For a 51-year-old he looks quite healthy. He has a dark mop of wavy hair on his head and a moustache with not a single strand of grey. When I met him in an Udupi joint for chai, alongside a busy and noisy road in Goregaon East, I wondered whether he was the same person with whom I had spoken on the phone, few minutes back.
Johnson Jacob doesn’t look more than 40. And he credits his youthful looks and ‘no health problem’ to bee stings, of which he has been the victim for over 2,000 times. Rather than an occupational hazard, he considers it as a boon. Rightly or wrongly, he believes the reason he is free of any lifestyle affliction unlike an ordinary Mumbaikar is due to the bee venom in his body!
Meet Mumbai’s only bee keeper.
Yes, you read it right. Johnson has been bee keeping in the concrete jungle for over two decades now.
My mama brought me to Mumbai after I and couple of friends had burnt down a tree in our village while retrieving honey.
Since his childhood young Johnson had watched his father, Jacob, tending to the bee boxes of the villager households of Paramankuruchi village in Thoothukkudi district of Tamil Nadu and even assisted him on his errands. Most households in Paramankuruchi had looms on which they made cotton saris. The honey from the bee boxes, placed around the house, added to the family’s income.
My father used to tend to 300-odd colonies and was paid for their upkeep and maintenance by the village households. I learnt a lot from him.
While in Mumbai Johnson did odd jobs and later gained expertise in textile warping becoming a pro, and making a good livelihood. But as the textile mills started closing down in the mid 90s he had less and less jobs at hand. Which led him to look elsewhere.
I set up my first colony at a chawl in Goregaon Check Naka but soon moved to the comparatively green environs of Aarey Colony. Hardly a month had passed when officials of the Forest Deptt. confisticated my bee boxes Only when a friend intervened that the officials let me keep them.
Johnson acquired his maiden bee boxes from KVIC Pune.
We were bringing the boxes on a train when we found the bees were leaving one of them which led to panic among the passengers. In our hurry we found that we hadn’t covered the box well. With no option at hand I threw the box out of the moving train. Me and a friend moved to the toilet with the rest two boxes and locked ourselves in. We left the toilet only on reaching Mumbai.
Presently, Johnson has 14 odd boxes and six colonies which he visits daily from his home at Malad by an autorickshaw. He has supplied bee boxes along with colony to people in Panvel, Mira Road, Lonavala and Pune.
Few years back he had an unusual visitor, the Director of KVIC, visiting his bee colony at Ekta Nagar. KVIC is the country’s leading institution which is into popularising and funding of beekeeping through its Forest-based Produce Division. Sadly, Johnson hasn’t received any munificence from the KVIC but for an identity card mentioning that he is a bee keeper.
A store-house of information on bee-keeping, Johnson has lost lots of money, thanks to his ‘bee craze’. Like when he set up hundreds of boxes in a Latur farm in 2006 investing around a lakh or two. But he hasn’t given up and continues his pagalpan for bee keeping. A look at his bee box and you realise that much thought has gone into making it. Like the double receptacles on the foot which trap insects and predators.
A believer of apitherapy in which bee venom is used for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, nerve pain (neuralgia), multiple sclerosis (MS), swollen tendons (tendonitis), and muscle conditions such as fibromyositis and enthesitis, Johnson provides bees free of cost to a physician friend who also practices apitherapy.
Since last couple of years Johnson has been marketing honey which he sources from Gujarat and West Bengal. His wife, Jaya, adds to the family kitty by tutoring 10th standard students.
Ask him which variety of bees he favours, Johnson is unstoppable as he sings the virtues of Cerana Indica.
They are best suited to Indian climatic conditions, are relatively non-aggressive and rarely exhibit swarming behaviour. In fact, they are ideal for beekeeping unlike Apis mellifera . They usually build multiple combed nest in tree hollows and man-made structures. They are hardly unlike the European bees which are susceptible to diseases. They can adapt to living in purpose-made hives and cavities.
A wannabe bee keeper and hoping to get my maiden colony soon, I ask Johnson which kind of crops the Cerana Indica has weakness for.
Sweet Corn, Sunflower, Sesame, Mustard, Tur, Tamarind, Coconut, Drumstick, Litchi and Rubber. Also the colony should be set up in a place where the water source is within 1 ½ kms.
If you’re interested in listening to bee stories Johnson has many to tell you. Like the father and son duo from West Bengal who brought down 200-odd colonies from a 15 storied building in Kandivali last may.
He is known as Basu, aged around 60, and his son both without any protective mask and hanging from a harness tied around their waist gathered 20 tonnes of honey in a period of five days.
Johnson can be reached on 09619799261