My interview with Nepali Beekeeping Expert Ishwori Pd. Khatiwada
Ishwori runs “Eco Bee Product” in Sauraha, Nepal which is a town bordering the Chitwan National Park in the south of Nepal, which borders northeast India’s Uttar Pradesh. He is the head of a local bee collective of fifteen beekeepers in southern Nepal. Ishwori raises and distributes queen bees, produces royal jelly and, of course, produces honey. Their beekeeping group meets every two months and you must request to be a member. The other beekeepers in the collective requested Ishwori bring the group together. Ishwori shares his knowledge and experience, and is a source for queen bees. The other beekeepers in the collective primarily use their bees for honey production, which is still the main economic driver for beekeeping in Nepal.
Since he was a child, Ishwori has loved honey and dreamed of being a beekeeper one day. His family had a couple of bee hives when he was young and he had a beekeeping mentor. In his youth, he helped expand the family apiary from two to six hives. Ishwori went off to school to study and get a good paying job. But, as so often happens in economically depressed countries, Ishwori’s family requested that he stop his studies and begin to work so he could contribute financially. This was about twenty years ago, in the mid 1990s. Luckily, at that time, there was a government training program for Nepal Farmers through USAID Funding. This two-year program utilized volunteers from the U.S. to help teach rural Nepali farmers how to successfully keep bees.
It was around this same time (early 1990s) that the Western honey bee (Apis mellifera) was introduced into Nepal by way of India. This was due to an outbreak of Thai sacbrood virus which killed around 90% of native Eastern honey bee (Apis cerana) colonies. However, this global movement of honey bee subspecies, as we now know, was the catalyst for the spread of varroa mites, aka Varroa destructor, the parasitic mite that is contributing to many issues in modern beekeeping. A side benefit from the influx of Western honey bees into Nepal is that they are able to produce and store larger quantities of honey, which is how Nepali beekeepers make the most income. Varroa mites are not as bad of a problem in Asia, even in the populations of Western honey bees. I believe part of this is due to the fact that fewer beekeepers in Nepal use prophylactic treatment of miticides. Varroa mites evolved with Apis cerana, the Asian/Eastern honey bee, so cerana has essentially developed a resistance over time to Varroa mites.
What is a problem in Asia is the Tropilaelaps mite. Tropilaelaps mites evolved with the giant honey bee, Apis dorsata, which is also native to Asia. Tropilaelaps is similar to Varroa in that it reproduces and lives inside capped brood. However, Tropilaelaps can be far more devastating as they reproduce more rapidly and reach maturity in only six days. One upside to Tropilaelaps is that they cannot survive for more than three days without brood (their mandibles aren’t strong enough to pierce through adult bees), so they’re easier to eradicate through forcing a break in the brood cycle. As Varroa can feed on adult bees, they can survive for 25 days without brood. One interesting theory Ishwori had was that Tropilaelaps larvae eat varroa eggs. His belief for this is based in the fact that you won’t see an infestation of Varroa in a hive that has an infestation of Tropilaelaps. That is because Tropilaelaps will often out-compete Varroa, and when both mites are present, there is a decline in the reproduction of each. If you have a colony of mellifera and a colony of cerana side by side, they will not both have mites. The mites, be they tropilaelaps or varroa, will only infect one sub-species at a time. Luckily, we do not have Tropilaelaps mites in the U.S., hopefully it stays that way!
While we don't have any native honey bees in North America, Nepalis get the pleasure of having four different native sub-species they can work with, out of nine sub-species that are known worldwide! These sub-species are Apis cerana (eastern honey bee), Apis laboriosa (cliff honey bees), Apis florea (dwarf honey bee) and Apis dorsata (tropical giant honey bee). As I mentioned, they have imported Western honey bees (Apis mellifera) which they use on farms and down in the lowland valley regions for pollination and honey production. The government of Nepal actually had the proper foresight to try and segregate the bee subspecies, keeping mellifera in the valley and cerana, dorsata, laboriosa and florea in the mountains and jungles of country, around the periphery. This helps with competition as well as the prevention of disease transmission. Their smaller, native “wild” honey bees are the Eastern and dwarf honey bees. The look like European/Western honey bees only are ⅔ the size and move much more quickly, more akin to a wasp’s movements. These bees evolved in this region but tend to swarm and abscond more than European honey bees and are also more aggressive and don’t produce as much honey. For these reasons, they’re not as desirable as European honey bees to keep commercially. These “wild” bees are usually kept in log hives and are not managed as actively for honey production as the European honey bees.
The larger, native “rock” /cliff honey bees are Apis Dorsata (Khad Mauri in Nepali). These honey bees are unique in that they evolved making their nests on cliffs, rock outcroppings and tree canopies. These bees are unique in that they will build exposed nests that consist of just one long piece of comb. You will often find many nests in close proximity to one another, with anywhere from ten to two hundred in the same tree! Each colony will build a nest and inhabit it for 3-4 months before migrating seasonally between the wet and dry seasons. The dorsata worker bees are so large, they’re bigger than your fattest mellifera queen, it’s really quite amazing to see! These “rock” bees are the ones that have long provided honey and beeswax to indigenous, mountain dwelling people in the practice known as “honey hunting”. There are rhododendron groves throughout the Himalayan range. The Nepali Gurung people have hunted this honey for centuries. As this honey bee subspecies migrate, the Nepali people living in the southern Terai region also cherish this special honey. The nectar and pollen of the white Rhododendron contain grayanotoxin and when the honey is eaten is produces intoxicating and hallucinogenic effects. Apis Dorsata also produce less honey than Mellifera, so rock honey is prized and expensive for a number of reasons!
Ishwori is a wonderful, knowledgeable and caring beekeeper who works with local farmers and beekeepers several times a year. He is sometimes paid for the help but often does it for free in the hopes of helping other Nepali farmers learn the joys and challenges of beekeeping. There is a lot more potential for making money through selling honey in Nepal. There is also much more education needed. Many farmers have historically used pesticides to get bees to not visit their crops, because they think the foraging of the bees is "sucking the goodness out of there crops", when in fact it is quite the opposite! Ishwori is part of his local Lion’s club and Rotary International and hopes to get to come to the U.S. sometime to learn more about beekeeping and expand his opportunities. Things were looking good for him to get a temporary visa, but of course with the changing winds of politics that may not happen anymore… I wish the best for him! He invited me to go on our own cliff honey hunting expedition on my next visit to Nepal. If you're a true adventure beek, contact me and I will try and set it up for us!
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