With proper investment, many believe apiculture can provide jobs for thousands across the Himalayan region and allow ‘api-tourism’ to thrive.
Srinagar, India-administered Kashmir — At the onset of every winter season in the Kashmir region, Ishfaq Ahmad Mir, 27, heads to Jammu armed with bee boxes.
Ishfaq, who completed a master’s degree in political science, took a keen interest in beekeeping three years ago.
Amid Covid-19 pandemic, which has wreaked havoc across the globe, Ishfaq now wants to set an example for those in the region who have seen their economic plight worsen.
“We bring beehives here [in Jammu] in November and remain here till mid-April. It is an arduous journey but filled with joy to be with honeybees for the pollination [drive],” he said.
Over the last few years, the Indian-administered state of Jammu and Kashmir has been a major player in honeybee tourism — and youngsters like Ishfaq have taken pride beekeeping in his countryside home of Sheeri, in the district of Baramulla.
Ishfaq who started beekeeping as a hobby, eventually ended up as a full-time honey-maker. He learned the hard way after starting his beekeeping business with 25,000 INR ($335), as his bee colony was initially hit by parasitic mites.
“I have around 40 beehives and I rely on producing the best quality honey and selling it in the local market. Early on, I faced some problems, but now all thanks to the Almighty it is turning out to be a good venture,” he added.
Despite having a relatively small farm at home, Ishfaq dedicates five to six hours by operating the apiary (a collection of hives or colonies of bees). He now lives his dream after the idea of doing something different struck him in 2015.
“I always wanted to do something different and this is what I end up on...there is a long way to go,” Ishfaq reiterated.
In the peak season, his apiary consists of about 45 hives with each having about 1,200 to 1,500 bees.
"To my understanding, beekeeping increases the production of crops thanks to the pollination process,” he added.
Ishfaq’s friends Irfan Ahmed and Aijaz have also shifted their base to Jammu in winters, hoping to do well this summer and produce a major quantity of honey.
“We have got the resources to produce the world’s best honey,” said Irfan.
Nevertheless Ishfaq also warns that you should be ready to get stung, which he believes is one of the “learning by doing exercises” before yielding any dividends.
“Without sheer dedication, nothing comes your way,” he stated.
The younger generation in Kashmir are wholeheartedly willing to invest their money in apiculture. They aim to keep trees pollinated and benefit from sustainable living.
“It’s a low-investment enterprise and all you need to thrive in it is being punctual,” Ishfaq maintained.
Ishfaq operates an apiary with the help of his brothers, and is aiming to open a large-scale honey farm.
With experience in exterior decoration, he is also planning to paint beehives and turn them into art. He wants to station the hives in the backyard of his house to attract public attention in the countryside. He hopes the painted boxes will also send a message to unwelcome predators, like mites and bears.
In Jammu, at the base of tree trunks, dozens of bee boxes are marked with insignia, numbers and names. Inside the boxes, the bees can be seen waggling before being removed for pollination.
“It's a roving practice and we have been doing so for a while now. The honeybees are mobilised for pollinating mango, almond and other trees. We transport our colonies in vehicles to feed our bees,” said a beekeeper.
The bee colonies prefer crops like mustard, toria, citrus, maize and eucalyptus to name a few, according to scientists in the region.
In Jammu, Bhaderwah has become a hot spot for honeybee tourism, where businesses have been operating for the past two to three decades.
“The main reason is the flowering plants that are available in the region, including areas like Sarthal and Bhalla. Beekeepers do well in these natural surroundings,” said Imtiaz Ahmed, another beekeeper.
A horticulture official, Showkat Ahmad Khan, believes if properly tapped into, the sector can become a booming market that attracts tourists and provides livelihoods to tens of thousands across Kashmir.
At the moment, an estimated 70 metric tonnes of honey is produced across the region.
The horticulture sector in the region generates around 170 lakh INR ($2.27 million) in revenue by employing around 270,000 people. It is the main source of income for nearly 70,0000 families in Jammu and Kashmir, with beekeeping increasing production by nearly 21 percent.
Owing to the ample number of pollinators, almond production could witness a staggering increase of up to 45 percent.
More recently, Krishi Vigyan Kendras (the Farm Science Centre) at the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology of Jammu had been organising programmes to impart knowledge among beekeepers and train them.
Ishfaq added that beehives being subsidised has particularly helped stimulate interest from young Kashmiris, allowing them to establish beekeeping units in the midst of the region’s otherwise high youth unemployment rate.
“I am keen to establish my own honey brand and it’s something that I’ve had dreamt of. Grade one honey could fetch around one lakh ($1,335),” Ishfaq said.
In Kashmir, there are four varieties of honey that have been introduced in organic honey farming.
In 2020, Kashmir had produced more than 7,200 quintals of honey which included 2015 quintals from just the Anantnag district. Srinagar followed with 1,415 quintals.
“I had produced 2.5 quintals of honey. Usually, I am earning around INR 2 to 3 lakh ($2,600-$4,000) annually. There is some demand which we as beekeepers need to meet from time to time. I get honey harvest three times a year by establishing my apiaries in the small orchard,” Ishfaq said.
With the government aiming to get a geographical indication (GI) tag for honey farming under “Honey Mission”, officials believe honey products have tremendous scope to help youngsters run a successful business.
Director of agriculture for the Kashmir region, Mohammad Iqbal Choudhary, said the local government plans to set up nearly 700,000 bee colonies in the region over the next five years.
The hope is that the apiculture industry would generate employment for 1.4 million people by 2025.
“With the technological intervention, apiculture cultivation will receive a major boost and we’re eyeing to set up seven lakh (700,000) bee colonies in around half-a-decade which has the potential to involve 1.14 lakh (1.4 million) families in the lucrative business,” Choudhary said.
A wholesale dealer, Nazeer Ahmed maintained that it is a good sign to see youngsters showing keen interest in beekeeping by establishing mini-units in their backyards or orchards.
“We’re now locally getting honey which is indeed a major success in this region. We’re now availing services of less honey from other states after procuring honey from the local units across Kashmir,” Nazeer said.
In Kashmir, for many reasons, things have a tendency to turn upside down - be it in horticulture or agriculture. However, an aspiring generation of driven beekeeping entrepreneurs hope to create a better future in the troubled Himalayan region.