-With inputs from Nagaland Beekeeping & Honey Mission (NBHM)
Nagaland is home to a variety of honeybee like the Apis cerana (common honeybee), Apis florae (little bee), Apis dorsata & Apis laboriosia (rockbee)and the Tetragonula species of stingless bees which provides the scope for production of different types of honey with its own distinctive favors to cater to the taste buds of different consumers. Colours ranges from deep amber, light brown, golden yellow and dark honey depending on the types of floral vegetation, while the taste of Nagaland Honey from sweet, bitter sweet and sweet tangy taste. Notwithstanding the colour and taste all these types of honey are equally potent and valued for their medicinal and nutritional benefits.
Stingless bee honey is a precious bee product of the stingless bee and is considered to be the most nutritious honey than other honey varieties.. Stingless bee can be found in most tropical or sub tropical regions of the world and its nesting habits are usually hollow trunks, tree branches, underground cavities or rock crevices. They are known to store their aromatic honey in clusters of small resin pots
Stingless bee honey certainly has a lot of nutrients because meliponine is smaller than the normal bee and can suck nectar from flowers to the deepest space. As a result, the honey collected contains many vitamins and minerals, among which is propolis, produced from the bee’s saliva mixed with its food such as pollen, bark, tree shoots and flowers.
This valuable bee product has traditionally been consumed directly and used in numerous medical practices. Many known health benefits of eating stingless bee honey regularly include anti-ageing, immune system, fighting bacteria and treating bronchial catarrh, sore throat, coughs and colds. It is also restorative after an illness and said to sooth pain, act as antiseptic, hasten healing and be effective in curing burns, carbuncle, boils and diabetic wounds. It is also used as a medicine in bites by snakes, spiders and poisonous insects.
In Nagaland, stingless bees are found in almost all the districts. However, ‘Meliponiculture’ or simply ‘Stingless beekeeping’, due to little or no domestication technology found only few enthusiasts in Nagaland. Though the number of Stingless beekeepers seems to be negligible, in some district the history of Stingless beekeeping can be traced back to many generations past.
Nagas have been rearing these bees in hollow log hives for quite long time. They adopt the traditional method to gather the bees by first locating a wild hive, and then the branch is cut around the hive to create a portable log. The log tree which has been cut is covered on both sides with pieces of wood and is sealed. Some beekeepers use bamboo as an extension of the hive for easy access to the honey and also for minimal damage to the hive. Some modern boxes are also being used for convenience of rearing, easy management of the hive and also for easy honey extraction.
The giant rock bee, Apis dorsata, also known as Himalayan honey bee is a migratory and ferocious wild bee. They are bigger in size and are the largest among the honey bees described. They help in pollinating flowers on tall trees. They built giant single comb which is about 6 feet long and 3 feet deep. One nest can contain as much as 20kgs of honey and 2kgs of wax. As their name suggests, rock bees create colonies below rock cliffs and trunks of huge trees, usually inaccessible to people. They shift from one place to another often in colonies. Because of its aggressive nature, they are difficult to rear. When their natural habitat is disturbed, they move to tall trees or vacant buildings in human habitations.
As Rock bees are migratory in nature, they migrate over long distances to the areas of abundant nectar flow in different season. They forage at an altitude of up to 4100 meters. They are known to return back and build their combs in the same spot/site year after year, thus their sites are easily located and identified by the honey hunters. Rock bees can be extremely dangerous if the colony is provoked.
Rock bee hunting is traditionally practiced since time immemorial by people mainly inhabiting the easternmost part of the state along the Nagaland-Myanmar boundary. They are found in the wild forested hilly regions of the state. The dense forest and steep escarpments provides a critical natural resting place and a home for the Giant Rock Bee, with massive honey cliff present in large numbers, which contributes substantially to the diversity of the forest of this region. However, the wild honey gatherers are fast becoming a vanishing race as few efforts are put forward for preserving and documenting their traditional practice.
Mimi, a small village under Pungro sub-division of Kiphire district is home to the rock bee honey gatherers who have carefully preserved the tradition of rock bee honey hunting. Numerous folk lore and myths surround the death defying activity of these daredevils which is deeply rooted in the socio economic setting of the villagers, remnants of which are still practiced to this day by the 170 odd families engaged in this age old profession known as honey hunting. For instance, the ownership of rock bee sites is being passed on from families over generations like property transfer from father to son. Further there is a belief that rock bee sites are guarded by the spirits of the land due to which the owners of the site, even to this day, ensures that the spirits are appeased by worshipping them and offering sacrifices before honey harvesting.
Historically, honey hunting was the main profession of this area besides agriculture. The harvested honey is used mainly for domestic consumption as a delicacy and is rarely sold to outsiders due to remoteness and lack of market. In the past the wax were bartered for goods across the boundary in Burma. However, these days, owing to increased awareness on the economic value attached to this activity, people of this remote village are making efforts to conserve the rock bee habitats for posterity and at the same time willing to sell the produce to markets as local linkages improves and demand for honey and wax are on the rise.
It is roughly estimated that there are presently about 30,000 rock bee colonies existing in the wild in some pockets of the state, out of which only about 10% of the colonies is currently being harvested by the few isolated rock bee honey hunters who have preserved their ancient art over the generations in spite of the precarious nature of rock bee harvesting and the hardships that they face. Bulk honey and wax can be obtained if the existing rock bee resources are utilized in a sustainable manner. This has the potential to generate excellent revenue for the honey gatherers and boost up the production of honey and wax in the state thus paving way for achieving an industry status for honey and wax. Going by the estimates, the rest of the existing thousands of colonies go untapped year after year, which otherwise have the prospective to produce tonnes of honey and wax.
To promote sustainable livelihood opportunity through beekeeping and preservation of this ancient art, Nagaland Beekeeping and Honey Mission (NBHM) is taking initiative in documenting and creating awareness on preservation of the endangered rock bee habitat which is critical for their survival. Main focus is on prevention of rampant degradation of existing forest cover as a result of shifting cultivation, logging etc. NBHM attempts to accentuate the economic importance of rock bee honey and wax harvests which are both valuable products capable of fetching good income for the adventurous practitioners. Efforts are being made to provide technical support to improve upon the traditional methods in terms of safer and secure methods of harvesting, reducing wastage and obtaining of quality honey and wax to render the final produce readily acceptable in the market.
Photo Courtesy- NBHM