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.

Honey, here’s the money

Six years. Six summers, winters and monsoons have passed since I acquired a plot of land ultimately fulfilling my youthood dream of becoming a weekend farmer. Ever since then it has been only expenses–from salaries to my farm hand to seeds, from buying plants to acquiring materials for making my fertiliser and pesticide. As wifey often says of my farm: It’s a white elephant! Its a black hole.
bamboo groveAs I’ve enjoyed the experience of seeing the trees grow and yielding fruits I don’t have any regrets. Because I love farming.
My passion is wonderfully echoed in Wendell Berry’s Bringing it to the Table: Writings on Farming and Food: “Why do farmers farm, given their economic adversities on top of the many frustrations and difficulties normal to farming? And always the answer is: “Love. They must do it for love.” Farmers farm for the love of farming. They love to watch and nurture the growth of plants. They love to live in the presence of animals. They love to work outdoors. They love the weather, maybe even when it is making them miserable.”
Moreover, me, my family and friends have benefited immensely from the organically grown, pesticide free fruits and vegetables grown in my farm. That’s some have called farming as “profession of hope”.
But all along I’ve wanted that I make some money from my produce. A validation that my farm produce can fetch some money. That happened today, when I sold my first kilo of turmeric powder.
As I handed the currency notes gained from the sale, wifey said: “I will treasure these all my life and preserve it as family heirloom.”

Quiet Alone

scenes 029 - 1The sky like a well-worn shirt on a summer day, hung to dry. The birds safe in their nests unwilling to explore the heavens beyond. Who wants to make love to a muddy sky?
The earth dressed in a skirt of leaves is what you want as a keepsake. The sound of the gurgling river is what catches your attention. And as you close your eyes and concentrate, the world just melts away as a chocolate bar on a sunny day. Who needs the FM, the soaps on the idiot box (not even the Discovery channel), the newspapers ….. let me BE.
Let me enjoy my surroundings; rooted to where I stand.
With the rains Barvi has outgrown its quietness. The river behaving as they do: rushing past unhindered by the boulders lying on its bed, making its presence felt by the noise as it sprints.
I sit on its shore dwelling on the words—quiet alone.
Didn’t the poet say: The quieter you become, the more you can hear.

Why farming is rejuvenating?

Every time I visit my farm I feel rejuvenated: charged up for the coming week. Working with soil, collecting leaf litter, watering the plants, pruning the plants, plucking the fruits, checking the moisture content of the vermicompost pit, mulching the plant’s roots…. there is so much to do. The tasks are endless, it seems visiting the farm after a whole week.
Having worked for nearly four hours in the sun I take a breather under the bamboo walled-asbestos roofed hut. Ever since I dry grass and coconut leaves on the roof, it’s quite cool here. Moment after I have taken the chair I generally doze off in the company of the occasional twitter of the birds and swoosh swoosh of the swaying of the golden-yellow bamboo palms.
By the time I wake the sun is on the head. I resume my activity for another hour. Mangal, by now has collected the weekly produce, stuffed them in the bags and we rush for the bus which we see approaching from the other end.
I’ve always wondered why one gets a kick out, feel rejuvenated after having worked with the soil or indulged in gardening activities.
It’s due to Mycobacterium vaccae.
Studies show that simply inhaling M. vaccae—you get a dose just by taking a walk in the wild or rooting around in the garden—could help elicit a jolly state of mind.
According to Wikipedia M.vaccae is a nonpathogenic species of the Mycobacteriaceae family of bacteria that lives naturally in soil. Its name originates from the Latin word, vacca (cow), since it was first cultured from cow dung in Austria. Research areas being pursued with regard to killed M.vaccae vaccine include immunotherapy for allergic asthma, cancer, depression, leprosy, psoriasis, dermatitis, eczema and tuberculosis.
There are scientists who believe that exposure to M.vaccae may work as an antidepressant because it stimulates the generation of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain. More specifically, it induces the neurogenesis of neurons that produce those two compounds.
Previous research studies on M. vaccae showed that heat-killed bacteria injected into mice stimulated growth of some neurons in the brain that resulted in increased levels of serotonin and decreased anxiety. Now a team of neuroscientists and immunologists may have figured out why this works. The bacteria, when injected into mice, activate a set of serotonin-releasing neurons in the brain—the same nerves targeted by Prozac.
Graham Rook, an immunologist at University College London and a co-author of the paper, adds that depression itself may be in part an inflammatory disorder. By triggering the production of immune cells that curb the inflammatory reaction typical of allergies, M. vaccae may ease that inflammation and hence depression. Therapy with M. vaccae—or with drugs based on the bacterium’s molecular components—might someday be used to treat depression.
So, now you know where to head for if you want to encounter and be infected by the ‘happy’ bacteria. Everyone’s invited.
Is Dirt the New Prozac? Injections of soil bacteria produce serotonin—and happiness—in mice. Discover, July 2007 and others

Why Milkweeds?

Most of my schooling was done in Air Force schools (which later became Kendriya Vidyalayas) and so we were used to vast open spaces. We played cricket and gulli-danda in fields which were twice the size of Mumbai’s Brabourne Stadium. We never faced the ire of neighbours complaining of broken glass windows. The houses stood at the  dge of the fields and very far from where we indulged ourselves in games like ped-ka-bandar , kho-kho etc. We trudged to our school through open fields, thick with vegetation. During summers we often came across remains of snake skins which we rarely touched. Rains were the times, when we often slipped and soiled our uniforms. This was in the seventies.

I don’t know whether the present-day Cantonments have so much open spaces, as was the case in our times. We familiarized ourselves with the names of fruit trees and flowering plants during our walks. Each would come up with the name in his/her mother tongue. Some of which were really tongue twisters, and had a good laugh at their expense. At times we would try to unravel the mysteries behind those names. Some plants, we were told were friendly and some to stay away from. One such plant was Akk  (Caliotropis) which we knew as milkweed. Once you struck the branch or the leaves a milky white emerged from it.

milkweedThe milky white liquid is harmful for the eyes, my father had instructed me.

Being kids  we were curious and didn’t strike the plant with our hands but used a stick to strike a blow and enjoyed seeing the milky white liquid flowing to the ground.

A friend who visited my farm who saw an Akk plant and cautioned me from growing it around. It’s a weed and not considered auspicious, he said and plucked couple of them along with their roots.

According to It has long been used in India for abortive and suicidal purposes. The dried root freed from its outer cork layer is called Mudar and is very largely used as a treatment for elephantiasis and leprosy, and is efficacious in cases of chronic eczema, also for diarrhoea and dysentery.

It’s unlikely you’ll come across an Akk plant in your neighbourhood. At least not in city gardens or parks.  But during my recent road trip to Nimbal from Dharwad I came across Akks as tall as 10ft. growing in the courtyard of several houses.

Ever since I came to know that leaves of Akk are one of the main ingredients of an organic pesticide I have let them grow, hoping to use them some day.

monarch butterfly photoCan someone tell me: why people grow Akk in their courtyards knowing well that it’s poisonous? a lethal sap flows through the canal system of milkweed plants. But for the Monarch variety of butterfly all the others shun it.  Monarch ans its relatives  have adapted by taking these chemicals and using it become distasteful to predators.

I’m told Akk is favourite of Lord Shiva and have seen its leaves made into a garland offered to the lingam during Mahashivratri. That couldn’t be the reason of having an Akk in the courtyard! What do you say?