November 2013: Empowering women

4 Dec

After the deluge we witnessed in October, the sun gods have smiled upon our serene valley. Remember our ladies from Santhari featured on ApiAnon last month? In a month, they had 3 established colonies in this village!

We’re delighted to announce that we hosted our first visitor for the Pollinator programme. Anjali is an organic farmer and co-founder of  my choices  where she works in women empowerment and strengthening the girl child. She is native from Andhra Pradesh and volunteerly came to meet and discuss with the women partners to speak about organic farming and women empowerment. It was great to have her for a few days.


We organised meetings in 2 villages, one is Santhari with our strong women and the other one is called Merkachinta, a village where all our partners are between 16 to 21 years old. In this village we have now 3 colonies. And they made their own bee garden.

We also started a bee garden in our Central nursery.  A bee garden is a flower-rich habitat, a place where bees are free to forage and pollinate. Providing an abundance of nectar and pollen and creating special bee shelters, we hope to create a safe haven for honey bees and all pollinators in the region. The garden is also serving as an outreach tool for advising farmers, beekeepers, visitors and others on the importance of pollinators and on planning their own garden that will encourage bee and other flower visitors.


We are welcoming a new village and 5 new partners who joined the program. Kotagumam is one of the remote village where they have already caught a colony. When we monitored the colony, the first thing we saw was the beautiful Queen. Can you see her ?




October 2013: Waiting for sunshine in the wake of Cyclone Phailin

20 Oct

October was not a good month for beekeeping. Cyclone Phailin at the beginning of the month was followed by incessant rains in the region. We find ourselves eagerly awaiting the return of ‘Surya’ or the Indian sun deity to our lovely valley. We are keen to see our bees return to their foraging ways. The weather is still too cold and grey for Apis Cerana, but  other bigger and more robust pollinators are able to negotiate the monsoon chill.

solitary bee on flower copy

carpenter bee on flower2Wasp flyingWe’ve stepped up our community mobilisation efforts and continue to focus on teaching our beneficiaries about beekeeping.  Working in remote tribal belts means that regular contact with individual beneficiaries become. We’ve added much-needed structure to our meetings and now each village has a regular meeting every 2 weeks. Every time we go to these villages for meetings, it is important to have the majority of our beneficiaries present. This is the reason we schedule 2 fixed meetings monthly. In Santhari village, our meetings are on the first and third Friday of each month.

meeting2 mweeting After the conclusion of the meeting, the beneficiaries wanted to show me the hut they had constructed to shelter the future hive. The group of about 10 colourful tribal women confidently led me to their shelter, a stark contrast to when I first visited this village and the women were to shy to talk to us. After only a brief few months of initiating the pollinator programme in the village, I could already see the difference in behaviour of the beneficiaries.We individually checked each shelter and advised them on how to better prepare the shelter.DSC_0172we

Bee in China

15 Oct

Made in China

Did you know copy 60 to 70% of honey found on Chinese supermarket shelves is fake! There are 2 major ways to produce fake honey. The first one is to mix adulterate the honey with chemical substance or liquids and the second is to blend honey with high-fructose corn syrup. Only 2 companies selling honey in China have been  declared safe as per national criteria. Unfortunately honey can also be sold as a bio-agricultural-product or medicinal-product, creating a loophole for these counterfeiters to cash in on.

Is this our future?

In the central province of Sichuan, men, women and children are taking up manual pollination by hand for their apple orchards of apple. But how exactly did they reach this point where bees are not visiting the flowers any more?


In the 80’s, farmers saw an opportunity in orchard-farming. A few years later, the government introduced a new species of pear – the new variety did not bloom at the same time than the other pears varieties. To increase fruiting, farmers began experimenting with hand pollination and it was successful, the yield increased and the fruits looked better. The government started encouraging hand pollination. More and more of the species were grown (with some areas going up to 90%). Shortly after, this species became the target of pear lice. To resolve the problem, farmers began relying increasingly on pesticides. The regular and intensive spraying killed all insects, including honeybees. Chinese beekeepers saw bees as a honey making machine and not as a pollinator. Beekeepers have deserted this region due to prevalence of pesticides and the abundance of pear flowers (not necessarily great for honey).

In the US, in 2006, over 500,000 honey bee hives were needed to pollinate apple orchards, each hive having an average of 40,000 bees, you can imagine how many “NEWBEE” will be needed to hand pollinate them.

[Photo credit by yndra]


September 2013: Education takes the Araku Pollinator Program forward

23 Sep

This month we received an educational kit from Bee for development to help us train and empower  the tribal women of the Pollinator Program. Thanks to the visual cards provided we can now help our beneficiaries understand the program easily and also organize and structure our meetings in a better.

karakaput meetin 30/08

We experimented with the educational kit in a village called Karaput. The first meeting was about the awareness on honey bees primary role. The group of 12 women gave different answers – “bees make honey which is medicinal”,” they sit on flowers and drink the juice”, but they didn’t really seem to know why bees did this. The visual cues assisted us in explaining the the role of honey bees as pollinators. At the end of the session, all the women insisted on doing a group picture with me to commemorate our first meeting!

Karakaput Members

We are also preparing for swarming season which will occur when the monsoon comes to an end and the flowers of the forest trees will begin blooming. We have started building bait hives which will hopefully attract a swarm. We’ve put some drops of lemon grass oil in all our empty hives in an attempt to attract swarms.

In the nearby village of Kodaput, we took the time to speak to elders from the community. They told us of how in these 2 last decades the lush-green forest around them has slowly disappeared. Back in the day, you couldn’t walk 2 meters without stumbling upon a beehive, the village had 6 households (they now have around 30). Trees and wild flowers were there all yearlong, to cross rivers they used the tree’s branches, It’s hard to believe that all this was just 15-20 years ago! I was really touch by their words and they helped me reinforce the need for the pollinator program in light of disappearing bee populations


At current, it is not easy to work and travel in this region. Since the beginning of the month, region has been paralyzed by daily strikes and bandhs over the division of the state of Andhra Pradesh. Roads are blocked, public transport options are sparse and power cuts have increased due to the weekly strike of the electricity department. Due to this our work is disturbed on a daily basis and its difficult for us to reach our weekly targets. We’ve been forced to take smaller steps.

Honey and the coffee bean

5 Sep

Coffee bean shapes

In our pristine Araku Valley, the Naandi foundation has been working alongside about 10,000 organic coffee farmers. They are working with the Arabica coffee which is self-pollinated. This mean that to obtain fruit, the plant doesn’t depend on the presence of bees, relying instead on the wind to propagate its pollen. However an independent Indian study reveals that the introduction of bees to Arabica plantations produces a greater proportion of fruit berries (2-seeded fruits) while the exclusion of bees results in higher proportions of pea-berrys (single seeded fruits). The shape of the seeds are being improved due to the presence pollinators. When the coffee is processed, only the perfect shaped beans are selected and roasted for a quality coffee. Therefor bees can play a vital role in improving the coffee quality and assuring better returns for farmers.


Bees get high

Geraldine Wright, a neuroscientist at Newcastle University in England, conducted a study finding bees may actually be benefited  by low concentrations of caffeine in coffee flowers. Caffeine, a compound which is toxic at high dose to pollinators and other animals is  generally produced by the plant as a defense mechanism . However at low doses, caffeine becomes effective for attracting pollinators.  It actually improves the long-term memory of the bees and encourages them to come back to the coffee flowers.The plant is secretly drugging the pollinator to spread its pollen!

b n c

Even if Arabica coffee is self-pollinated, their is a clear co-relation between bees and the plant. It attracts the bees thanks to a small amount of caffeine and the quality of the bean improves thanks to the bee pollination. In my opinion this represents a perfect example of a a symbiotic  pollinator exchange.

Planting species like coffee  amongst crops might improve pollination. The more we know about bee foraging, the better a chance we have at keeping them around and healthy, both for their sake and ours.”- Dr. Wright

[Photo creadit by Ducan]

[Photo credited by USW]

5 Facts about Monsanto in India

21 Aug

I recently visited Monsanto- India’s website and was quite shocked being greeted by this slogan: “Producing more, conserving more, improving lives. THAT’S SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE, AND THAT’S WHAT MONSANTO IS ALL ABOUT”. Don’t believe me? Check for yourselves.

If that’s not enough, Monsanto was awarded the World Food Prize (2013), often referred to as the “Nobel Prize” for Agriculture. Do you think, like me, that there’s something fishy about that? Below are a few of my findings about Monsanto in India I thought I’d share:


BT cotton

  • Monsanto developed BT Brinjal illegally using 6 endemic varieties of Indian Brinjal. Biosafety test done raised serious health concerns.
  • In 2003, Monsanto got a patent granted in the European patent office for a variety of wheat that  had originally developed from Nap Hal, an Indian wheat variety. But was un-patented in India.
  • In the last 15 years, 270,000 farmers have committed suicide in India. Most of these suicides were in the cotton belt. Monsanto now controls 95% of the cotton seed supplies in the country through its GMO BT cotton, and the associated Intellectual property claims. Costs of cotton seed jumped 8000% with the introduction of BT cotton.
  • Monsanto has been conducting field trials in India with GM corn for commercial approval.  The biosafety assessments presented by Monsanto have been left incomplete. The most shocking is the fact that this assessment has been conducted by Monsanto laboratories itself.
  • After the US Monsanto Protection Act law was passed in March 2013, Monsanto is trying to impose a protection act in India, the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) bill.

    Coated seeds

What is the BRAI exactly? 

This Bill was introduced by the Ministry of Science and Technology in the Lok Sabha on 22 April 2013 as a promise to promote the safe use of modern biotechnology. This bill is a threat to our health,  the environment and agriculture. The introduction of GM seeds means that:

  • This bill promotes the use of GMO and GE in India without taking inconsideration of the health risk associated to this modern technology. Basically Monsanto thinks that more is better, doesn’t matter the quality.
  •  The bill reduces the role of the state government and gives them no power to ban or reject the introduction of GM seed on the market and citizen will not have access to information about the safety of GM food.
  • There is no socio-economic survey proving that GM will be a better solution to India agriculture. (introduction of the GM cotton is a good example of the negative effect of GM crops.

bee against monsanto

Working everyday with poor, tribal communities, I can’t imagine them buying all seeds every year, they have traditionally always kept seeds stored for the coming year. Few days ago, an Indian nationwide campaign has been launched against the BRAI Bill and GM crop to fight the invasion of Monsanto in Indian crops. You can join the fight and sign the petition.To be continued.

[Photo credit – abhisheksrivastava]

August 2013: The mighty Indian Monsoon and the Araku Valley

17 Aug

August saw us face a number of setbacks, in addition to the weather-related roadblocks we were faced with a bee predator – the Asian hornet. While we’d had minor incidents in the past, this month saw us lose 2 colonies were killed (or hopefully absconding) out of the 4 hives that faced attack. It is always heart-breaking to open a hive and find no sign of life 😦

Just a little info on Asian hornets. They are voracious predators that feed bees and bee larvae to their young. A single giant hornet can kill over 10,000 honeybees! They attack in groups of three to thirty, and once under attack, a beehive is destroyed within two to forty-eight hours. Apis cerana can defend itself by forming a fire ball which consist to create a bee ball around the hornet and kill it by increasing the temperature. Unfortunately they are not able to win every battle.hornet

On our way to Thurukulametta where we were working, a farmer from Bakuru who heard about the program stopped us and told us that he was interested in become a beekeeper. He reported seeing a swarm earlier that morning but he didn’t have a hive to capture it. We came back in a few hours with a hive and walked 15 minutes away from the village to find the small treasure. The swarm was tiny, no more than 5,000 bees. It seems like these little chaps had to leave their previous beehive in an emergency. There are two possible explanations for this off season swarming. Due to the heavy rain,  these colonies may have faced flooded hives or perhaps they were attacked by the hornets.DSC_1256 DSC_0010DSC_0012DSC_0014DSC_0049

The area we are working in has patches of shrubbery (consisting mainly of silver oak and coffee) not exactly a food paradise for our little friends. One of our main objectives is to transform this area where the bees will have food all round the year and for this we need to plant. Since all our farmers don’t have easy access to water, we are focusing  during during this monsoon on sowing seeds and planting bee-friendly plants. Since the beginning of the month, my assistant and myself have been running all over the places locating seeds and distributing them to our beekeepers. Moringa, hibiscus, wild flowers found in the area, roses, vegetables etc….

  DSC_1090 DSC_1089

One of our other objectives is to spread the good word about the threat honey bees are facing around the world. as well as create awareness about natural beekeeping and share our vision to create a bee sanctuary in the Araku region. I was invited to deliver a lecture in Auroville, Tamil Nadu recently. My audience for these 3 days was diverse. Apprentice farmers from different nationalities, high-school students from Chennai with an interest in agriculture and environmentalists from around the country.


All in all, a fantastic experience although I discovered a lack of knowledge wherever I went with only a handful of people being truly conscious about the worldwide decline of honeybees. It’s time to join the buzz and help us spread the word.

photo credit by [Thomas]