A Sweet Golden Steal

Honey! sounds simple when we say the word, but has a complex background

By Snehlata Nath
Published: Monday 01 September 2014

Honey! sounds simple when we say the word, but has a complex background

Usually associated with health, and taken as medicine to relieve colds and coughs, honey has lately become a favourite breakfast item in most homes. It is eaten with cereal and chappatis, dosas and toast.

In the Indian subcontinent, there are four kinds of honey bees which make honey. The Giant Rock Bee, Apis dorsata, makes large single combs on high trees or on steep cliffs. These combs can also be seen in cities on high buildings or water tanks near parks or gardens. Adivasi people in the Nilgiris believe that six stings of this bee can be lethal, yet they collect its honey seasonally and have an understanding of the complex relations between seasons, bees, forest blooms, and rain. A single comb can yield anywhere between 3 to 12 kgs of honey and is the largest contributor of forest honey in the market. Many communities across India seasonally depend on this bee for their income and their traditional food and medicine needs. 

There are differing points of view on the `sustainability’ of wild honey collection. The traditional knowledge of communities plays an important role in determining this. In the Nilgiris, most honey- gathering communities have sacred honey cliffs and trees which are left untouched. A community group harvests within their ancestral domain after checking whether the honey is mature.  In some other areas, as in Sundarbans, honey gathering is done as a large community activity due to the fear of wild animals, mainly tigers. The Chenchu community in Andhra Pradesh is also renowned for their honey gathering knowledge and skill. 

The other bees are smaller. Apis cerana, often domesticated by farmers in bee boxes, pots, log hives or wall hives, live in tree cavities or earthen walls and build several combs. Apis florea, known as the queen of bees, is a small golden bee; they build a single nest on twigs and bushes and store their honey neatly on the top. Their honey is highly medicinal in composition and is found extensively in parts of Gujarat. The Stingless or Dammer bees, Trigona spp. are the fourth; these are the small, mosquito sized honey bees.  They forage on herbs and produce very little honey which is medicinal and valued immensely by the Ayurvedic industry, especially in Kerala. The medicinal quality of honey varies and is based on the size of the bee and the flowers it can collect nectar from. Larger bees have longer proboscis, which cannot avail the nectar from small flowers. 

In the late 1990s, the Italian Bee,  Apis mellifera, was brought to India from Europe. This species is not indigenous to the tropics and bred industrially in large Langstroth Hives. This bee is very productive over vast monoculture plantations and agriculture fields of Mustard, Sunflower, Litchi etc. Large companies now sell honey from these sources after due processing. All over the world the problem related to the Varroa Mite and then Colony Collapse Disorder seriously infected these colonies, causing severe losses to farmers and to the pollination of crops. 

A major part of India’s honey production, approximately 60 thousand tonnes per annum, comes from wild bees . This honey is processed and sold in retail shops. There are  different viewpoints about honey processing: some institutions promote indirect heating of honey to kill active bacteria and reduce its water content to increase shelf life;  others claim that honey is a complete and ready food made by the bees and  only needs to be filtered, as heating honey increases the Hydroxyl Methyl Furfural (HMF), destroying the enzymes. Unheated honey is of better quality and retains the goodness of honey, keeping the sugars, enzymes and micro nutrients intact.  

Do you know which honey you have on your table? 

For more information contact: sneh@keystone-foundation.org

Snehlata Nath is Director Programmes at Keystone Foundation


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