We’ve often heard of traditional beekeeping in Meghalaya, a source pure raw honey. At the same time, we wanted to learn and understand how it has been done since the olden days.
While we were exploring the deep valleys of Sohra, we trekked 3000 steps down to a small village called Nongtraw, Khadarshnong Sohra-rim in the hills of Meghalaya. This small village is in a remote area where no vehicles can go and you can only reach there on foot. This place was beyond our expectation, it has completely changed our perspective on Meghalaya’s honey.
This village is so clean, as we walked down we could get a sense of how the people here value and take care of their surrounding environment. Every 10 to 11 meters we saw bio-degradable garbage bins to make sure no plastic and things are strewn around on the ground. It was eye-opening for us.
We met an interesting man, Richard Ranee who joined his family’s tradition of natural honey farming in 1987. Richard thinks of his relationship with his bees as the art of traditional beekeeping - which emphasizes on showing the bees respect before collection of honey from the beehives.
It's an age-old practice of showing care to the bees that have nourished the locals for a long time. We got a chance to meet this interesting man, Richard Ranee, a beekeeper from Nongtraw village.
Richard showed us how he does it. Here’s a gist of his conversation with his bees, “Before taking the honey from here, I use the smoke of this burnt rag so that the bees will move away and won’t be sad. So before I take the honey out from the hive, I talk to them and say, “ I take care of you and love you, you serve me and give me benefits, I take the honey only for my needs, don’t be sad and just move away so that I can take a bit of the honey that you’ve collected.
Therefore, you should always take care of the honey so that there will be surplus.” Amazing isn't it?
Richard Ranee is a resident of Nongtraw village. His family and forefathers have been living there for a long time. He started bee farming during the year 1987 and he started with just 1 beehive. Over the years he started to realize that he was able to build a good and understanding relationship with his bees. He started to respect the bees as Nature's gift. The bees also provided him his means of livelihood. By the year 1990, he was able to increase his production with 2 beehives and he was able to harvest 5 kgs 3 times a year. On the year 2000 to 2010 his production increased and he was able to add more beehives. The only downside to this was he was only able to harvest 3 kgs twice a year. Approximately he was able to harvest 25 kgs each. He shared, this is not his full-time job but he loves doing it, he loves his bees and helping them build their hives and planting trees they love. One of the reason why he loves them is that, whenever he or his family catches a cold or cough, have wounds and bruises. He would use the honey as a natural remedy and it cures them.
We learned from him that honey bees can travel 2 to 5 km, on an average, to get nectar. To make it easier for the bees, Richard plants trees and flowers, which the bees love, near the bee's wood logs (traditional hives). This helps the bees fill their hives with honey faster. In the month of November the Sohiong (Black cherry) tree and cherry blossom tree (pink flowers) starts to flower and the bees collect honey from these trees.
During the month of December, flowers of a local grass variety called the kdait blooms which the honey bees particularly prefer. Nectar from this flower is a nice golden color and it produces a delicious honey. Honey is harvested during the month of January and he calls it the autumn honey - " ngap synrai", the honey harvested during this time of the year is of the best quality and can be stored for a long time.
Richard says, " The beehives are closed with the lid to keep the bees warm duing the winter months. The bees are all gathered together since it can get cold. Only when it is time for me to harvest the honey, I take off the lid and speak to them and the bees let me take their honey. The black bees are a little tough for me to handle as they get a little rough. But the yellow ones are tame and more easy to handle. Another thing I would like to share about traditional bee-keeping is that we local folks believe that honey bees will not last or stay with a person who is dishonest and unkind."
All the bee-keeping activities are carried out in the surrounding forest. Richard would go to the forest, select and mark a tree belonging to a variety called dieng sympa (local name). He would then make a hole in one of these trees and leave a portion of the tree to dry. Allowing the bees to form hives. He also used an alternative method, by starting a mild smoke, and burning a cotton thread, which will drive the bees away. While he tries to recognize the queen bee, locally called kiaw. Once he catches the queen bee, he keeps her in the hole of a tree log he has made. This helps the worker bees to follow her and build the hives.
The log is made of another tree called dieng Lakhiat (local name) as shown in the image below.
Richard shared with us, " It is very difficult for me to find these logs in the forest. It becomes hard to increase production of honey. That is why I have included the use of modern bee boxes which was given to me by the Government to use it as an alternative and improve my honey production. Although there's a downside to it, the bees do not stay very long in the modern beebox. My bees prefer the wood logs and they can live upto 12 years in 1 wood log. For me I see it as a way to preserve the traditions of my forefathers who have always used wood logs and some day I want to pass this to my children. Right now, I want to lead by example.
After spending some time with Richard learning about him and his bees, it was time for us to head back to Shillong. And hey, I forgot to mention that we tasted this lovely wild forest honey and the taste was truly divine.
We brought some back to Shillong to share his stories and experience with more folks. Meeting Richard is an experience that we will never forget, it is fascinating and at the same time it gave us a sense of purpose that we need to tell his story and share it to the rest of the world, that folks like Richard still live, bounded with traditions in Meghalaya.
Even with so much commercialization going on, this was like a little piece of haven for us, and for the honey bees as well. We shook hands and bid our goodbyes. We made our way back to Shillong, after a few more hours of climbing back 3000 steps to reach the top of the valley. Tiring but worth all the sweat and leg cramps.
Hope you found this story of Richard and his art of traditional beekeeping interesting. Have you ever had any experience of visiting some place and hearing local stories or tasting something unexpected? Share with us, would love to hear from you.