Kodagu- Valley of Honey

Babu Raghavan, Coorg
Babu Raghavan, Coorg

Kodagu is known world over for its natural beauty, coffee, orange, pepper and honey adds to the list.  Coorg honey is so famous that different types of honey, bees, bee flora and it’s uses are part of folklore and music locally.  Coorg honey has high medicinal properties. Honey hunting has been practiced since time immemorial in the different parts of the world.  “Honey hunting” is as old as man himself. Kodagu is one of the home for honey production in South India with massive bee nesting trees present in large number.  The tribes of Kodagu are  skilled in honey hunting. This diversified forest and the cropping system has led to the production of specific and unique taste in honey in Coorg which is multifloral .  The quality or the taste of honey depends on the plant sources of the bees forage since different plants come to flower during different season. The important commercial crops like coffee, cardamom, orange grown in the district are highly benefited by the honey bees.  All the flowers of different species visited by honey bees are benefited.  It is true that the number of honey bees are less when compared to the flowers of coffee, but every flower that is visited by the honey bees are 100% pollinated.

The district   comprising of hills and dense diversified forest have variety of climates and the temperature existing here has made it favorable for the existence of 4 major types of honey bee species.  They are

Apis dorsate – Ponn thene – Jungle.

Apis cerena – Potti thene – domesticated.

Apis floria –   kaddi thene - domesticated.

Apis trigona –mooli thene –domesticated.

Apiculture has been one of the important farming activities in Kodagu and contributed to substantial income among farmers in evergreen areas. There were  around 19,000 apiarists in the district  and off the total region doing bee rearing in Karnataka, 50% lies in Coorg. Honey production is maximum in the villages  Bhagamandala, Korangala, Cherangala, Ballamatti, Thalakaveri, Cherambane, Kakkabe, Cheyandane, Galibeedu, Mammageri, Kalloor, Surlabi, Hammiyalu, Mutulu, Shanthalli, Jakkanahalli, Bettadahallli, Haraya, Birunani, Pookala, T.Shettigeri, Srimangala, Kedamallore, B.Shettigeri. Most of these villages are around the evergreen forest areas adjoining Brahmagiri, Talacauvery and Pushpagiri wildlife sanctuaries.

Honey farmers keep around  25-30 bee boxes within  one to one and half kilometer depending on the source of bee forage.  During the peak season – Nov-Feb, one can harvest 2-3 kgs. of honey/box.  During April to July, one can harvest 10-12kgs. From a strengthened colony (worker bee number should be 15-20,000).  During the peak time honey can be extracted once in 15 days. 

Scientific bee farming  in Kodagu  was initiated for the first time  by late Shambavanandh Swamiji, of the famous Ramakrishna Ashram in Ponnampet, .  Keeping in mind the Coorg conditions and having the Newton box as a model, Swami Shambavanandh prepared the first apiary, as early as 1930.  To aid apiculture, in 1936 he set up the The Coorg Honey and Wax Producers Co-operative Society Ltd. Virajpet honey  and this became the first honey producers co-operative in the whole of India.  The government also came forward to help this initiative. . He developed a new method which is now known as 'Coorg Standard Hive' and also gave hives to the people for scientific methods of collecting honey. He also organized a number of honey producers' cooperatives so that honey growers could collectively improve their socio-economic conditions.. Now the society has around 1000 members and  collects honey from all the bee keepers South of Cauvery river mainly from the villages of Birunani, Ammathi, Sannapulikotu, Cheyandane, Ballamatti, Korangala, B. Shettigeri.

To improve honey production, to encourage bee keeping and to have proper marketing for honey, “Coorg progressive Bee Keepers Co-operative Society Ltd.” came into action on 15-11-1954 under the leadership of former deputy speaker, honorable Sri. Korana Devaiah. Initially the society consisted of 48 members.  Now the number has increased to 889.This society collects the honey from the members and non-members, bee keepers and after processing the honey is brought to Agmark standard and then labeled as ‘AGMARK’ and marketed throughout the world. The society also provides all kinds of bee keeping equipments on subsidized rates.  For the members bee box is given for Rs. 100/box on subsidized rate. This society consists of 12 bee collecting centers within its working areas.  Along with honey collection and marketing.

Apart from all these two societies, there is a bee keeping training centre in Bhagamandala.  This centre was started in 1953 .  This centre provides 3 months training course.  It is a certificated course for all the students all over Karnataka.  In this course the students are trained about bee collecting, bee hiving, honey collecting/extraction, etc.  The students come from different places and the training is given in 2 batches per year from Oct-Dec and Jan-Mar. Apart from this 7 days training is given to the women self help group about bee keeping. Bee boxes are also given in subsidized rates.

The Large Area Multipurpose Societies ( LAMP) societies  in Thithimathi, Bhagamandala and Basavanahlly are established by the government to assist tribal communities to collect and market non wood timber products.  Honey is a major product traded by the LAMP these socities. They mainly focus on the jungle/forest bi products.  State Government provides free kit worth Rs. 6000 for jungle honey collection.  Government also provides health insurance for 5 years for honey collector.  Honey collector gets Rs. 55/kg. 

The Agricultural crops growing in the district are grouped into two groups ie. pollen grain dependent & nectar dependent. The plants coming under Nectar dependent crops are oil seeds & dicotyledons.  Nectar yielding crops are most important for collection of ‘Honey’. The pollen grains produced by these crops are being used food by the honey bees and hence they are considered as economically important. Since these crops are not producing much nectar, honey bees use them as a source of food for their breeding purpose.  Since the irrigation facilities are available throughout the year in the district, these crops produce pollen and nectar throughout the year and hence  irrigation facilities is considered as a gift for the people who are practicing apiary.

In recent years honey production in Kodagu has been reduced drastically. This is attributed only to the diseases that destroyed local honey bees and Kodagu lost its prime place in the honey map of the world. This problem of loss in production due to diseases is also compounded by loss in forest cover in general and replacement of native trees by exotic fast growing species in private plantations. Since coffee, orange, cardamom have evolved for honey bee pollination and the replacement of native trees which provided forage during lean months when forage was not available from these cultivated crops has not only affected honey yields but also crop yields.  Hence it is essential that if we need to revive farming in Kodagu we need to revive not only the bee colonies but also the bee fodder essential for all round production of honey.

 The major threat of honey bees are.

  • Habitat destruction: Kodagu has lost 28 % of its tree cover in the lost 20 years between 1977 -1997. This loss has occurred mainly due to the conversion of private forests to cardamom plantations and later to coffee plantations. With each change, the number and type of trees have been altered. Even in government-owned forests natural forests were converted to the plantation to teak. The change in the vegetation in our coffee plantations is continuing and with intensive coffee cultivation based on irrigation and high inputs, native trees are losing their place in the coffee estates and are being replaced by silver oak. Even the remaining trees are also standing without their canopy only to serve as a support for pepper.
  • Pesticide use: with changes in the cropping patterns and cultivation the use of pesticides has increased many folds in Kodagu. Even in coffee, the use of endosulfan and other insecticides has not only reduced the population of pests but also the beneficial pollinators. The use of pesticides and weedicides in paddy  lands has also contributed to the loss in biological pollinators
  • Diseases: The incidence of Thai sac brood disease has been attributed as the major factor for the loss of native bee flora.
  • Competition from exotic plants: Introduction of exotic trees like silver oak, Eucalyptus, Acacia auriculiformis, and Casuarinas have not only altered the native flora but also affected the pollinators. In natural forests, exotic weeds like Lantana and Euphotorium have caused immense damage to the native pollinators.

So the loss of forest cover and native trees has been a major threat to honey bee production in Kodagu. Hence the revival of bee production will depend on revival of forest cover and forage plants. Not all plants are useful to honeybees and even those that provide bee forage vary in their value to bee keeping. In assessing the bee keeping potential of any location we should learn about the composition of the vegetation, bee forage value of individual species and the flowering periods of important bee forage plants. Sequence of flowering of plants is an important factor and this information will help to know when large amount of nectar is available, which helps in storage of surplus honey that can be harvested by bee keepers. This information is essential to know if bee food is available for at least eight months in a year. Long gaps in bee forage will effect the growth of bee colonies and colonies become weak. Such weak colonies use most of the forage available later for rebuilding their strength and build up worker population. Hence colonies are shifted between farms and forest depending on forage availability. Hence both natural and cultivated plants compliment each other for proper growth of bee colonies and for honey production (Kushalappa, 2005).  

 (This is the third part of an article series on the diversity of Kodagu culture. To be continued)

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