Make a beeline for Gurdum

Tania Banerjee | Updated on June 25, 2020

Sting operation: Gurdum resident Mingma Tamang goes about his morning ritual of checking on the bees   -  TANIA BANERJEE

Honey farming has created a buzz in this village in the hills of North Bengal

Distorted echoes rise from the valley below. My feet hurt as I trample the stones along the twisty trail. I have walked 39km in the last four days. Through a rhododendron bush laden with red flowers, I notice a valley cleft. On descending further, the valley — Gurdum — eases out of the rocks. At 2,300m above sea level, it springs up among the rhododendron, oak and pine trees.

Cradled by the Himalayas, Gurdum is a settlement of 35 houses scattered along a terraced valley enclosed by the Singalila forest in West Bengal. A village in the Darjeeling district that can only be reached on foot, Gurdum is frequented by trekkers on the Sandakphu trail. Its 150-odd residents have modified their homes into dormitories for weary travellers.

To my left, ripples of yellow dazzle in the sunlight — a mustard field. Beyond it, a two-storey concrete house is under construction. Farther along the trail, streams of orchids tumble down from pots lining the balconies of wooden huts. I hear a buzz among the droopy flowers — honeybees are at work.

I have my booking with Mingma Homestay. Surrounded by two semi-wooden cottages and one concrete building, all owned by Mingma Sherpa, his yard reverberates with the chatter of tired trekkers. I am allocated a bed in the female dorm of the concrete structure.

The next morning, my trek mates go for a swim while I sit in the sunlit yard with a cuppa. A man emerges from behind one of the cottages, decked in a bee-suit. Intrigued by his attire, particularly the net helmet that shields his head and face, I follow him to the backyard of Sherpa’s house. From a distance, I watch him take out planks of wood from a box installed on a pole. He scrapes wax from the planks as swarms of bees fly out of the box to surround him. He is Mingma Tamang, Sherpa’s cousin.

Trained by ATREE, an NGO in Kurseong, Gurdum has found a new calling in honey farming. Tamang and Sherpa, along with members of two neighbouring families, have been in the profession since 2017. They have five bee boxes each.

Encouraged by my curiosity, Sherpa and Tamang invite me to their next bee-box cleaning task in a patch of terraced farmland. I perch myself on a higher terrace, careful not to draw the ire of the worker bees. Tamang repeats the act. I watch him from close quarters this time. With gloved hands, he removes the wooden frames enmeshed with honeycombs. Drops of honey sparkle in the sun as they cling to the hexagonal cells.

Separating the hive from the wooden frame, Sherpa says, “See how heavy it is. It’ll yield 200-300g of honey.” He breaks a chunk and sucks the fluid from the cells. He hands me the other piece. For the first time in my life, I taste honey straight from a honeycomb.

The villagers of Gurdum sell their honey in Srikhola — the nearest village with road connectivity. Sometimes they also take it as far as Darjeeling. However, the trekkers hiking down from Sandakphu are their primary consumers. “In 2018, Tamang and I cultivated over 60kg of honey,” Sherpa says. A kilo of the produce sells for about ₹700.

There is a sophisticated honey extraction machine at Tamang’s house. The months of April, May and August are the busiest for honey collectors, but the cleaning of excess wax from the boxes continues at the other times of the year. It’s only from October to February that the boxes remain closed — because the cold might kill the bees. In fact, the farmers inject surplus honey into the boxes in order to help the winged insects keep warm.

We disperse for lunch once the day’s cleaning of the boxes is done. Sherpa’s family has prepared a sumptuous meal for the trekkers — salad, pickle, rice, dal, papad, chapati, vegetables, eggs and pork. In a high-altitude village with no roads, this kind of a spread requires back-breaking effort. Just as we finish the meal, another item is placed before us: The season’s first honey, straight from the apiary in the backyard.

Tania Banerjee is a freelance writer based in Mumbai

Travel log
  • Getting there
  • You can hire private cars or shared jeeps from Darjeeling to reach the end of tar road at Srikhola. From Srikhola, Gurdum is a short uphill hike of 6km. Alternatively, private cars or shared jeeps can be hired from Darjeeling or Maneybhanjang to reach Sandakphu. From there, Gurdum is a steep and gruelling downhill hike of 14km.
  • Stay
  • Dorm rooms with Western toilets are available in Mingma Homestay. Many homestays also provide private rooms and cottages in the easily navigable village. Prices are reasonable and inclusive of tea, breakfast, lunch and dinner.
  • BLink Tip
  • If the weather permits, the adventurous can take a dip in the river near Gurdum bridge in the forest.

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Published on June 25, 2020
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