Beekeeping in Kashmir: Then and Now

Beekeeping in Kashmir: Then and Now

Lush green coniferous forests providing desired quality of lumber needed for manufacture of beehives, prolific bee breed Apiscerana (Kashmir strain), superior in Apiscerana group in India and elsewhere and at par or even superior to exotic bee Apismellifera under suitable conditions, scores of plant species providing nourishment for bees and honey of excellent quality, well defined seasons, and natural resources endowed to the valley of Kashmir have all made it an ideally suited place for production of nature’s own sweet “honey”. Our ancestors were wise enough to understand the benefit of these conditions and utilised them to the best of their effort and skill.
Our ancestors had a clear vision about the prospects of beekeeping in Kashmir. Rajatarangini, written by Kalhan Pandit in AD1148-1150, states that honeybees existed in the valley of Kashmir from very ancient times, living in natural abodes. Honey was a trade commodity, and its medicinal value was appreciated. The people were aware of the relationship between bees and flowers. But these resources remained untapped until 1420. It was during 1420 -1470 AD that beekeeping experts from Middle East were brought to Kashmir and they introduced one system of beekeeping all over the valley, now called the “traditional system”.
With this, the beekeeping industry got well established all over Kashmir. This is also depicted by W. Moorcraft, who visited Kashmir in 1819 to 1820 in his book, ‘Travels in the Hindustan from 1819 to 1835’: “So little difference exists between the practices ordinary pursued in Kashmir and in Europe in respect of hiving new swarms, not to call for a notice; but that adopted in the former country for preserving the old swarm, when honey is taken, well deserves the imitation by the bee-farmer in the latter country”. Sir Walter Lawrence was Settlement Commissioner of Kashmir in 1889 to 1895, and he mentions beekeeping in his book ‘The valley of Kashmir’: “Honey is cultivated in higher villages of the valley and used for an item of taxation”. This description indicates that by 1819 beekeeping in Kashmir had reached the stage which was regarded as equal to advanced systems of European countries of those days.
Even four decades ago, there was hardly any house in the length and breadth of rural Kashmir without a traditional hive. According to one report, there were about 50,000 colonies of bees in traditional hives in Kashmir prior to appearance of the most insidious bee disease ‘Acarine’ in 1962.

Modernisation phase
Modernisation of beekeeping in Kashmir dates to some individuals, the late Dr TC Razdan and the late Ali Mohammad Shah, whose initiative took place in the late 1920s. The pioneers of modern beekeeping made the Langstroth hive (American) and the system of beekeeping in vogue in many apiculturally advanced countries such as USA, Canada and New Zealand adaptable to Kashmir. The first effort to replace traditional methods was made by the state government first through the Industries department and subsequently by the Agriculture department in the year 1939. The advantages of modern methods were amply demonstrated. Tons of honey of excellence conforming to the international standards were produced and exported. The number of bee colonies in modern hives rose to 30,000 in the year 1985.
When beekeeping industry was soaring high, unfortunately a dreaded bee disease caused by a virus called ‘Thai sacbroodvirus’ drifted into the Kashmir valley from adjoining states in the year 1985 and wiped out indigenous bee colonies in hives. Beekeepers lost their livelihood; chances of revival of native bees were bleak as no chemical treatment was available. This necessitated the introduction of ‘Thai sacbrood’ resistant exotic bee, Apismellifera in Kashmir. The project of revival of Kashmir bees was handed over to SKUAST, Kashmir. Although noting is heard from them till date, some indigenous bee colonies have revived through natural selection during all these years and can be seen with some beekeepers and in natural abodes.

Post-disease beekeeping
Management practices that harmonise with the natural behaviour of bees and bring the bee colony to its maximum population strength at the start of the bloom of major nectar-producing plants are similar in basic principle wherever bees are kept. However, the bee breed determines the system of management practices by the beekeeper, because different types of honeybees have evolved through the ages under particular climatic and environmental conditions to suit the local requirement. Not acquainted with the behaviour and other racial characteristics of the alien bee, the beekeepers of Kashmir managed this bee breed on a similar pattern of management that was in vogue with the native bee. Although its ill-effects were not noticeable immediately because conditions were conducive for development of exotic bee colonies as total number of European bee colonies was low, beekeeping sites were numerous and, above all, competition among the bee colonies was scarce.
In the following years, the number of bee colonies increased dramatically and interest in beekeeping became increasingly commercialised. Beekeepers resorted to migratory beekeeping within and outside the state. Thousands of bee colonies were moved into the valley from other states. With such activity, not only production but locations for commercial beekeepers became more difficult to find. Even a small beekeeper found it difficult to identify a desirable location as a greater number of colonies at a particular location overstocked foraging area. This coupled with uneconomical traits of European bee, i.e., her inclination to turn every drop of honey she gathers into brood, not leaving much behind that could be harvested by beekeepers. Besides, severe winter, short summers and mountainous nature of the valley produce a variety of plants but are not a major source of honey for many more bee colonies and honey production almost entirely depends on rainfall which is not consistent, resulting in crop failure off and on.
All this amounted to uneconomic returns for the beekeeper. This should have been given serious thought by SKUAST, Agriculture department and Khadi & Village Industries Board, which share common responsibility to look after apiculture in the state.
Beekeepers of Kashmir were far superior in beekeeping techniques as compared to their outside state counterparts, who were recent in business, and came in close contact with each other during interstate migration of bee colonies. Since the beekeepers of other states had already gone through the ordeal of deficit returns, eventually they had to find a way out. They abandoned the scientific methodology of harvesting honey, and instead evolved an unscientific, or better to say a barbaric method to diminish the deficit by robbing nectar (un-ripe honey) from the bee colonies on daily basis during honey producing season. Unfortunately, this ill management plan of honey harvest was adopted by beekeepers in Kashmir too.
Neither an individual effort nor a collective action was initiated, and in this process the main causalty has been the customer. Coordinated efforts could have been made by experts of the departments concerned to educate the beekeepers about the consequences of this ill-conceived management plan of nectar robbing. But lack of consensus on strategies to be adopted gave free hand to beekeepers to achieve ill designs.

Future of beekeeping
Honey is made by bees and their raw material for this is nectar produced in flowers. Not all flowers we see around are useful. Either they do not produce nectar or the quantum of nectar they produce is too little to be exploited by bees. A few ornamental flowers or trees here and there are of little value to an apiary or colony of bees. From one to several acres of abundant flowers are usually necessary to provide sufficient nectar for one bee colony.
The most important and major source of spring honey production in Kashmir is Robinapseudoacacia, locally known as “Kikar”. Until recently it was extensively planted all over Kashmir valley. There were more trees and fewer bees to exploit this source. Now the situation has reversed; we have less plants and more bees. Normally bee colonies should be kept 50-100 together in an apiary. A greater number would normally ‘overstock’ the foraging area. Nowadays hundreds of bee colonies are kept at one location, resulting in depleted average honey yield not commensurate with the expenditure incurred. In recent past, tons of honey were produced on Robiniapsudoacacia (Kikar) in Srinagar city. Now we do not produce probably in kilos. The reason is that Kikar plantation has diminished drastically due to its wanton destruction all over the Kashmir valley. Same is the case with autumn honey source.
If beekeeping is to survive it is imperative to accord high priority to safeguard and enrichment of bee flora, besides availability of quality medicine from reliable sources and a high-tech quality control laboratory.

The writer is a retired Apiculture Development Officer, Agriculture Department Kashmir. [email protected]

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