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To bee or not to bee?

If that's the question on your mind, the answer is bee, indeed, discovers Dhruvi Shah. Learn how to handle bees tactfully so that they don't sting you, but reward you with honey that is pure, free of antibiotics, and sweeter for all the effort you've put into it

On a balmy Sunday afternoon, Maharashtra Nature Park in Dharavi was buzzing, quite literally. Twenty five potential urban beekeepers, from a mother-daughter duo, and a young couple to a government employee, congregated for an introductory session on the know-how of beekeeping. The expert advice dispensers were from Under the Mango Tree (UTMT), an organisation that facilitates ethical and sustainable movement of organic produce between consumers and rural producers.


Bees die soon after they sting, so they only sting as a last resort or if
they feel their hive is threatened. --
Gurushabd Khalsa, volunteer with
NGO Under the Mango Tree, chats with participants at an urban beekeeping
workshop held recently at Maharashtra Nature Park in Dharavi.

Pic/ Sameer Markande


Among them was Sumesh Lekhi, a Chartered Accountant who runs a shoe store in his spare time. Lekhi has been on a "natural diet" for the last two years. "In an attempt to avoid processed foods and go back to a basic diet, I haven't consumed grains, milk or sugar. Vegetables and fruits compose a major part of my diet, along with a lot of honey. I have been thinking about producing my own honey. When I found out about UTMT's initiative to start a beekeeping programme in Mumbai, I was thrilled," he says.


Rural women during UTMT's farmer training programmes in beekeeping

Humane honey
Urban beekeeping, a practice popular in the United States (especially New York and Washington), Canada and Hong Kong, is only just catching up in India. UTMT's urban beekeeping programme is the first of its kind that works in a "more humane way" with the indigenous bee, Apis cirana indica, says UTMT volunteer and instructor for the programme, Gurushabd Khalsa.

And does being an urban beekeeper really mean what it sounds like? Just that laughs Khalsa � "keeping bees in an urban environment". Beekeeping, is in fact, as we discovered at a Sunday workshop, a fascinating way to learn about honeybees, support urban bio-diversity and of course, have your private, personal, and safe source of honey.

Like Lekhi, Bandra resident Kumud Dadlani's interest in beekeeping comes from her love for honey. "A while ago, we read newspaper articles about the use of antibiotics in the production of honey manufactured by big brands. That didn't sit well with us. We started looking for pure honey, and natural ways of producing it."

Bees in your balcony
But in a city with matchbox apartments, is there space to nurture a beehive? "Secluded gardens, terraces and rooftops are all potential locations for keeping bees in Mumbai. Even if your flat has an unattended gallery, it should work," shares Khalsa. And if you can't procure a personal site, Maharashtra Nature Park (Dharavi) and Borivali Natural History Society (Goregaon) are offering space for free. UTMT could also match you with friends who offer private space for beekeeping. For 28 year-old Deepti Dadlani, it would be great if she could through the course learn a little bit more about honeybees and maybe, some day sell honey at an organic farmers' market with her sister.

Taking the sting out
Khalsa herself traces her interest in the activity back to college. "I tried my hand at urban beekeeping while at university in Toronto when I met this old beekeeper who inspired me and a bunch of other students to keep hives on rooftops. He taught us how to care for honeybees. That went on for two years, just as a hobby. Later, I returned to India and began working for UTMT. Now, I'm here to help share the practice with others,"
she says.

The only question on a novice's mind, though, would be how to dodge the stinging. It's a myth, Khalsa clarifies. "Bees die soon after they sting, so they only sting as a last resort or if they feel their hive is threatened."
Being a beekeeper means accepting that you will be stung. But it's a rare occurrence. If a hive is approached in a calm, harmonious manner at the appropriate time of day, you will be fine, she assures. Better still? Sign up for a UTMT workshop where they also teach you the skill of handling a hive. "Be smart and wear long sleeves, pants and a bee veil," are Khalsa's last words of advice.

If you want to be an urban beekeeper, write to mumbaibees@underthemangotree.org.
The program launches with a basic training weekend on October 15 and 16. A workshop a month on seasonal beekeeping skills will follow. The training cost is Rs 6,500 and it includes a training manual, learning materials and fees for monthly workshops. Join the Google group at http://groups.google.com/group/mumbai-honeybees to stay connected

Here's how you'd do it
>
A love for honey bees and an inclination to produce your own honey are important factors to consider before taking on beekeeping. Next comes, finding the correct location.

> Once your site is secure, you need to ensure certain requirements are fulfilled. It shouldn't be a site of highly regular human activity. It shouldn't be vandalised and disturbed by the public. Housing societies, landlords and neighbours should approve.

> A source of fresh water should be set up near the hive. The bee box should be shaded or covered to protect against high temperatures. If there are going to be high winds in the area, windbreakers or barricades should be set up. There should be protection against smoke from an open fire. No heavy spraying of insecticides or chemicals should occur in the area.

> In Mumbai, the beehive entrance should ideally face East (to the sunrise) or West (towards the wind), so bees either have a clear flight path or are carried back to their hive on their flight path. If you can't determine whether these particular conditions are being met, a volunteer from UTMT will scout the location before giving you the bees.

You could write to them at mumbaibees@underthemangotree.org with your address and contact details to have your location checked out

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