An unusual beekeeping tradition in West Khasi Hills, Meghalaya

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Authors

K.L. CHAUDHARY*, B. BAREH, L.B. JYRWA, A. BAREH & D. HOOJON

Lady Keane College, Shillong- 793001, Meghalaya, India
*Corresponding author: K.L. Chaudhary; email:klchaudhary31@gmail.com

Abstract

Apiculture of the common Indian honey bee (Apis cerana indica Fab.) is an age-old supplementary activity in the traditional agrarian life of Khasi people of Meghalaya. These bees are reared by the local people in various forms of traditional hives. Swarms of bees regularly arrive in Mawnai village area of West Khasi Hills district in July and colonize natural or human-created hollow cavities in soil in forested areas. These bee colonies are collected by the local people and transferred to wooden boxes where they remain till November. Most bees depart in late November or early December to return back the next year and the cycle repeats.

Keywords Apis cerana indica, Beekeeping, West Khasi Hills, Meghalaya.

Introduction

Beekeeping of Apis cerana indica Fab. has been practised since times immemorial in Khasi Hills of Meghalaya. The basic technique followed in Mawnai village of West Khasi Hills is similar to that practised in various parts of Khasi Hills. It involves rearing the ‘ngap ksing’ (hive bees) in wooden boxes (the ‘ksing’ or hive) (Figure 1 A). In most cases, the rearing begins with the collection of these bee colonies from the wild.

For collection of the bee colonies, small cavities (‘sympa ngap’) (Figure 1 B,C,D) are created in rain and wind-protected locations within forested areas and the forest margins. Pine forests are preferred over broadleaved forest. The cavities are created under projecting rocks or on the face of vertical earthen walls wherever available, in locations which are sheltered from rain, wind and water logging. Once the cavity is dug out, their mouths are securely covered with one large and several smaller pieces of stone, fitting snugly, leaving only small gaps for entry of bees. This activity is carried out between February and June. Such cavities, if created in the early part of the year, are cleaned in June in preparation for the arrival of bees. Several such sites are used year after year for attracting the swarms. Sometimes, the wooden box is itself carried to forest and left on raised platforms, 1-2 ft above the ground, covered with polythene sheets to protect against rain from the pre-monsoon showers (Figure 1 E).

The bee swarms start arriving in late June or early July and inhabit these cavities. The bees enter and occupy the bottom of the hollow cavity, which are collected soon after their establishment by people who regularly monitor these cavities at this time. If a wooden box is occupied, it is brought back to the owner’s home.

A new bee colony from a cavity is usually collected with bare hands, transferred immediately to a conical bamboo basket (‘khoh’), covered with a cloth and brought back to the person’s home where it is transferred to the bee-box which has been kept ready to receive the new colony. The bee-box is usually a cuboid wooden box (Figure 1 F) usually measuring 45-60 cm x 20-30cm x 20-30 cm. After introduction of the bee colony in the wooden box, the entrance is sealed with pieces of wood. The gaps between the pieces are sealed using a mixture of soil and cow-dung, leaving out only small entrance/ exit gaps for the bees (Figure 1 G,H). Sometimes small holes are cut in the wooden piece itself to serve as the entry/ exit gaps. These boxes are then kept in sheltered locations around the owner’s home, covered with polythene sheets, sometimes additionally with straw or tin roofing to protect from rain.

The bees settle down and start building up their colony. The hive is harvested in November, usually yielding between 2 to 5 kgs of honey (‘um-ngap’) per colony

However, an unusual feature of the bees in the area is the desertion of the hives by the bees around November every year. Local beekeepers consider it to be a yearly migration. It is believed that the bees migrate between the warmer Ri-Bhoi district (when temperatures are high) and the comparatively cooler West Khasi Hills district; that is, this movement is in response to unfavourable temperature regimes.

Three types of movements in bees have been recognized worldwide – (a) reproductive swarming (movement of a queen along with a part of honeybee colony from maternal nest to a new site); (b) migration (a seasonally predictable movement of colony from one region to another) and (c) absconding (movement of whole colony away from its current location either in response to severe or chronic disturbance and / or predation, declining quality of nest site and resource depletion) (Hepburn, 2006).

Migration in bees is well recorded. Seasonal migration is known in tropical species of bees and is considered to be a consequence of decline in available pollen and nectar, high temperatures, extreme aridity, extended rains or cold; changes in microclimatic conditions of the nest; the increase of pests or predator populations (Hepburn, 2006). A.c. indica is known to swarm and abscond (Pradeepa & Bhat, 2014) but not to migrate in Meghalaya (pers. comm.). This probably is the first observation of the bees behaving this way. Is the movement that is seen Mawnai migration or absconding? It may also be possible that disturbance to the bee hive during harvesting and / or increased predator population especially that of the wasps or both may be causing desertion of hives which then appears as a ‘seasonal movement’ of bees. Further investigation is required to ascertain whether this movement is absconding or migration, and the actual reasons for this unusual but regular behaviour

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank the Principal, Lady Keane College and head Dept. of Botany, Lady Keane College for permission and extending the necessary facilities; to Mr. M. Lyngdoh, Mairang and the Sordar Kur, Mawnai Village and the residents for necessary permission and help; to Mr. D.K.B. Mukhim and Dr. S.R. Hajong for help in identification and sharing their wealth of information; to colleagues and students for extending their help.

References

Hepburn, H.R. 2006. Absconding, migration and swarming in honeybees: An ecological and evolutionary perspective. In V.E. Kipyatkov (Ed.) Life cycles in social insects: Behaviour, Ecology and Evolution. St. Petersburg University Press, St. Petersburg pp. 121-135.

Pradeepa, S.D. and Bhat, N.S. 2014. Survey on absconding of Apis cerana indica F. Colonies at different traditional beekeeping areas of Karnataka. Current Biotica 8(2): 174-178.

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