Jarillas, elsewhere better known as Caña Brava (a type of cane), is a reed that usually grows on the marshy banks of rivers. Tlacotal, the Nahuatl name for the place where jarillas grow, is a community in Iztacalco, one of the mayorships in the southeast of Mexico City. The Miramontes River, at that time emblematic for Tlacotal, became a canal; but the jarillas are still in the orchard of the Cultural Center that bears the same name. This cultural center is a reference for Mexico City for being managed from the territorial community, cohesioning the social fabric and the sense of community at the scale of the neighborhood locality, with a tireless work from the culture and urban identity. It is an icon for the development and self-determination of an urban community, involving the third generation, giving tangible form to the demands of the people of Tlacotal in their struggle for the right to the city.
While in the United States and Europe, most pollinating bee colonies are managed by humans, India’s prime pollinator, Apis dorsata (the rock bee), is a wild insect.
The total area of bee-dependent crops in India is around 50 million hectares.
With climate change and pesticide abuse threatening bee population across the world, the Nilgiri tribal people show the way ahead by reverting to their traditions to further bee conservation.
Even as modern science grapples with the rapidly declining bee population, we could look back and take a lesson on sustainability from the ancient culture of the adivasis (the first people) of the Nilgiris.
Covering over three states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve is home to over eighteen ethnic groups. Of them, Kattunaickens, Kurumbas, Sholigas and Irulas are known to be the primary honey hunter tribes. Traditionally, these tribes hunt for honey on the cliffs of the Nilgiris, atop high trees, inside tree cavities and also in underground hives (puthu thaen or burrow honey). In recent times, with reduced forest cover, climate change and government restrictions, it has become increasingly difficult for these tribes to collect wild honey.
Even as we begin the honey trail for our story, early rains play spoilsport and the locals were worried that it would drive off the bees. Such unpredictable rains are a recent phenomenon in the Nilgiris, which has had a direct impact on honey availability and hence the honey bees and the honey hunters. After months of follow-up, we finally meet up with Masanan, an Irula tribal from Masinagudi in Nilgiris district, who belongs to a family of honey gatherers.
He said, “When I used to go with my father for gathering honey, there would be 15 combs in a cliff. Now there are hardly six.”
He tells us that their community treats the bees as sacred beings and they hold prayers before they leave for harvesting the honey. Even as we walked miles across the outskirts of the forest, Masanan knew the location of the bee hives, be it atop the trees, or in cavities or cliffs, like the back of his hand. He points to how the bees always prefer a place near a water source and also about how the flowering season impacts the quality of honey.
“We always wait till April to harvest honey, as it gives a better survival rate for the larvae and mature honey (with less water content) for us. Traditionally, we do not use destructive methods like crushing the hives or burning them. Our elders use the herbs in the forest to create smoke that drives away the bees. We then harvest only what is necessary for us, leaving enough for the bees to sustain. For instance, if there are few hives in the cliff, we leave 60 percent untouched for the bees, they come back to the same place every year,” added Masanan.
Sasi, a Kattunaicker tribal member from the neighbouring Coonoor agrees that this practice is common amongst their honey gatherers too.
Masanan smiled, “We live and let live.”
Keeping the buzz alive
We stood there watching in amazement as hundreds of bees buzzed around him and he did not swat even one, “Normally, one or two bees will sting us, but if he hit them, hundreds will swarm us recognizing the smell of the dead bee. So, while you watch, make sure you do not kill even a single bee,” he warns, taking out the honey, undeterred by the (literal) buzz around him.
But not every tradition has survived time. Masanan, for instance, uses his beedi (native cigar) to smoke out the beehive we found. He was able to save the brood of the hive in the tree cavity, but in the tree branches, it sometimes becomes impossible to cut the honey without striking the brood. “Unlike petti then (box honey) apiculture, we cannot always tap just the honey,” he said.
Justin Raj, a beekeeping expert with conservation NGO Keystone Foundation, tells us that most tribes in Nilgiris traditionally follow a sustainable method of honey harvesting. “Our job is to ensure that they stick to these sustainable and clean practices through training workshops,” he said. “First, we request them not to touch or attack the queen cell. And as is their traditional practice, if there find seven combs, we ask them to harvest only three. We also request them to take out just the honey part (wherever possible) and leave the brood with the larvae intact. Lastly, we ask them to wait for over six months to gather mature honey with less water content and less damage to the bees.”
Be it apiculture or wild honey harvesting, Keystone Foundation insists that the honey gatherers they work with follow sustainable honey harvesting practices and their products are given a better market price for following sustainable methods.
Bharath Kumar Merugu, Project Lead, Just Change works with over 175 Kattunayakar honey gatherers through a tribal union called ‘Thenkootam’ (then – honey, kootam – crowd) under the umbrella of Adivasi Munetra Sangam. “We think it is important to support sustainable non-timber produce like honey and coffee. This will ensure that our tribal people turn protectors of the forest even while guaranteeing them a reliable livelihood option. The price of the honey is fixed by the tribal union themselves, we merely help them reach a better market.”
Ecologist Godwin Vasanth Bosco agrees that it is crucial to include the indigenous tribes instead of keeping them out of the forests and even perhaps use their traditional expertise to conserve the wild bees in the Nilgiris. He opines that it is equally important to educate farmers in the biosphere to stay off harmful pesticides that could directly impact the bee population. Several villagers of the Athakarai Village in Nilgiris district we spoke to also confirmed that swarms of bees die after visiting pesticide-ridden jasmine farms in the region.
In India, conservation has primarily focused on introducing the European species Apis mellifera, renowned for easy domestication and high yield of honey. But studies show that this has had an adverse impact on the native rock (A. dorsata) and hive bees (A. cerana indica) as they compete for food. This loss of bee diversity could directly impact the plants dependent on it for pollination.
Hariprasad, Professor – Agri-entomology, Annamalai University informs us that the European bee, which is the most domesticated in the world is also easily disease-prone. He says, “Of the five prominent bee species in India, the rock bees or A. dorsata species are the major honey yielders. But they cannot be domesticated. The Dammer bee (Melipona irridipennis) on the other hand is good for cross-pollination even though the honey yield is less.” It is therefore important to find the middle ground between sustainability and utility.
Hariprasad suggests that improving the local food source by making it pesticide-free could play a major role in conserving bees and biodiversity of the region. He also suggests that initiatives like providing mountaineering kits for personal safety and training on sustainable production of value-added products from beeswax and pollen could help the tribals gain more profit and enable them to become part of the solution.
Mudhan, an Irula tribe member from Masinagudi suggests it will be good if traditional honey gatherers like them are given training in apiculture, where they could breed indigenous bees throughout the year.
He added, “Irrespective of the jobs we do, in the summer, we would always want to go back to the cliffs. Our lives and culture are always intertwined with these bees.”
The Mezquital Valley, in the Mexican highlands above two thousand meters above sea level, 4 hours north of Mexico City, has been for centuries the most important production area of aguamiel, the sweet juice harvested from magueys, appreciated since the times of the Aztec Empire. The climate, with a lot of sun during the day and cold nights, as well as the semi-desert vegetation favor the use of maguey and nopal cactus. The indigenous Hñähñu families, the original inhabitants of the valley, planted maguey
(agave salmiana) and nopal cactus, producing pulque, the fermented drink made from aguamiel and maguey honey, a concentrated sweetener of the aguamiel (mead: an alcoholic drink made from honey). The colony and then modernity seemed to put an end to this cultural work, but there seems to be a rebirth of this ancestral agriculture, rejuvenated thanks to innovation.
“The potato is sad” – this phrase we heard frequently on our tour in the rural area of Chinchero, near Cusco, Peru. Water stress leaves no choice; rural communities, because of the need to adapt water management to the climate crisis, started to plant water: But in order for this resilience not to be directly consumed by an excessive use of water resources by urban centers, it is necessary to understand the necessary reciprocity in the territory.
India’s Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman mentioned the word ‘green’ about two dozen times in her 2023 Budget speech. Several sectors and activities were prefixed with this word, including energy, farming, mobility, buildings, fuel, jobs, hydrogen, and credit. This has to be a first for the country. Other words that were uttered included climate, zero-carbon, organic, wetlands, biological diversity, and environment. Given that nearly all these words were absent in the 2022 Budget speech, this would seem like a definite advance.
Dario Estrada, born in Tumaco, Colombia, has always had a keen interest in everything related to power generation. During the pandemic, in one of those free moments surfing the internet and watching a video of someone generating gas with drinking water, changed Dario’s life: “gas for everyone!”