It’s all about money, honey. That’s what they say, apparently. For this beekeeping family of Punjab, money and honey have become synonymous, quite literally! Simranjeet Singh, the young scion of a large extended family — 50 members are into beekeeping across the state — can’t remember when his father or his uncles last tilled their 10 acres of land for wheat or paddy.
He has grown up seeing them keep honeybees, not needing to cultivate the land at all. And, now with him as incharge of the flourishing bee business that brings in a sweet profit of more than Rs 30 lakh a year, he says it’s a win-win from the start.
“My father, Gurmail Singh, trained at the Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) in beekeeping in the early 1980s. We haven’t looked back since. Once his business flourished, his brothers left traditional farming and took to the trade. Even his sisters started beekeeping at the places they got married. My mother’s brothers took to it when they saw us doing great. In all, we have almost 50 persons of our extended family doing this work.”
He adds, philosophically, “I believe that if there were no bees there would be no humans. These bees are laborious creatures doing what’s essential for pollination of plants and giving back to nature something so sweet and nourishing. What could be better than this?”
Simranjeet’s love for bees, however, was not at first sight. “It was something that the family was already doing. I wanted to do something else. After my Class 12, I dabbled into craft items’ import and trading, but it did not quite work out.” A national-level power-lifter, Simranjeet even rejected job offers from the railways and the police, returning to the family trade.
Home sweet home
Now completely involved in every bit of it, Simranjeet says anyone can start beekeeping. “All you need is five bee boxes. You can start with one too, buying more as the bees grow in number; but five boxes will give you a decent return of around Rs 1.5 lakh at the end of the year.”
One single box (there is a double-decker too) costs Rs 4,000 to 5,000, and there is a government subsidy of 40% on this. Each box comes with four trays full of bees and each box has 10 trays. Once the box is full the trays brimming with bees are shifted to newer boxes, and that is how the number of boxes increases. “Boxes are the only major investment, besides the head- and hand-covers for the labour.”
The boxes are placed near fields where flowers abound. “It could be mustard, like we have now. Then there is apple, sunflower, cotton and eucalyptus. Honey produced by the bees during different seasons and by those that feed on different flowers looks and tastes different. The mustard honey, for instance, freezes over; while others don’t. Some kinds of honey also go bad, against the perception that no honey ever goes bad,” he explains.
How the bees do it
The bee boxes are to be kept away from one another with a minimum distance of three feet. Bees get out of the box and after collecting nectar return to the same box. “They use their sense of direction and smell to return to the box. They can wander away till almost 3 km and still come back home, provided their home is at a distance from the next nearest home; that is why the distance between the boxes has to be maintained,” explains Simranjeet.
And do they sting as much as they are said to? “Of course they sting. I have been stung several times. After all we are thieving their produce! But new research is showing that bee sting is actually therapeutic.”
Moving with times
The over 1,000 bee boxes that Simranjeet’s honey factory has are placed across Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and even Rajasthan. “We can afford to migrate the boxes. Wherever there is a flowering season, we shift them. We move the boxes two to three times a year and, considering the profits, the transportation cost is negligible,” he says.
To place the boxes, you don’t need to own the land or pay anything.
“We meet farmers who have fields flourishing with flowers. Those who don’t know much about beekeeping initially objected. Some even said the bees would eat up the flowers and their crop would perish. But soon they realized that it’s harmless, and now people allow us to keep the boxes. Also, since we are in this business for over a decade, the places where we keep the boxes are with us for long.”
At many places, beekeepers are now invited to keep boxes. “Apple growers have realised that bees help in pollination and lead to a better yields. In such cases they even pay us to keep our bee boxes in their fields.”
Drumming it up
The honey is collected in drums with a simple centrifuge contraption that holds the bee trays. “We don’t have to transport the drums. Honey traders make their own arrangements of collecting the honey, treating it whichever way they want and sell it further. The biggest market is the US, and traders whose samples are cleared export honey. The honey we produce in our farm is called Ugani Honey and all of it is exported to the US.”
If a beekeeper does not migrate his boxes, one box will yield 20-25 kg of honey in a year. It sells for Rs 100-150 per kg, and someone with five boxes will make over Rs 1 lakh a year.
The math of it
Simranjeet’s 1,000 bee boxes are migrated; and he uses three flowering seasons in the year. The yield per box is over 35 kg. His total yield of 35,000 kg is exported and that gives him nearly Rs 45 lakh. His cost of labour and transportation of boxes is about ` 15 lakh, leaving him with a profit of over Rs 30 lakh a year.
“It is a low-maintenance business and once the basic training is done the bees can be handled by unskilled workers. We have hired only a dozen workers. Daily care is required only initially,” says Simranjeet, who obviously gets enough time to work as an active municipal councillor in Rajpura.
Now he has big plans. “Generating the honey is the easy part. Getting a good rate for it is the challenge. Honey traders get together and keep the rate as low as they can. The best solution to this is to sell it directly to the buyer. I am trying to export my honey directly to the US. We are getting the first set of sampling done ourselves to prove the quality of the honey to make it exportworthy,” he says.
Building a movement
But he also has something up his sleeve for the growing fraternity of beekeepers. “There are almost 35,000 beekeepers in Punjab alone. I am trying to bring them together under the banner of the Progressive Honey BeeKeeping Association of which I am the president. We will ensure they get a good rate. We only need a little push from the government.”
He adds, “Through the association dealing with the traders we have managed to get a rate of Rs 105 per kg for the bee keeper when the market rate fell to as low as Rs 70. Second, we are trying to create a cooperative society wherein we’ll ask bee keepers to contribute their produce which will then be supplied to traders at a rate better than what the individual honey producer gets.”
He says the association is also in talks with the Punjab government to procure honey and market it through Markfed (Punjab government’s marketing federation for farmers). Beekeepers are already enthused at the idea of bringing in a ‘golden revolution’. Over 500 have joined the association.
“We are also asking the government that honey be categorised as agriculture produce and the value-added tax (VAT) of 6.5% be waived. It should be considered not as a small scale industry but an agri-business,” he adds.
On the side
Other than honey, beekeeping yield propolis, a high-value wax used in medicines; and royal jelly, the honey produced by the queen bee, again an expensive raw product for medicines. “Everything a bee produces is saleable. And the key lies in maintaining purity. Honey being sold by many big brands is full of antibiotics as the farmers have no idea how much antibiotic is to be sprayed and when. Training is vital.”