I still remember the first time I went with my father to harvest honey from the nearby forest. It was summer, late in the evening and my father carried a knife, a matchbox, a torch and a batti made from coconut husk to put smoke around the beehive. There are three varieties of honeybees in my area, Hejjenu (Large Bee) is the biggest and produces 30kg to 60kg of honey per hive. They build hives on the branches of large tree, nearly 30 to 40 meters above the ground. Tuduvi is the second variety and it mainly occupies the space inside abandoned anthills and produces the tastiest honey. Misri is the smallest of all three and it nests inside small holes of mud walls or trees.
That day we went to harvest Tuduvi. When we reached the anthill it was still light. The sun was preparing to submerge itself in the Arabian Sea and the honeybees were still active, some entering the small hole of anthill and some moving out. As honey bees are diurnal they can’t see in the dark and we waited for the sun to sink into the water. Before clearing the mouth of the anthill, my father asked me to cover myself with a Kambli (coarse rug) to protect me from the sting of the ferocious bees.
We lit the batti which emits a huge amount of smoke when burning. He carefully inserted the smoking end of the batti inside the mouth of anthill and asked me to listen for the sound of honeybees escaping from another anthill mount two or three meters away from us. After ten or fifteen minutes we shone the torch into the anthill. By that time most of the honeybees had escaped and some making a sound in and around the anthill.
My father put his hands inside the anthill and quickly removed three or four pieces of honeycomb. Some of the honeybees that were on the comb stung his hand. He told me when stinging, they leave behind sungu (a needle-like stinger which produces a burning sensation in the skin). After releasing the sungu they won’t live long. Sungu can be very poisonous. If a large number of honeybees should sting us, we could die within half a day.
One of the pieces of honeycomb was filled with white bee larvae and my father decided to put that back into the anthill. I asked him why, as I thought the honeybees were not coming back to anthill and those larvae were going to die anyway. He nodded his head and told me that the honey bees wouldn’t go anywhere. In the morning they would go back to the anthill. He also left a portion of the honey in the anthill which would be enough for them to survive the season.
When I went home last year, I found a number of bee boxes installed in our Pepper and Areca nut plantation and some were occupied by honeybees. I asked my father about this. He told me that after the forest department started giving the contract to private contractors to harvest honey from forest, they restricted local people from harvesting honey there.
Also the beehive numbers started decreasing. 15 to 20 years ago my father would have seen 30 to 40 beehives on some large trees and nowadays he rarely sees more than one or two beehives in the forest. The villagers started installing the boxes in the plantations to get honey. One of my friends who is farming there told me that private contractors extract the whole honeycomb not even leaving the larvae and small portion of honey for bees. This could lead to the starvation and death of the honeybee population.
According to another friend, newly introduced cotton farming in this region is another cause for the reduction in honeybee populations. The farmers spray pesticides on the cotton flowers and these pesticides kill honeybees when they visit the flowers to collect nectar.
It is a tiny village amidst the Western Ghats mountain range of south India with four or five houses including our house, a few hectares of land for each house, vast tracts of forest and a river which flows like snake.
Earlier my father used to grow rice in a paddy field, sugarcane once in a year during the rainy season and vegetables during the dry season. After the crash of the rice price, my father shifted to cash crops such as areca nuts, coconuts, black pepper, cocoa, nutmeg, vanilla and cardamom. My favorite was the paddy field. In my village the paddy field is located in the valley, between two hills, it runs along the river, sometimes it flows with river, when the wind blows paddy field flows from this end to that end. The aroma of rice grass is unique in the forest and I can identify the location of paddy field from half a kilometer away just from the smell. I can’t explain how a paddy field smells, there is nothing else like it. I learnt how to catch fish and crabs in the paddy field. Eight legged crab and legless fish are both equally difficult to catch with bare hands. During harvest season the paddy grass stops flowing due to the heavy heads full of grains but the flow moves to the sky where huge flocks of birds come to steal the rice. Snakes also flow (in my language we call it flowing snake not moving snake) under the grass where they catch the rats that are there for the rice.
Forest tries to encroach. During the rainy season it tries to extend its arms to the front door of our house. The house is surrounded by weeds. Various creatures such as millipedes, centipedes, frogs, winged termites, fireflies and sometime snakes and scorpions enter the house. My mother’s big worry is snakes. Before going to sleep, she shines a torch in every corner of the house to check for snakes. In summer forest takes a step back, goes behind the compound wall of our house. During the winter, the trees shed their leaves and forest become skeleton. Then the wind doesn’t make a sound, it simply passes through them and the birds also become silent. Sometimes fire invades and burns. My father clears some forestland by setting fire to it to allow grass to grow for our cattle. The forest takes one step back again and waits for the rain.