There are some people who doubt and some who believe the honey from Bumthang is adulterated, crystallised and unsafe for consumption. There are also many people who believe that consumption of honey is a sin.

Modern beekeeping started in Bumthang from 1986 onwards and this venture is gaining momentum in some selected parts of Bhutan. The farmers and locals were reluctant in the beginning to rear bees for commercial purposes.  But the local communities of Bumthang have now begun to realise that beekeeping is a lucrative business.

There are various types of bees in Bhutan but six of them—Apis cerana, Apis dorsata, Apis laboriosa, Apis florea and Meliponine and Apis mellifera—are the most common ones from which honey is produced in various flowering seasons. Beekeeping has also gained popularity in other dzongkhags, and honey production as well as consumption has increased with people becoming more health-conscious.

We get different beehive products such as honey, wax, propolis, pollen, and royal jelly for use.  The values and benefits of honey are enormous and differ in diverse communities in the nation. Honey can be used to cure and treat wounds, ulcers, gastric, pneumonia, constipation, sore throat, cough and cold, joint pains, clearing scar (black spots), softening of skin, gum inflammation, sinusitis, allergy remover, herpes, psoriasis, as well as treating some animal diseases such as foot and mouth disease (FMD) in cattle. People consider honey as an energiser and a mental vitaliser. Honey is also used to make wine, confectioneries and medicines.  In some places, people mix honey with maize or wheat flour and butter to make incense. It is also offered as elixir (panchamrit) to gods and deities during pujas and other religious events.

The religious belief about beekeeping and consumption of honey being sinful came from the same practice as the indigenous practices involved in the use of crude honey extraction that every so often led to the death of bees and damage of the honey combs and wax. The conventional way of beekeeping introduced in Bumthang has slowly managed to reduce this misconception. The honey is harvested using modern methods without causing harm and death to larvae, pupae, and emerging and adult bees. With the introduction of European honeybee (Apis mellifera) in Bhutan in 1980’s, which is managed in modern movable hives and technically supported by National Highland Research and Development Centre (NHRDC) at Bumthang, beekeeping for honey production gained popularity in the country as it can be managed easily with low investment in both rural and urban areas. Consumption of honey is not a sin and it is just like milk from cows, buffaloes, or yaks.  In fact, a symbiotic process is followed in bee farming. Human are managing and supporting bees to thrive well and bees, in turn, are producing bountiful honey for humans.

The belief that honey from Bumthang is adulterated with sugar because the bees are fed sugar syrup in winter is wrong.  Sugar syrup is fed to bees in winter as a supplementary feed to keep the colony stronger. This is done so in order to keep the same numbers of bees for the upcoming spring foraging and to protect them from pests and diseases. They need plenty of energy to overcome winter as a lot of fanning has to be done by bees in the hive to bring the temperature up to optimum level. However, syrup is depleted by the beginning of spring.

It is a fact that bees are not able to convert sugar syrup to honey. Therefore, the perception that honey is produced out of sugar that is being fed to them is totally wrong. Instead, bees collect nectar and pollen from flowers and process them to make pure honey in spring and summer. The beekeepers collect honey from honey supers only, not from brood boxes. Pure honey contains minerals, antioxidants such as glucose oxidase, ascorbic acid, phenolic acid, and flavonoids which are good for reducing cancer and heart diseases. The honey sold by the farmers of Bumthang and Beekeepers Cooperative of Bhutan (BECoB) is pure. It is tested and labelled to assure standards and quality. The color of the honey may vary from pale yellow to dark amber, with darker honey having more minerals for human to rejuvenate health.  Pure honey is 1.5 times sweeter than normal sugar but contains various natural minerals. Honey has a low glycemic index GI compared to sugar and will not spike blood sugar level. GI is a value to measure how much specific food increases blood sugar levels.

In cold weather, pure and raw honey will crystallise or granulate but the flavour and quality characteristics remain the same. It will not spoil and can be changed to liquid form by warming. Crystallised honey is good and could be easily smeared on bread for consumption. People may misinterpret the crunchy feel of the crystallised honey as added sugar. In truth, only the colour and texture of crystallised honey changes but other properties remain intact even in crystalline form.

The pollination of crops, fruits and vegetables is the most important contribution of bees to the economy and the environment though this fact is not fully understood by the farmers and many others. As there are various benefits that we can accrue from beekeeping, we have to keep our land, air, and water free from pollution and contamination. In Bhutan, bee enterprise may further flourish with the introduction of improved species of bees, better management practices, improved hive construction, colony management, and processing of quality products for marketing.

Training and study tours have been organised for the farmers by the NHRDC Bumthang under the Department of Livestock (DoL) Ministry of Agriculture and Forests (MoAF). At present, National Apiculture Programme under the NHRDC provides technical backstopping to promote both conventional and traditional beekeeping.

Contributed by 

GP Sharma

Royal Thimphu College in collaboration with NHRDC, Bumthang