Honey = MoneyFarmer teaches himself bee-keeping so he does not have to migrate for work
Chuman Gharti Magar cannot remember the number of times he has been stung by bees. But he clearly remembers what his friends and family had said when he spent Rs4,000 on two frame hives from a furniture shop.
Back then there were no buses to his village in Musikot, so he carried the two boxes on his back and walked all the way home. His fellow villagers were clearly curious, having never seen frame hives.
“When they found out it was a modern hive, people called me crazy for spending money for bees that naturally live in logs,” remembers Magar. “But we have to move with the times otherwise we will be left behind.”
Sixteen years down the line, the same people commend him for the respect and money he has earned.
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Magar is now the proprietor of Malrani Mauripalan Kendra, where he keeps 150 hives of local Asian honeybees (Apis cerana) which produce 5-10 quintal of honey every season. He sells each kg of honey for Rs1,500 but says the price fluctuates.
“I haven’t been able to fulfill the market demand. As honey is considered to have health benefits, the demand is quite high,” he says.
Most of his clients are locals in Gulmi but his honey has made its way to Kathmandu, Pokhara, Butwal and even abroad. Much of his business is through word of mouth, and customers usually call him with orders.
He also instructs other interested beekeepers, most of whom come to him for practical training. He also sells bees and beehives.
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“Most of the beekeepers here sell bees and not honey, maybe because they don’t know how. But my priority is honey,” says Magar. “Just like we keep buffaloes for milk, the bees are for honey.”
Magar had passed his SLC and had tried his hand at farming for four years. But the weather and soil conditions in the mountains were not suitable.
“In the plains, if you farm for a month, you get to eat for eight. Here, if you farm for eight months maybe you get to eat for one,” says Magar.
Magar grew up with a mostly absent father who was a lahure. He knew that he wanted to be with his children while also providing a better life for them. So he gave up the idea of becoming a soldier like his father and neighbours and explored opportunities closer to home.
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He first started with log hives but did not know how to handle bees, nor did he know what infrastructure was needed and where to get them.
“I learned it all by playing with the bees,” he says. “Bees are technical creatures, they have their own system and habits. Once you figure that out, it is perhaps one of the easiest jobs to do.”
Initially, it was even difficult for him to source frame hives. The local furniture shops did not make them and ferrying them from Butwal was too expensive.
After three years of struggling to understand the bees, he not only understood the rules of the hives but also found someone who could make hives as per requirements.
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Beekeeping is both “art and science”, he says, and once mastered can yield benefits without much investment.
“One of the more important things to learn is hive management because if one is not careful during the seasons when bees procreate, there may be nothing left of the old hive,” says Magar.
Another thing to consider, he says, is making sure there is sufficient pollen for the bees to forage.
To ensure that all his bees have an ample amount of pollen, he takes a decentralised approach. Magar does not keep all his hives in one place, spreading them in the neighbourhood.
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Professional beekeeping is an undertapped business idea, says Magar: “If every village had 50-100 hives, we could probably export honey,” he adds.
One of the major challenges for beekeeping is weather extremes due to climate change. Last year, when it rained for seven days straight, half of Magar’s hive was wiped out.
“There is either too much rain or not enough, which has affected the productivity of the bees,” he says. “The weather patterns these days are unpredictable, which makes it difficult.”
Magar, however, is happy to be where he is today and credits it all to the bees: “If it wasn’t for the bees, I would probably be working under the hot Gulf sun.”
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Why a declining bee population should concern us
When we talk about bees, most of us in Nepal immediately think of honey. Indeed, it is an example of a thriving eco-business with some 16,500 beekeepers across the country producing over 4,000 tonnes of honey every year. The rest of the demand is met by imported produce, mostly from India.
While domesticated honeybees are important pollinators, much more important for the ecosystem are the 20,000 or more species of wild bees. Wild bees mostly gather pollen from native plants to feed their young in hives, while domesticated honeybees tend to pollinate crops, flowers and invasive species. Together with other insects, the more important wild bees are in decline worldwide.
Nepal’s hallucinogenic ‘mad honey’ is popular because of a series of documentaries made about their collection. An ancient but risky honey hunting culture has Nepal's indigenous people venture up cliffs on flimsy rope ladders twice a year in autumn and spring to extract the Himalayan giant honeybee (Apis laboriosa) honeycomb, a 3cm bee species that forages at up to 4,100m.
Of the five honeybee species found in Nepal Apis laboriosa, Apis cerana, Apis dorsata, and Apis florea are indigenous to the Himalaya. Meanwhile, Apis mellifera is a European bee species introduced in Nepal for commercial purposes in 1990. Only Apis cerana and Apis mellifera are used for commercial honey production.
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These bees graze on a variety of flowering plants determining their flavour including herbal rudilo, Indian butter tree, mustard, buckwheat, litchi and fixed flower honey among others.
But more importantly, bees are responsible for one of every three bites of food we take. Bee pollination can increase food productivity by up to 30%, but wild bees and honeybees are disappearing all over the world due to the use of pesticides, spread of parasites by humans, as well as new diseases.
Urbanisation and unplanned infrastructure have reduced grazing areas and caused farmers to switch to monoculture, leading to decreasing abundance and diversity of flowers. This has also affected bee populations. The climate crisis, with cloudbursts and unprecedented wildfires, are destroying habitats and beekeepers report a sharp decline in honey collection in Nepal.
A beehive in itself has a well-organised and complex social life. There are worker bees that find pollen, drones whose main job is to mate with the queen, and the queen bee who lays up to 1,500 eggs a day and controls the worker bees.
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