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.

Finding Ukshi

As you engage into new things you become privy to newer experiences, exposed as you’re to a world unknown to you till very recently. That world holds new promises, newer perspectives. Your engagement with this ‘new’ world opens you to virginal excitements. Of having come to know things though commonplace  but now novel and holding some promise.

ukshiI realized this fact ever since I became a bee-keeper. Looking for the source of pollen and nectar I started studying the neighbourhood flora, and during one such field trip I came across Ukshi. That’s what Mangal identified the plant as such.

Ukshi (calotropis floribunda) is a large climbing shrub found extensively in the low-lying tropical evergreen forests of the Western Ghats. Its young branchlets are dense with yellow short soft hair. The leaves are arranged opposite, egg-shaped to narrowly elliptical, entire and dense with yellow short soft hair, particularly below.

Ukshi flowers are bisexual and yellowish-green in colour. They bloom between February and March. As the flowers store nectar they are favourite among bees. Come daylight swarms of bees descend on Ukshi flowers.

I am told that Ukshi is revered as a life-saver by the forest dwellers who regularly depend on it during summer when streams dry up. Sections of the vine store water, which people often use to quench their thirst.


Bee My Guest

Life does spring surprises from places you least expect it from. This ‘surprise’ happened in early January and I remembered it today while I was going through the image on the album of my phone camera. That Sunday morning I was overjoyed on seeing a swarm of wild bees hanging from the branch of my cashew nut tree.
honeyIs it really happening, I asked myself?
“Was it there when I came last?”
“No it wasn’t.” said a confident Mangal and asked with caution: “Sure it won’t bite,”
“Only if you disturb it,” I replied.
Standing below the tree it I could hear them buzzing, as if hundreds of machines were whirring, far away.
These were giant bees (apis dorsata) or Indian rock bees. Apis dorsata are slowly disappearing, thanks to human interference. They are the only wild variety among the four species of bees found in the country. Apis cerana, Apis lorea and Melipona irridipennis (dammer bee) are the other three. Unlike other honeybees, Indian rock bees never settle down in an area polluted by air or sound. They help in pollinating flowers on tall trees, like coconut. When their natural habitat is disturbed, they move to tall trees or vacant buildings in human habitations.
Rock bees create colonies below rock cliffs and trunks of huge trees (like they had in my farm), usually inaccessible to people. They are a dependable source of honey, which is in good demand.
As I left for home at around noon I prayed that they remained. However, next day Mangal called me saying the rock bees had left.

Mumbai’s Lone Bee Keeper

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.

IMG_20151120_120921192Johnson 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.

IMG-20151123-WA0004Since 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.

IMG_20151120_120334601A believer of apitherapy in which bee venom is used for the treatment of  rheumatoid arthritisnerve 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

Robbing Bees

I’ve an evil plan, to become a ‘robber’. Yes, this is a candid confession and I’m serious.

Ever since I read the book Robbing the Bees I‘ve been fascinated by the world of honey bees and even dreamed of becoming a bee keeper one day. Owning thousands (even lakhs) of bees and make them work for me. Growing my own honey and not shop for  it like I do now. Have the pure thing, dude. Joking.

More importantly it’s for securing better yields from my fruit trees. Its said that an apiary can increase yields double fold. For the bees are a great help in pollination.

I’ve been on Planet Earth for quiet a long time now without having come across a Queen Bee. Today was the first day I watched a honeycomb at Mahim’s Nature Park.  Having visited the Park at the invitation of UTMT (Under the Mango Tree), an organization engaged in popularization of bee keeping among small-holding farmers in Maharashtra and Gujarat, I came across bee colonies in wooden boxes, placed on tree trunks with nets and egg shells placed in the base to allay predators like lizards.

India has two honey bee varieties, namely Apis mellifera and Apis cerena Indica.  Apis mellifera is responsible for making Punjab the leading producer of honey. Apis cerena Indica is the most popular and widely domesticated variety. Each colony has about 35,000 bees on an average. Working in Maharashtra and Gujarat, UTMT promotes Apis cerena Indica variety.

Why Apis Cerana Indica?

An indigenous variety unlike Mellifera, these bees can be adapted to living in cavities in buildings and in purpose-made hives. They can potentially colonize temperate or mountain areas with prolonged winters or cold temperatures. As they form small colonies their honey yield is less. Apart from reproductive swarming A. cerana abandon the current nest and move towards new location where there is abundant nectar and pollen supply available and again build new nest. This means that they are more vulnerable to starvation if there is a prolonged shortage of nectar and pollen. Absconding will start when there is not enough pollen and nectar. After the last brood emergence, the adult bees fill their honey stomachs from the storage, and swarm off eventually to establish a new nest at a new location.

A cerana has more absconding behaviour than A. mellifera.  A. cerana are more inclined to retreat inside than to attack an intruder passing near their nest. But any attempt to open the nest, especially if it is done roughly, will cause bees to fly out and sting the intruder.

It was just the first lesson on becoming a ‘robber’. As I learn more will keep you posted.