Moringa honey: how Italian bees help farmers with their sweet business

Moringa honey is one of the most popular types of flower nectar in the food industry. Farmer and beekeeper N Dhandayuthapani is one of those in the Cauvery Delta to reap the benefits of combining beekeeping with agriculture

Moringa honey is one of the most popular types of flower nectar in the food industry. Farmer and beekeeper N Dhandayuthapani is one of those in the Cauvery Delta to reap the benefits of combining beekeeping with agriculture

The taste of fresh, warm honey mixed with natural honeycomb shards is not easy to describe. The closest, as we lick it from our palms, on a hot afternoon in Kurumbapatti village, Karur district, would be a little patch of sunshine, happiness and the star harvest of the region, the murungakkai or Moringa oleifera.

Fitted with netting beekeeper hats, female workers light a small bundle of coconut fiber, place it in a metal container and allow the smoke to filter through a wooden beehive in this six-acre moringa field. The buzz inside seems to have slackened a bit. They then open the top and quietly pull out wooden frames filled with the busy insects to monitor the bees’ progress. “Two weeks to harvest,” they say.

In Tamil Nadu’s burgeoning artisanal food market, moringa honey is a popular floral nectar, as its deeper, woody flavor has a unique appeal to the taste buds.

“I started my quest for pure honey 20 years ago because the commercially sold varieties all seemed to use flavor enhancers or sweeteners. It can only be obtained from the beehives found in the wild,” said N Dhandayuthapani, a farmer who runs the beekeeping business. Annai Bee Farms runs.

The 53-year-old is one of at least 300 farmers in the Cauvery Delta who are reaping the success of combining beekeeping with farming. For the past two decades, in addition to growing moringa in Kurumbapatti, Dhandayuthapani has collaborated with farmers in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka by placing his wooden beehive boxes on their fields. His apiary produces five tons of moringa honey in Tamil Nadu and 12 tons in Karnataka per year.

Workers extract honey using centrifugal machines at Annai Bee Farms. | Photo credit: M Moorthy

buzzing around

Dhandayuthapani was trained in beekeeping through the course taught by the Department of Agricultural Entomology, Center for Plant Protection Studies at the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore in 1998, and started with 10 boxes of Indian bees, (Apis cerana indica). But the bees kept leaving the hives, so he started looking at Italian honeybees (Apis mellifera liguistica), for which he was trained in 2001 through a TNAU-Winrock International (US) collaborative workshop.

The Italian honey bees have a strong flower fidelity/constancy. “If it goes to one flower, it will keep returning to pollinate only that blossom until the season ends. So this strain is ideal for those who want to produce single-flowered honey. Land bees and mountain bees, on the other hand, will mingle and bring nectar from different flowers. our moringa honey we also have bee colonies working on nectars from thumbs up(Leucas aspera)mango and chili blossoms,” says Dhandayuthapani.

Getting bees to work

It takes almost a year for a bee colony to take shape. Regular maintenance is essential for beekeeping.

Annai Bee Farms uses artificial breeding techniques to convert the larvae of a worker bee into a queen bee. “We have a separate facility in Pollachi for this, where we feed the designated larvae with ‘royal jelly’ (a milky substance made up of proteins, sugars and water that are secreted by special glands in the heads of worker bees). The healthy diet helps a queen bee live up to four years; however, the worker bees have a lifespan of only 45 days,” says farmer/beekeeper N Dhandayuthapani.

In the busy flowering months of January and February, a hive can hold 60,000 to 1 lakh bees and produce up to 100 pounds of honey per day.

The leftover beeswax from frames is pressed into thin ‘comb foundation sheets’ that are used for the next batch of production boxes.

Double boiling the extracted honey in a water bath at temperatures below 60 degrees Celsius removes the moisture and significantly extends the shelf life.

Farmers generally like to interact with beekeepers, Dhandayuthapani says, because the bees help significantly increase crop yields through cross-pollination. “We don’t pay anything to keep our beehives in the field, but we do share a kilo or two of honey with the host farmers from each year’s harvest,” he says.

Healthy option

Beekeeping has helped many people rediscover healthy food. “During the lockdown, we decided to focus on organic honey, as adulteration and artificial sweeteners are rampant in this sector. It was our way of helping farmers and bees,” said Aswin Srinivaas, the co-founder of Indian Apiaries, along with his friends Vignesh Raj and Kasi Vishvanathan, who are also certified beekeepers.

The Tiruchi-based company sells its products under the Elite Orgo Honey brand online and offline.

“There are almost 80 varieties of honey that can be taken for specific dietary and medical needs. Moringa and neem honeys are doing very well in our inventory. We currently have about 40-50 orders per month and work with at least 30 farmers in the region,” says Aswin.

The price of the flower honey varies from 800 to ₹1,200 per kilo. “There are many traders who buy from us and resell our honey elsewhere at a higher price. Due to high demand, some people try to pass off honey diluted with cane syrup as pure. The honey bee’s hard work should not be tampered with,” said Dhandayuthapani.

Moringa honey produced by Indian apiaries in Tiruchi.

Moringa honey produced by Indian apiaries in Tiruchi. | Photo credit: M Moorthy

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