Termites: Planet’s Most Underrated Insects

“You care for walvis (Marathi for termites),” he said and jumped out of his seat to shake my hands.

It happened after I had informed a group which had assembled in Saguna Baug, Neral stating that I live in harmony with the termites and has never tried to exterminate them, as the case is with most farmers or farm owners.

The one who shook my hands was none other than Krishibhushan Chandrasekhar Bhadavsale, the man who has innovated the sustainable and climate-resilient Saguna Rice Technique. Complimenting he remarked: “It’s rare to come across one who loves termites and you’re among the few.” 

They are the unloved freaks of the social insect world—the termites. While bees are praised for their pollination skills and ants lauded for their industry, the termites munch their way through everything — our libraries, our homes, and our farms. But Lisa  Margonelli’s mesmerizing book, Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology makes clear, we have got termites all wrong.

For a start these “white ants” aren’t ants at all but cockroaches that evolution has shrunk blinded and turned surprisingly social. The termite bucks basic biological rules and thumbs its nose at science as much as it does homeowners. But this mystery makes termites fascinating to the author and a motley crew of multidisciplinary scientists who are all trying to crack the termite code and put it to good use. As we stand “on the border of our natural history and an unnatural future,” this masterly book is a timely, thought-provoking exploration of what it means to be human — as much as what it means to be termite — and a penetrating look at the moral challenges of our ongoing technological revolution.

This is what you see on the floor of my farm in October

Utter the word ‘termites’ and you’re likely to hear orchard growers curse them. In the Konkan belt of Maharashtra it is considered a menace and one needs to live with or without, as you prefer to. Every means available is used to exterminate them but all efforts fail miserably. For they return after a brief hiatus. We tend to forget that they have been around much before man descended.  In fact, they share a relationship which is as old as this planet.

Having been a weekend farmer for over a decade now let me share a secret with you: I know how soil is made. The process begins sometimes in early October when the soil is not moist enough as the rains are now a memory. The twigs, fallen branches, dead leaves, fruit waste and all have become the manna for the termites.

Watch carefully and you’re likely to see what termites do to the litter? It envelopes the leaf litter, twigs etc. with a film of soil and within months the same disintegrates to become a fine powder, like sawdust. And ultimately becomes soil.

In the initial years, I too felt that there is something wrong with my soil but I played the game of caution: watching the organic matter turn to soil, as days’ progress to become months and as seasons come and go.  I have been restraining myself from any kind of intervention which is likely to disturb the ecological cycle.

Once the rains come, the termites go into hibernation for the moisture is its arch enemy.  But I do take precaution so that termites do not attack my fruit-bearing trees by applying a paste of lime and copper sulfate, beginning with the base of the tree trunk and reaching a height of a metre or so. Also in order to fool the termites, I make it a point to spread leaf litter, broken branches, twigs all over the place to lure and keep them busy to do what they are good at.

To consider termites’ plunderers is unfair. They are the most important animals in a forest ecosystem, single-handedly decomposing 40% to 100% of the decaying wood and thereby enriching the soil. Subterranean termites, which are among the ones that bother us, humans, serve us well too. As they tunnel through the soil, building swarming tubes to forage for food, they increase the soil’s porosity, facilitating greater percolation of water. Termites are known to dig as deep as over 100 feet in search of water to maintain the humidity of their mounds.

Soils develop layers as organic matter accumulates and leaching takes place. This development of layers is the beginning of the soil profile.  This humus-rich topsoil where nutrient, organic matter, and biological activity are highest (i.e. most plant roots, earthworms, insects, and micro-organisms are active. Termites feed on a carbo-rich diet of wood, soil, grass, litter and even animal dung. Concrete is no barrier either, a small crack is all they need to start occupying space. The greatest secret to their success is their choice of food: they exploit an exclusive and abundant food source, a biomolecule called lignocellulose, which no other creature, not even other insects, can eat. Since lignocellulose does not degrade easily, termites can access it from living plants and dead wood or soil too.

Every time the termite feeds or builds, it modifies the habitat for the benefit of other organisms including humans. This might explain why termite mounds, mistakenly called ant hills, are worshipped – the clay from termite mounds was used to build Vedic fire altars and included in the Rajasuya yajna performed by kings.

In Underbug Lisa Margonelli investigates the environmental and economic impact termites inflict on human societies in this fascinating examination of one of nature’s most misunderstood insects. She introduces us to the enigmatic creatures that collectively outweigh human beings ten to one and consume $40 billion worth of valuable stuff annually―and yet, in Margonelli’s telling, seem weirdly familiar. Over the course of a decade-long obsession with the little bugs, Margonelli pokes around termite mounds and high-tech research facilities, closely watching biologists, roboticists, and geneticists. What begins as a natural history of the termite becomes a personal exploration of the unnatural future we’re building, with darker observations on power, technology, historical trauma, and the limits of human cognition.

Whether in Namibia or Cambridge, Arizona or Australia, Margonelli turns up astounding facts and raises provocative questions. Is a termite an individual or a unit of a superorganism? Can we harness the termite’s properties to change the world? If we build termite-like swarming robots, will they inevitably destroy us? Is it possible to think without having a mind? Underbug burrows into these questions and many others―unearthing disquieting answers about the world’s most underrated insect and what it means to be human.

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Betel leaves, the new resident

Many of my friends may frown if they come to know that I’ve planted half a dozen paan (betel leaf) cuttings in my farm. Because we associate paan with the dirty red stains which adorn the walls of offices, staircases, public urinals and roadsides. I was introduced to paan by Keya who any time of the day has a paan in her mouth. The wonder of wonders she has sparkling pair of teeth.

Having brought cuttings of Maghai paan years back from her native Cooch Behar she planted them in her bungalow garden in Thane. A creeper with heart-shaped leaves it dominates her patch of green and is a welcome look for visitors who pick a leaf or two while leaving.

I have planted the paan cuttings after having them for over a week now post-lunch and realized that it helps in digestion, fights bad breath and much more. My research yielded that betel leaves contain many curative and healing health benefits. They are full of vitamins like vitamin C, thiamine, niacin, riboflavin and carotene and are a great source of calcium. The reason this aromatic vine is considered a herb and can be grown easily, even in homes.

Based on shape, size, brittleness and taste of leaf blade, betel vine is classified into pungent and non-pungent varieties. Though India boasts of around 40-odd varieties we know of only three varieties of paan, namely Maghai, Calcutta and Benarisi. Of this, Maghai though small in size holds the Numero Uno position due to its taste.

Betel leaves (BL) are cultivated in the states of Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Odisha, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, West Bengal and Maharashtra.

 In the other states of Meghalaya, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal, where it is also consumed, the crop is grown in a very small area.

 The country has exported 13195.43 MT of BL to the world for the worth of Rs. 46.75 crores/ 6.74 USD Millions in 2018-19.

BL is a shade-loving, subtropical vine in the same plant family as black pepper and kava. It has glossy, heart-shaped leaves and needs to be grown on a stake or trellis. It prefers moist soil in a partially sunlit location

Chewing the mixture of areca nut and betel leaf is a tradition, custom or ritual which dates back thousands of years from India to the Pacific. Since ancient times BL has been used as an aromatic stimulant, anti-flatulent and an aphrodisiac. The ancient Chinese traveller Ibn Battuta described this practice as follows: “The betel is a tree which is cultivated in the same manner as the grape-vine; … The betel has no fruit and is grown only for the sake of its leaves … The manner of its use is that before eating it one takes areca nut; this is like a nutmeg but is broken up until it is reduced to small pellets, and one places these in his mouth and chews them. Then he takes the leaves of betel, puts a little chalk on them, and masticates them along with the betel.”

Chewing habits of people have changed over time. The BL is chewed together in a wrapped package along with areca nut and mineral slaked lime. Catechu (kattha) and other flavouring substances and spices were also added subsequently. For many decades, tobacco has also been added to the BL package. The practice of chewing BL has been decreasing progressively and now the quid comprising of tobacco, areca nut, and slaked lime (gutkha) is generally in practice. It’s the tobacco, areca nut and catechu which are considered harmful and should be avoided.

You may include chuna (calcium hydroxide), fennel, cinnamon, clove, cardamom, gulkand, grated coconut and other spices for extra flavouring. As it is chewed, the peppery taste is savoured, along with the warm feeling and alertness it gives (similar to drinking a fresh cup of coffee). Betel leaves are a powerhouse of antioxidants which clear radicals from the body. It restores normal PH levels in the body and helps an upset stomach.

Ever wondered why having a paan after a good meal is recommended?  Because it’s carminative, anti-flatulent and helps in protecting the gut. BL increases metabolism triggering circulation and stimulating the intestines to absorb vital vitamins and nutrients.

Hope my friends will believe now that I’ve done right.  I assure visitors to my farm that I shall gift them a handful fresh BL! 

The World of Curcuma

Five years back when I came to know about black turmeric (Curcuma Caseia) I tried acquiring them, considering it as exotic. Ultimately I was able to contact a trader in Bhubaneswar (Odisha) who traded in seeds and plant materials supplying them to institutions here and abroad. He sent me rhizomes of black turmeric but charged me a bomb: Rs 1200 for a kilo. The price was really steep as rhizomes of the regular turmeric variety were available for Rs 50 a kg. I knew I was paying for its exotic value like the way collectors pay for rare editions of Amar Chitra Katha comic. Rather than bear the cost individually, I shared some with my fellow farm owners who are equally crazy. Presently Black Turmeric is on the verge of extinction because of deforestation, unfavourable climatic changes, over exploitation and bio-piracy.

Black Turmeric In My Orchard

Over the years the volume of black turmeric with their bluish-black rhizomes in my orchard has increased several times. Sadly, I have not been able to get a buyer though initially I had been was told that Ayurvedic pharmacies could be my potential buyers. Come rains the rhizomes get a new life as leaves sprouts after being in hibernation for several months. One can identify black turmeric by the leaves as its middle is striped in black. 

Curcuma Caesia

Having been a host to three varieties of turmeric, namely Curcuma Longa, Curcuma Aamada, and  Curcuma Caesia  I have recently added Curcuma Zedoaria or white haldi in my orchard, thanks to a friend from Midnapore who sent me a handful of them. It’s native to India and Indonesia. In West Bengal, it’s known as Pala or Soty (also its Sanskrit name) and its powder which looks like maida is available for Rs 600 a kg. Those growing in villages of West Bengal in the 60s and 70s may have consumed it, given by their mothers or grandmothers, to soothe their troubled tummy or to bring down their fever.  Once harvested the rhizome is grated, soaked in water overnight, dried in the sun and pounded to make powder. In Maharashtra, it’s known as Pandhra Halad and its paste used to relieve fevers.  

Wild Turmeric Flowers. Courtesy flowersofindia.com

Curcuma Zedoaria is often confused with Curcuma Aamada or Mango Ginger used in making pickles in south India and chutneys in north India. A rare herb, white turmeric is considered to be healthy, much like yellow turmeric. It has anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties that keep you from any digestive or respiratory issues.

Though I have not planted them I have a couple of Curcuma Aromatica or Wild Turmeric plants growing in my orchard which sprout flowers in mid-July—pinkish-white with an orange lip. Leaves appear after the flower. I bring the flowers home and use the same as cut-flower for they have a good vase life, at times 10 days or more.

I have travelled with yellow turmeric powder grown in my orchard during assignments abroad and introducing it to the locals. I was in for a surprise when during my stay in a bed and breakfast facility owned by a pastor and his wife in Basel I was shown a bottle of turmeric powder with Kurkuma written on its label, that’s haldi in German. He unscrewed the glass bottle which merely contained 150g of it as if he was revealing something precious. No, he didn’t use it in his food as we Indians do. For him it was a precious medicinal herb, of which he took a tiny spoonful adding it to warm milk with pinch of black pepper every night before going to bed.

Awaiting Sal In Konkan

Asked what are the joys of owning an orchard? I would say there are many but what really matters is the community endeavour (yes, you read it right). That’s the involvement of friends and acquaintances who further your passion and even call you crazy.  It’s like the hobby of stamp collection. Your co-hobbyist gifting you what you’ve been looking for quite some time but couldn’t lay your hands on or you gifting your extra stamp to someone.

I’ve come to believe that people gift you a plant or seeds which they would like to have in their garden but as they don’t have one they magnanimously offer it to you. My friends have fetched me plants to be included in my space-starved orchard from different parts of the country and even abroad. Twelve long years and each monsoon accommodating a new green guest or guests have made my acre too crowded but I’m not complaining. There is always some space in the forest! Mine is almost like a food forest. Year round there is something to be had. In March-April the Love Apples, Mulberries and Honey; in May-June the Mangoes, Jackfruits and Turmeric; in July and August the leaves of Colocasia plants; in September corn; from October to May leafy vegetables/fruits like Moringa, Red Sorrel, Spinach, Coriander, Mint, Amaranth, Pumpkin, Bottle Gourd, Bitter Gourd and fruits namely Pineapple, Papaya, Banana etc. Then there are the year-round bounties offered by Chickoo, Coconut, Lemon, Stevia etc.

I have received saplings from many—like the Avocado brought by Jeffries from Chikmagalur; the Gandhoraj Lemon from Bongaon by Dr Ghosh; the Litchi from Muzzafarpur by Madhurvat; the Mango from Kannur by Girija; lemon from Rajkot by Ami; bamboo from Mangaon by Anand; Vetiver from Khar by Kamal  and several others.

Recently, it was Bidyut who lives close to Gurudev Tagore’s Santiniketan in Bolpur gifted me a plastic container full of brown Sal tree (Shorea Robusta) seeds. It’s called Ashvakarnika in Sanskrit. Santiniketan was originally an ashram built by Maharshi Debendranath Tagore in 1888.  The ashram residents planted avenues of Sal tree on this arid land which earlier was populated by only Chhatim trees (Alstonia scholaris). The daily walks under the tall Sal bon (forest)  Rabindranath, I believe, may have inspired him immensely to pen those beautiful poems devoted to nature.

In wetter areas, Sal is evergreen; in drier areas, it is dry-season deciduous, shedding most of the leaves in between February to April. It leafs again in April and May. Its flowers are whitish in colour which appear in early summer. In the Buddhist tradition, it is said that Gautama Buddha was born under the branches of a Sal while his mother was en route to birth him in his grandfather’s kingdom. It’s one of the most important sources of hardwood timber in India, with hard, coarse-grained wood that is light in colour when freshly cut and becomes dark brown with exposure. The leaves are used commercially for making plates and containers

Sal tree features in one of the Jataka tales as Bhadda-Sāla Jātaka . It’s a story of a king who wanted to build a palace supported by a single pillar of a Sal tree and his dialogue with a Good Sal Tree.

Jharkhand has forests made up entirely of Sal trees. The Oraon adivasis call it as Sakua.  Oraon adivasi Jacinta Kerketta’s poem Laal Nadiyan traces how the forest’s Sal trees, rivers and earth have turned a toxic, infertile red with mine dust, even as the youth are enticed by crumbs of CSR Programmes setting up football leagues and youth clubs (Saazishon Ki Six Lane).

Emerging from the forests of Saranda

Gathering are people in a certain village.
Women with infants in slings on their backs the aged scaling the valley leaning on their staffs

The young leaping over the hills

and children counting the sakua trees as they walk.
They gather not for a protest march

but a football tournament to watch

Where a goat is to be the winner’s trophy.

Coming back to Bidyut, a painter, sculptor and the country’s leading mud-house architect who offering me the Sal tree seeds stating: “See if you can grow them. It will make a pretty sight as it is in Santiniketan.”  

Before planting a sapling or seeds I generally do some research about the same and reach out to experts too. “Sal is not native to Maharashtra. But if you have any specific purposes then try planting it. I haven’t come across any successful attempt of the same. We tried making its saplings but very low success rate,” wrote Manasi of Oikos Ecological Services following my query. Oikos have made a comprehensive list of plants which can be grown in the different regions of Maharashtra and the same is much shared among farmer Whats App groups.  

I will try planting them: three-four of them together hoping some would germinate and become a tree one day.

TNAU Agritech Portal gives me hope that Sal is likely to grow around my orchard for it requires average annual precipitation between 1000 – 3500mm. I’m keeping my fingers crossed and will keep you updated, if it does.

Keya’s Karamcha


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My friend, Keya recently introduced me as her ‘Mitti ka dost’ (meaning friend of the soil) to someone who knew about our common interest: keeping and maintaining a garden.

Keya is crazy about plants and vegetables. She can go to extreme length to acquire one. And have them planted in her garden attached to her bungalow in Thane’s Manpada. She enjoys sharing her adventures (or misadventures) which one may call as obsession. Years back, she recalls, entering a ditch which had lotus flowers in plenty. While her husband held her one arm with the other she tried plucking them. In the process, she slipped, fell and had to be pulled out. But she emerged with a couple of lotuses. Her clothes were entirely soiled. So much so that the autorickshaw wallah refused her a ride.

The other incident was more prosaic.

While commuting in the local she happened to see some leafy vegetables growing alongside the tracks. It was a discovery for her as the leafy vegetables reminded her of her hometown in Cooch Behar. That day he left the office an hour early, got down at the station and walked to the designated spot and picked up the leafy vegetables. Well, her husband wasn’t amused by her adventure.

Last September returning from her maternal home she sent a pic of her seated in the train surrounded by all sorts of plants. Among them was the less known aromatic plantain, called malbhog which she gifted me. The malbhog duo has grown tall but still not yielded its scented banana. Yes, a couple of suckers has sprouted around them.

Today she gifted me Karamcha (Karanda) fruits. Having brought a sapling from her home town she had planted it in 2002. It has taken 17 long years for the pretty looking fruits to yield. She told me that she had thought of chopping and uprooting it as it refused to fruit. 17 years can be a pretty long a period to wait for a tree to fruit. Even the Guinness Book would be surprised!  Maybe the plant sensed that it would be killed. And that prompted it to fruit. Yes, plants do have feelings.

 Though the name Karamcha sounds familiar I had never seen this before for it​​ rarely makes it an appearance in the market.

It may be passed off as cherry in the market but the Karamcha is a delicious fruit in its own right. A medicinal plant, its fruits are a rich source of iron and contain a fair amount of Vitamin C and so effective in curing anaemia. It is a hardy and bushy plant that grows well without much care and because of its thorny nature it is often grown as a hedge and it serves as a fencing plant too. Scientifically known as Carissa carandas, there are no well-established varieties of Karamcha but some cultivated types are selected on the basis of fruit colour, such as green fruited, whitish fruit with pink blush and dark purple fruit. Some varieties like Pant Suvana, Pant Manohar, Narendra Selection etc. are considered promising for the future. Natal Palm, an African species bearing large dark red fruits, is also grown in some parts of India. A new variety “The Kamal” has been developed by the Central Institute of Arid Horticulture, which is better than other varieties in quality fruit production. The fruit is red in colour.

Generally, Karamchas are grown from seed and vegetative propagation techniques such as cutting, grafting and layering are not commonly practised. But air-layering is possible and should be done with 6-8mm thick branches between July and August with a hormone powder for root growth. This would give the highest success and take the least number of days to initiate primary roots.

A hardy plant, it requires little care once it has settled into the soil and attained proper growth.  Its ripe fruits make a spectacular display amidst green foliage. The fruits are mainly used for making marmalade and jellies. Bengalis use it in their dals (lentils).

Those Tiny Red Seeds

Monsoon brings surprises. Wifey following her morning walk brought a fallen branch with red coloured seeds attached to the pods. I didn’t know what seed were they though I had seen them earlier. Having clicked a picture I sent it to ‘seed man’ Gautam Deshmukh. A man who is in his early sixties but has an enthusiasm of one who in forties with a flowing, gray beard I had met months back at a display and sale of indigenous seeds at Wada. Dressed in a half-sleeved khadi short he was handing over seeds to the adivasi women—lentils, vegetables, bamboo—taking them out from plastic pouches stored in a huge backpack lying nearby. I too stretched my arm and he dropped some on my palm: “Hope you will grow them.” They were bamboo seeds.

It’s Rakta Chandan or Red Sanders (Pterocarpus santalinus), he replied to my WhatsApp message. Are you sure, I asked while googling it. He was right. Not to be confused with Santalum album or Chandan or sandalwood.

It’s the same Red Sanders which is into news: for its wood, red in colour, is a big business. Red Sanders is in good demand in Japan and India exports it in large volumes. It’s used to musical instruments. Smuggling took off after the overexploited tree was put on the endangered list in 2000, and the Central Government banned its felling, movement, sale and exports. It is smuggled out in ship containers or as air cargo, often masquerading as foodstuff, allegedly with the collusion of customs officials. Till recently it was in the threatened list but was removed from it. Many a forest guards in Seshachalam forests of Andhra Pradesh have lost their lives killed by smugglers of Red Sanders.

The huge branch of Red Sanders which had fallen was very close by and I rushed out to fetch more seeds before the municipal guys could clean up the street. Red Sanders, I am told grows very fast and this monsoon I have plans to put them in nursery bags. May be, one day I could make some money from it.   

According to Md. Ilyas Rizvi, principal chief conservator of forest, Andhra Pradesh Red Sanders can be grown on waste land and an acre can house 100 plants. After 25 years it can fetch between Rs 50 crore to 100 crore. Isn’t that a good investment?

And about Gautam Deshmukh; he is a very interesting person and you can find him in any seed mela held in the country. One day I shall bring his story and write about his varied seed collection.

Sholapur’s Date-friendly Farmer


They initially laughed at me. Then ignored me. My farmer- neighbours called me, weda (mad). In fact, it was a crazy thing I was doing. Which none earlier had attempted. But now as people from all over flock my farm,​​ the villagers feel proud.”

That’s Rajendra Prasad Deshmukh (57) or Rajabhau of Barshi village in Sholapur district of Maharashtra.  In 2009, he acquired seeds of desi variety from a Kutch-based farmer and planted them on three acres.

Rajabhau (left) with a guest in his farm

“At Sholapur we often witness drought condition. We are never sure it would rain. I have grapes, passion fruit, custard apple, Moringa and sweet tamarind. If one fails I can rely on the other. You’ve to make the best use of the conditions you live in… to make a living.

The average rainfall in Solapur District varies year to year and tahsil to tahsil directly affecting agriculture and horticulture activity. The climate here is dry and the daily mean maximum temperature ranges between 30º C to 35º C while the minimum temperature ranges between 18ºC to 21ºC. In May, the highest temperature can peak is 47º C. As it falls in the rain shadow area, the average annual rainfall of the district is about 510 mm. In 2003 it witnessed the lowest annual rainfall at 265.7mm while in 1998 it was an astounding 1131.2 mm! Barshi from where Rajabhau hails witnessed the highest rainfall taluka in Solapur.

Seven years after I had planted the seeds I got my first harvest in 2016. I made around one lakh rupees. Next year it was bad. In 2018 I made around three lakhs and this year I hope to make around four lakhs.

Fruits bagged with plastic bags

Ever since the harvest in June first week dates from his farm are being sold on the roadsides of Barshi and also reaches the market at Pune, 224kms from here. WhatsApp farm groups have been flooded with images of Rajabhau’s dates, the farm, the dates being sorted etc.  The dates are in three colours, namely yellow, red and golden—all from the same variety.

I tried buying tissue culture saplings but they are very costly. Between Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000 per sapling. I can’t afford that kind of extravagance. Moreso, when I wasn’t sure it would actually grow on my farm and one day yields fruits. For me, it was a game of dice. I acquired the seeds from Kutch which hardly cost me much and planted them in nursery bags. As they grew and gained height I transplanted them on three acres. Dates are not self-pollinated.

Dates hanging from the palm

The sex life of date palm is unique with their male tree or a female tree. While the male trees produce pollen the female produce flowers.  As neither the birds nor bees are attracted to the flowers, the females have to be hand pollinated. As soon as a sheath on a male tree begins to open, it is tied with string to hold it together, and removed and hung upside down to dry. Once the pollen is dry to a very fine powder, it is stored in large air-tight containers. The female sheaths are removed and every stand is separated and pollinated at least thrice.

I’m an eighth standard drop out and singlehandedly take care of the 30acres mixed-crop farm in a drought-prone area. It makes me happy that farmer from arid zones of Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh daily visit my farm…so far some 12,000 farmers may have come. Harvest is done in June and July and it rains you’re likely to lose your harvest. So we have covered the fruits with plastic bags. I may have stopped discontinued my studies  but I’m still willing to learn and have visited countries like Vietnam, Australia and Israel to know the latest about farming techniques, new crops etc.

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Bamboo Nursery, Home to 24 Varieties

Dendrocalamus giganteus, also known as dragon bamboo, is a giant tropical and subtropical, dense-clumping species native to Southeast Asia. It is one of the largest bamboo species in the world and typically grows to a height of 33 metres.

Anand in his nursery

Bamboo, which comes from the Kannada word Bambu, and considered as the wise man’s timber, is the planet’s most massive grass typically reaching full height and width within the first 12 months of its life.

On a November evening, we met Anand Patki, the owner of the nursery in Dongroli village, a journey of 152 km from Mumbai. The 14-acre nursery sits on a hillock and is home to 24 varieties of ‘green gold’, as many call it. Surrounded by a deciduous forest, the weather in Dongroli, 10 kms from the State Highway 97, is suitable for bamboo cultivation as rainwater does not stagnate despite its neighbourhood logging nearly 2000 mm of rainfall every year.

The hill on the nursery’s south and west side arrests heavy rain showers and wind acting as a protecting wall to the mother plants. “Google maps helped me to decide and choose the nursery site,” says Patki, a landscape artist, who found that most nurseries were either unaware of the species they had or lacked knowledge of fundamental issues related to bamboo cultivation.

Anand with a giant bamboo specimen

Asked why he set up a nursery instead of a plantation, Patki responds by saying that he was deeply inspired by veteran bamboo promoter Ajit Thakur (who also happens to be his father-in-law) and he wanted to make quality planting material available.

Though the nursery is home to 24 varieties, Patki has selected seven commercially essential bamboo species which yield good returns. The selection of bamboo species is crucial before planning a plantation as bamboo flowers once in its life cycle, and depending upon the species, it can be 40 or 60 years. Once bamboo flowers the mother plant dies, making it necessary that the right one is selected for cultivation.

Setting up a nursery in such a remote location was no easy task. “It took me almost a year just to demarcate the plot for it was not farmed for a couple of decades. Then I had to set up the polyhouses, shade net and build a pond to store rainwater. It had to be fenced too because cattle belonging to the locals had a field day feeding on the saplings and then were incidences of the locals stealing away my farm equipment,” Patki informs us.

A bamboo plant can survive harsh climatic conditions, but if provided with enough water and organic fertigation it is likely to give a good yield.

“It takes around three years to have mature shoots to pop out and ready to be harvested. After six years one can start harvesting timber bamboo each year,” says Patki.

According to the India State of Forest Report 2011, the total bamboo bearing area in the country is 13.96 million hectares. On a conservative estimate, it constitutes about 12.8% of the total area under forests is under bamboo in India. The annual production of bamboo in India is about 4.6 million tonnes, of which about 1.9 million tonnes is used by the pulp industries. The annual yield of bamboo per hectare in India varies between 0.2 and 0.4 tonnes with an average of 0.33 tonnes per hectare, depending upon the intensity of stocking and biotic interferences.

Arunachal Pradesh leads with  16,083 sq kms  under bamboo bearing area followed by Madhya Pradesh (13,059 sq km) Maharashtra (11,465 sq km) and Chattisgarh (11,368 sq. km). Under the National Agro-forestry & Bamboo Mission  (NABM), the Central government has established 108 markets closer to villages providing marketing avenues to bamboo growers as well as finished products.

Additionally, efforts are being made to popularise bamboo products through participation in trade fairs. Assistance is also provided to farmers/bamboo growers for nursery establishment, plantations in the non-forest area, imparting training for preparation of nurseries and bamboo plantations, establishing of bamboo markets for farmer products, etc. A total of Rs 1689.36 lakh was released for the entire country under the NABM during 2016-2017, of which Rs 993.48 lakh was allocated to the eight states in Northeast India.

The commercial varieties available at the Dongroli nursery are Dendrocalamus brandisii, Dendrocalamus giganteus, Dendrocalamus longispathus, Bambusa tuldaand Thyrsostachys oliveri.

Elaborating the economics behind commercial bamboo cultivation Patki says, for instance, 350 clumps of Dendrocalamus brandisii planted on an acre is likely to produce six new shoots each year, meaning one ends up with 2100 bamboos. With each bamboo weighing around 120 kg, it is 2,52,000 kg of timber. “The flowering cycle of this species is 66 years that means timber can be harvested for 60 long years,” says Patki.

Patki is proud of the Bambusa cacharensis variety which he acquired from the Northeast. “I acquired this important bamboo species after consistent trials for three long years. I managed to bring some 100 rhizome offsets, of which only 13 have survived.”

His efforts are laudable as bamboo holds a lot of promise for the country’s agriculture sector both by providing livelihood to farmers and artisans who make baskets and other products. Sunil Joshi, the Chairman of Bamboo Society of India, Maharashtra chapter, says, “We require many more people like Anand Patki to make the bamboo movement a people’s movement.”

Check the original piece here https://www.thebetterindia.com/126110/bamboo-maharashtra-anand-patki-green-gold-innovation-cultivation-rural-india/

You can contact Patki at 98223555425 or email anand.patki@hotmail.com

Mumbai’s Chembur Has A Beekeeper!

Over 10kgs of honey from two bee boxes,” says Chembur resident Livlan R Chavan, “Yes, that’s what I’ve harvested.” 

You wonder if you heard it right as he takes you to the terrace of his row-house close to the R K Studious. 

It’s rare to come across a beekeeper in the metropolis of Mumbai. And that’s what makes Chavan a rare person. More so if he has been able to acquire 10kgs of honey in a season with his bee boxes located among the high rises. 

An amateur beekeeper, Chavan, a trader and a hotelier by profession acquired the bee boxes with a colony from Johnson Jacob, Mumbai’s Sole Beekeeper in November last. “Once in a while Johnson sir visits us and inspects the boxes and guides us,” says the 55-year-old Chavan.

Chavan took to beekeeping having heard that bee stings could help his arthritic knees. Strange you might say but apitherapy (bee sting therapy) has indeed brought relief to scores of people though there is hardly any evidence of its efficacy in the published medical literature. “Doctors advised me that sooner or later I would have to undergo knee replacement. But a session with an apitherapist in Pune which cost me Rs 250 brought me immense relief,” says Chavan.

That’s when Chavan decided to become a beekeeper. Strangely, not for the honey but for its venom!

Living in Ghatla, behind Amar Cinema, Chavan’s row house  has in its surrounding trees like Acacia, Gulmohar, Jam, Guava, Neem, Ashoka, Indian Coral Trees, Moringa, Chickoo, Frangipani, Bougainvillaea and  others—either growing in the premises of the housing societies or standing as avenue trees. For the bees, these are the varieties which provide them with nectar and pollen.

“Initially I bought a box with a colony from someone Talegaon and kept it on my farm in Shivkar village in Panvel but soon the bees abandoned it,” recalls Chavan.

On a friend’s suggestion he met Johnson who besides selling him two boxes in October last assured all assistance with its upkeep and maintenance. Ever since then Chavan has been harvesting honey almost every fortnight.  His enterprise shows that beekeeping can be a reality with good returns in an urban setting with high rises looming all around. “The bees have been so productive that it seems the surroundings are best suited for bee keeping,” he says.

Having tasted success Chavan plans to reach out to the neighbouring housing societies and convince them to take up beekeeping.  “Johnson sir has promised all help,” he concludes.