The fields of Bharatpur, Rajasthan, are a sea of brilliant yellow and green in the winter months as mustard — one of the staple crops in the region — flowers, interrupted only by stretches of wheat, which is sown a few weeks after the oil seed.

The mustard flowering season is also the period for honey production in this district. Hundreds of wooden bee-keeping boxes lined up on open patches of land adjoining the fields are a common sight.

Bharatpur has emerged as a major producer of honey over the past few years, with some 3,000 farmers engaged in bee-keeping or apiculture. Good returns from bee-keeping help increase incomes in villages across the district for people who are essentially marginal farmers. About 70 per cent of their income comes from bee-keeping and the balance 30 per cent from agriculture.

However, a downturn in honey prices due to global overproduction is now hurting bee-keepers. Honey fetched bee-keepers as much as ₹130 a kg in 2015 but now it is down to ₹65-70 a kg. Any price below ₹100 a kg does not spell profits, they say, as the cost of production — the cost of the bees, maintaining the box and the frames, labour and transportation — is ₹40-50 per kg. Honey prices have been slipping since 2015-16. Production in the current mustard season has been good, about 25 per cent higher than the last year, helped by conducive weather. Estimates are that honey production in Bharatpur was about 2,300 tonnes in this mustard season which has just about ended.

“The government must declare a minimum support price (MSP) for honey,” says Hardayal Singh, a bee-keeper in Bharatpur’s Nangla Kalyan village. But a fall in bulk prices of honey is only one of their problems. “Marketing is a major issue,” he adds, saying the government should help establish a proper procurement process.

At present, bee-keepers depend on traders to pick up their produce. Companies that sell processed and packaged honey do not procure directly from the bee-keepers. Traders often find fault with the quality, say, sugar level in the honey, to drive down prices, complains Singh. This, often after they have tested and cleared the sample. Singh keeps about 500 boxes. His brothers as well as uncles are also engaged in bee-keeping.

It’s different

Bee-keeping was introduced in Bharatpur in the early 1990s by Lupin Human Welfare & Research Foundation to provide livelihood to small and marginal farmers, landless labour and unemployed youth. Most bee-keepers now have Italian bees rather than the indigenous species, as they are more productive.

Over the years, the Rajasthan government set up honey clusters and nominated the Foundation to expand bee-keeping to other parts of the State. Mustard fields provide very productive conditions for bee-keeping — the output of honey in the 3-4 months of mustard flowering is about as much as the production in the rest of the year from placing boxes in fields growing other crops, such as litchi, and in the forest.

Honey made along the mustard fields is also different — the unprocessed honey is creamy-white and has the texture of whipped butter and sugar. In comparison, honey made by bees that feed on eucalyptus flowers, litchi flowers and other assorted flowers is in liquid form when extracted from the hives, and various shades of brown. The taste of honey also depends on the flowers the bees feed on.

Transportation issues

Apiculture is not an easy trade to be engaged in. Bee-keepers face problems due to lack of proper identity, especially when transporting boxes to other places such as Dehradun, Muzaffarpur and Jharkhand, with change in seasons, to place the boxes in eucalyptus plantations, forests, litchi orchards and pineapple fields, as the mustard season ends.

The boxes need to be transported at night, as bees fly out as temperatures rise during the day. However, the vehicles are often held up at borders and tolls, sometimes overnight, and that results in losses. The bee-keepers will be saved much trouble if the government issues them identity documents and instructs the police and toll booths to avoid holding up vehicles bearing these boxes.

Besides transportation, inability to access bank loans is another problem, says Bhim Singh, Lupin Foundation’s Additional Chief Project Coordinator who is responsible for agriculture and related interventions.

Some of the problems that bee-keepers in Bharatpur face can be eased with some intervention by the government and the honey processing industry.

Bee-keepers want a solution centre at the district level, where they can get expert advice from scientists on improving their practices and dealing with diseases in bees. They would also like more testing centres — where batches of honey produced can be graded before being sent for processing. Honey testing requires expensive equipment, which not many private players are likely to make, therefore it requires government intervention.

Making it sweeter

Creating more demand for honey in the domestic market could reduce volatility in honey prices and thus ensure steady income for the bee-keeper. “We have suggested to governments that honey should be introduced in mid-day meals,” says Lupin’s Singh. “It will be a win-win situation — children will get additional nutrition and the bee-keeper income.” Lupin has also suggested that honey be supplied with meals on airlines, railways and among the defence forces.

Hardayal Singh feels bee-keepers could earn additional income if infrastructure and market was created for extracting bee pollen, bee venom and royal jelly and the bee-keepers were trained to extract them. All three have medicinal value and command very high prices in the international market. Bee pollen can also be used as a topping for desserts. For the moment, they are using trial and error methods to collect bee pollen.

The writer was in Bharatpur at the invitation of Lupin Foundation