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Milk and honey: Meet Mumbai’s resident bee-keeper

mumbai Updated: Jan 06, 2017 09:21 IST
Badri Chatterjee
Mumbai

Johnson Jacob in his bee farm in Aarey on Thursday.(Pratham Gokhale/HT)

Few people know that Aarey Milk Colony at Goregaon is not only Mumbai’s green lung, with a wide variety of plants and animals, but also home to one of Mumbai’s few bee farms.

More than two decades ago, Johnson Jacob came to Mumbai from Tamil Nadu with one aim: to harvest bee colonies and produce honey as a hobby. Today, he is a 52-year-old apiarist (bee keeper) and Malad resident who has provided almost 80 bee colonies to various housing societies and farms in and around Mumbai and has produced almost half-a-ton of honey himself.

With his farm, Jacob hopes to provide a sustainable habitat for the Indian honeybee and prolong its lifespan. According to national and international studies, the impact of climate change, rising urbanisation and the loss of trees has led to a massive decline in bee populations across India and the world.

Each of Jacob’s 10 bee colonies has five to seven wooden frames, nine inches by six inches. (Pratham Gokhale/HT)

Spread across a quarter of an acre near Aarey check naka, Jacob’s farm comprises 10 bee boxes (colonies) with more than 10,000 bees in each. The honey season is from May to June every year. During this time the 10 colonies produce 25kg of honey, which Jacob shares with his family, friends and the tribal village at Aarey that allowed him to set up the farm. The bees spend the rest of the year making honeycombs and do no work during the monsoon.

Following in the footsteps of his 85-year-old father, an experienced apiarist from Paramankurichi village in Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukkudi district, 600 kilometres from Chennai, Jacob left his job as a textile manufacturer in 2002 to follow his passion for beekeeping.

“Spending time with bees automatically keeps my health in check and allows me to unwind,” said Johnson. “That’s not to mention the therapeutic feeling of giving them a home and understanding how hard they work to provide for each other. It gives me the motivation to do something more for them.”

Jacob said that the quality of honey the bees produced depended on the kinds of flowers they got nectar from. “The Archesia flower, which is found in large numbers in Aarey, helps the bees acquire nectar and pollen for the hive. The quality of the honey depends upon the kinds of flowers around their home,” he said.

Each of Jacob’s 10 bee colonies has five to seven wooden frames, nine inches by six inches. “In every box, there are almost 9,000 bees working at any one time and only one queen bee. The queen can lay 150 eggs in a day. The area where the eggs hatch is converted into a wax comb that surrounds the honey. A machine is used to extract it. The bees use pollen for food, and nectar and a little bit of water to make the honey,” he said.

Farms and housing societies in Vile-Parle, Chikuwadi, Thane, Panvel and even as far as Nasik and Pune have bought these boxes, which that cost Rs 4,500 each. Jacob also sells individual frames with honeycombs for Rs 300 and a kilo of honey for Rs 400, mostly to his friends.

Asked how many time he has been stung, he laughed and said, “Over 10,000 times. It only helps me understand them better. I have been using bee therapy to improve blood circulation in patients suffering from paralysis or joint pain.”

From January 10, Jacob will be spending time training Mumbaiites about beekeeping at Kora Kendra Hall, Borivli.

How do bees make honey?

· Worker honey bees are responsible for foraging and making honey. The male honey bees (drones) and the queen honey bee do not forage for the hive.

· As the weather begins to warm up, the bees begin to collect nectar from flowers within a few kilometres of the hive.

· Bees have glands that secrete an enzyme which mixes with the nectar in the bee’s mouth.

· At the hive, the nectar is dropped into the honeycomb. These are hexagonal shaped cells that bees in the wild make out of wax.

· Initially, the nectar has a high water content. Over time, this goes down. The process is aided by the bees, who fan their wings to help the water evaporate.

· Once the nectar thickens, the bees cap the cells – add a layer of wax to seal them shut.

· This is when beekeepers know the honey is ready to be harvested.

The Indian honeybee

· The Indian honeybee or eastern honeybee (apis cerana indica), is a sub-species of honey bee found in large numbers across the Mumbai Metropolitan Region.

· They use nectar from flowers to build honeycombs and produce honey. They feed on pollen.

· They take four months on average to build a honeycomb and stop all work during the monsoon.

· The queen bee is only responsible for laying eggs. She is treated to royal jelly – made up of nectar and the most valuable honey from the comb. Thus, she quickly becomes the largest bee in the colony.

· While the drones can travel from colony to colony and are only responsible for mating with the queen, worker bees are responsible for making the comb and bringing nectar, pollen and water to the hive.

· The temperature inside a colony of bees can go up to 60 degrees Celsius because of how quickly the bees move about when building a honeycomb.

· The bees use their backs to make the comb and have pockets in their legs to store pollen.

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