeval quest: A Warli painting depicts a ‘honey hunting’ expedition of tribal men   -  IMAGE COURTESY: UTMT SOCIETY


For generations, tribal men have routinely entered the forest to hunt down bees and collect honey from hives hidden in the hollows of trees, soil crevices and rock clefts. After smoking out the bees, they squeezed honey from the empty hives. The women were seen as not feisty enough to climb the tall trees or rocky outcrops where the bees resided, nor possessing the skill and confidence needed to handle the bees.

Over the years, however, this kind of “honey hunting” is increasingly being viewed as unsustainable as it leads to the death of already endangered bees — one of the most efficient pollinators in nature. Around 2014, the non-profit Under the Mango Tree (UTMT) Society introduced tribal people to a sustainable alternative — beekeeping, which involves nurturing the insects in beeboxes.

Women on the job

The UTMT Society was founded in 2009 to promote sustainable beekeeping using the indigenous bee Apis cerana indica, primarily to increase agricultural productivity through managed pollination. In the tribal villages of Maharashtra and Gujarat, it trained members of women’s self-help groups (SHG) to become beekeepers to increase their farm yields. The women were initially hesitant as they viewed it as a man’s job.

Moreover, like most people, they believed that beekeeping was only useful for the production of honey. During their preliminary meetings with UTMT Society, they learnt how bees — as pollinators — play a much bigger role in the ecosystem than just producing honey or wax. Four categories of food — pulses, fruits, vegetables and oilseeds — are bee-pollinated. As the bees go from flower to flower to collect nectar, they transfer pollen from the male flower to the female, thereby initiating the process of converting the flower to a fruit. This, in turn, boosts crop yields and quality, ensures food security and nutrition, and conserves biodiversity and ecosystems.

Once convinced about the usefulness of beekeeping to agriculture, the women started work, although diffidently at first. Sometimes their husbands attended the meetings, too, to help boost their confidence. The women were guided by the UTMT Society, which helped them set up bee colonies, demonstrated beekeeping processes at their doorstep, and taught them complex manoeuvres such as division of colonies and honey extraction.

Though they were occasionally discouraged by a few cynical members of their community from taking up a “man’s job”, they persisted with the encouragement of their families. Gradually the women gained in confidence and began working in small groups without any help from the men. They learnt to handle bees independently, fill their beeboxes and manage their bee hives with a proficiency surpassing that of their male counterparts.

Within a year, in 2015, there was a marked shift in the seriousness with which the community viewed the women as beekeepers, after they set out to the forest in groups without any men accompanying them, climbed trees and successfully handled bees without harming them.

Quick learners and teachers

Suman Baris and Ripka Kuwar are among the region’s first batch of women beekeepers. Members of the Mauchi tribe in the Sakri block of Dhule, Maharashtra, they are successful beekeepers who are respected for their skills. “It almost felt like a miracle when bees sat on my hand for the very first time,” says Suman-tai.

Sweet success: Suman Baris from Mauchipada village in Dhule has been a master trainer in beekeeping since 2015   -  IMAGE COURTSY: M KUNZ


The two women became votaries of beekeeping and demonstrated its impact on their farm yields to others in the village. Suman-tai, for instance, saw a higher yield of mango, guava, tamarind, chillies, brinjal and ladies finger in her 1.5-acre farm, within one year of beekeeping. She estimates an additional income of ₹7,000. Together with Ripka-tai she also began educating her community about the ill-effects of the “honey hunting” practised by the men. UTMT Society, after observing both the women’s zeal for beekeeping and desire to engage with the larger community, appointed them as Master Trainers — hitherto a preserve of male beekeepers — in 2015, besides giving them advanced training in beekeeping.

Today, Suman-tai and Ripka-taiconfidently engage with trainee farmers — both men and women — during their theory sessions and win their admiration by effortlessly handling the bees during the practical sessions. The trainees vouch for their competence and turn to them for expert advice. Both women have shed their inhibitions about travelling outside their village to conduct training programmes across Maharashtra.

The growing tribe of women master trainers today includes newer entrants such as Gangu Ravte and Kalpana Jevalya, from Palghar district, who recently represented their SHG at an event organised by the Maharashtra State Rural Livelihood Mission and demonstrated their beekeeping model. For these tribal women from a remote village, this is a big step forward.

It’s money, honey

Aside from proving to be quick learners, the tribal women have displayed a spirit of enterprise that’s second to none. Meeraben Chaudhary of Dang district, Gujarat, not only sells honey but also bee colonies at ₹3,000 each. She observes that because of beekeeping, there were fewer flowers dying prematurely in her mango orchard and the yield was much higher in quantity and better in quality.

In Palghar, the women beekeepers are simultaneously cultivating kitchen gardens, which not only serve as additional flora for the bees to forage on, but also fetch them an extra income through the sale of vegetables. Kakdu Santosh Kharpade, a beekeeper from Talasari block, cultivates fenugreek, mustard, brinjal, bottle gourd, sponge gourd, cowpea and chillies in her kitchen garden. This not only increases her income, but also ensures that her family has more nutritious food on its plate.

The venture into beekeeping has been a path-breaking journey for tribal women and an inclusive step from a socio-economic perspective. Apart from enjoying the material benefits of beekeeping, it has empowered them to succeed in a male-dominated occupation. It has enabled them to assume a leadership role and instilled in them the confidence to speak in public. It has earned them the respect and admiration of the village community. Most important of all, it has harnessed their spirit of enterprise and enabled them to contribute to their family’s earnings, thereby providing them with a healthier lifestyle.

Debika Chatterjee, Dhanshree Chavan and Shylaja Nair are with Mumbai-based NGO Under the Mango Tree Society

Published on September 27, 2019

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