The first time I realised I had to spread awareness about bees and the importance of their existence in society was during a trip to a Belgaum school. The staff had ordered the clearing of a beehive they had found on campus, claiming it was unsafe for children. I tried to explain to the principal that the bees would not sting the kids unless they were provoked, but it was no use,” recalls Mahadevan Venkatakrishnan, as he leads me down the winding bricked trail in Maharashtra Nature Park (MNP) to the recently inaugurated Bee Trail, the first of its kind in the country, a gift from the Republic of Ecuador.
The IT consultant and self-confessed bee enthusiast, who volunteers with Under the Mango Tree (UTMT) to help spread the bee awareness in Mumbai, is eager to show me the bee boxes in the park. “Look at the pollen he’s carrying in his legs,” he exclaims, pointing to a bee buzzing its way in through the little opening of the blue-painted bee box. “This guy is an Apis cerana Indica. And like all the other 20,000 or so worker bees in this box, his job is to fly out to collect nectar and protein-rich pollen from the flowers, return to the box and start packing it carefully within the combs that they have built inside the box. The nectar and pollen will be stored in the combs to be consumed in the winter and during the monsoon, when the pollen is wet and the nectar too diluted,” explains Venkatakrishnan. And as he continues to tell me all about the hard-working insects, our conversation is often punctuated with glimpses of some of the several thousands of bees flitting in and out of these man-made homes.
Cautiously lifting the cover off one of the bee boxes, Venkatakrishnan pulls out a wooden frame to show me the carefully-crafted honeycombs. “If a bee sits on your arm, don’t try to shake it off. Just leave it alone and it’ll fly off,” he warns me, explaining what he did to the Belgaum school’s principal. “The only time a bee might sting is if you disturb them. So we have to be extremely careful while handling the boxes, so as not to crush them by mistake.”
“We give them the frame with a beeswax sheet attached to it. On that they start building their combs. This particular comb is about a year old,” he says, lifting up the frame, “That is why it looks so dark; a newer one would look yellower. The shiny stuff on top is honey formed when bees pass nectar to each other. They regurgitate the nectar to pass it on to the next bee and then the next, it goes on like that and the water content keeps evaporating. By the end of the process, it is 83 per cent honey and 17 per cent water. It is then sealed with wax so that honey can’t flow out. They open it up only at the right time, when it is time to consume it,” says Venkatakrishnan.
Honey, the only naturally found pre-digested food in the world, is made after a painstaking process. “For about half litre of honey, bees have to visit five million flowers. For one teaspoon, 100 bees make about 20,000 visits. That is why we say, never waste honey,” he says with a laugh. That is also why UTMT, which hosts 10-month-long urban beekeeping workshops at MNP, is assertive about never clearing out the honey from all the frames in a bee box.
“One must be careful about removing only half the store of honey. But if you don’t do even that, the bees will not go out and pollinate. So removing honey is also an essential activity,” explains Sujana Krishnamoorthy, executive director, UTMT. Krishnamoorthy, who is currently in a village in Madhya Pradesh, helps UTMT meet their primary goal — helping tribal farmers set up bee boxes near their farm to improve their produce. “The bees help pollinate the flowers at the right time, during the fertile period. This improves the yield of fruits or veggies in terms of quantity as well as quality and allows the farmers to make more money without investing in expensive machinery or pesticides,” reveals Venkatakrishnan.
Saving the bees
“About 80 per cent of the world’s fruits and vegetables wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for bees. These little guys are irreplaceable, no man or machine can replace the job they do,” he adds. So what will we do once climate change and global warming has destroyed this species? “The rising temperatures doesn’t allow the bees to build hives, the wax just breaks down. As a result, bee colonies are shrinking at an alarming rate,” says Avinash Kubal, deputy director, MNP. Blaming pollution and development as well, Kubal finds it is absolutely essential for a greater awareness and sensitivity towards bees even in an urban environment. Hoping to create these artificial setups at other parks across the city, Kubal is keen that more people from the city take up the initiative and learn the art of beekeeping through the extensive workshops at MNP.
Walk in to MNP to visit the bee park, which is open to the public. To join UTMT’s beekeeping workshops, contact them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ or call them at 022-23753110 or 9820942051
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