Moringa honey: How Italian bees are helping farmers in sweet enterprise


Moringa honey is among the most popular varieties of floral nectar in the food sector. Farmer and beekeeper N Dhandayuthapani is one of those in the Cauvery delta reaping the benefit of combining apiary with agriculture

Moringa honey is among the most popular varieties of floral nectar in the food sector. Farmer and beekeeper N Dhandayuthapani is one of those in the Cauvery delta reaping the benefit of combining apiary with agriculture

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

Kitted out in netted beekeeper hats, women workers light up a small bundle of coconut fibre, place it in a metal container and let the smoke filter through a wooden hive box in this six acre moringa field. The buzzing inside seems to slacken a bit. They then open the top and calmly pull out wooden frames filled with the busy insects to check the bees’ progress. “Another two weeks to harvest,” they say.

In the rapidly growing artisanal food market of Tamil Nadu, moringa honey is a popular floral nectar, as its deeper, woody flavour has a unique pull on taste buds.

“I began my quest for pure honey 20 years ago, because the commercially sold varieties all seemed to be using flavour enhancers or sweeteners. It could only be got from the beehives found in the wild,” says N Dhandayuthapani, a farmer running the apiary business Annai Bee Farms.

The 53-year-old is one of at least 300 farmers in the Cauvery delta who is reaping the success of combining apiary with agriculture. For the past two decades, besides growing moringa in Kurumbapatti, Dhandayuthapani has collaborated with the crop’s farmers in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka by placing his wooden beehive boxes in their fields. His beekeeping enterprise produces five tonnes of moringa honey in Tamil Nadu and 12 tonnes in Karnataka per year.

Workers extract honey with the help of centrifugal machines at Annai Bee Farms.
| Photo Credit: M Moorthy

Buzzing around

Dhandayuthapani got trained in beekeeping through the course conducted by Department of Agricultural Entomology, Centre for Plant Protection Studies in Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore in 1998, and started out with 10 boxes of Indian bees, (Apis cerana indica). But the bees kept deserting the hive boxes, so he began looking at Italian honey bees (Apis mellifera liguistica), for which he underwent training in 2001 through a TNAU-Winrock International (US) collaborative workshop.

The Italian honey bees have a strong floral fidelity/constancy. “If it goes to one flower, it will keep returning to pollinate only that blossom until the season ends. So this species is ideal for those who want to produce uni-floral honey. Country bees and mountain bees, on the other hand, will mix and bring nectars from different flowers. Besides our moringa honey, we also have bee colonies working on nectars from thumbai poo(Leucas aspera), mango and chilli blossoms,” says Dhandayuthapani.

Getting bees to work

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

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

In the busy flowering months of January and February, a beehive box can hold anywhere from 60,000 to one lakh bees, and produce up to 100 kilograms of honey in a day.

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

Double-boiling the extracted honey in a water bath at temperatures below 60 degree Centrigrade removes the moisture and extends its shelf life considerably.

Farmers generally are keen to tie up with beekeepers, says Dhandayuthapani, because the bees help to increase crop yield substantially through cross-pollination. “We are not charged anything to keep our hives on 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 healthful food. “During lockdown, we decided to focus on organic honey, because adulteration and artificial sweeteners are rampant in this sector. It was our way of helping out farmers and bees,” says 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 firm 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 requirements. Moringa and neem honey do very well in our stock. At present we have around 40-50 orders per month, and we collaborate with at least 30 farmers in the region,” says Aswin.

Pricing of the floral honeys ranges from ₹800 to ₹1,200 per kilo. “There are many traders who buy from us and re-sell our honey at a higher cost elsewhere. Due to the heavy demand, some people try to pass off honey diluted with jaggery syrup as the pure thing. The honey bee’s hard work should not be tampered with,” says 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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