A passion for honey bees | Sunday Observer

A passion for honey bees

6 September, 2020

In life, everyone has a passion of his own; a passion which brings you the happiness of life, a sense of content which differs from one person to another. It may be music, art or even cooking. But for Raja Anton in Bandarawela, it has been bees for decades.

Anton lives in the heart of Bandarawela, an area acknowledged as a hotspot that yields the best quality bee honey in the island (Badulla, Haputhale, Diyathalawa and Welimada are also considered areas that harvest good bee honey). Honey collected from these areas is weightier, tastier and higher in quality.

Anton’s love for bee farming began at a very young age. In an era when Google was yet to be invented, he met people who had more experience in the subject and learnt the nitty-gritty of apiculture.

The colony

A healthy beehive is home to more than 20,000 bees, Anton said. ‘The Queen’ is recognised as the chief in a beehive while male bees are connected to her for reproduction.

The queen plays a vital role in the colony as she is the only female bee in a colony with fully developed ovaries. On an average a queen in the prime of her female-hood can lay 1,000 eggs per day. While the queen and male bees keep the colony populated, female bees are busy sustaining the colony, bringing nectar from flowers as food for the entire colony.

Currently, there are about five bee colonies in Raja Anton’s house. It is desirable to maintain an appropriate number of bee boxes as it is hard for bees to find food when there is competition among colonies for food, he said.

Anton then opened a bee box and took out a wax comb.. It was filled with hundreds of bees instead of honey.

“Do you see the queen?” he asked moving his finger around the wax comb.

It took a few seconds to see the queen, a comparatively large bee (with a longer abdomen) amid a mass of servant (female) bees. As Anton said, the average life expectancy of a queen is 10 years. However, after two years the fertility of the queen begins to decline.

Way of life

“Adopting bees are not like having a dog or a cat in your home. A dog or a cat would adapt to our lifestyle. But bees would never do that,” Anton said.

With decades of experience in beekeeping, Anton is clever in building bee boxes. He says, bees prefer to spend some quality time in the beehive to relax. Thus to provide maximum comfort to the little creatures, Anton builds bee boxes with a small platform for them to rest, like a veranda in modern homes.

The ambrosia

The red gum flower is a favourite of the bees for its nectar. August to October is the season for bee farming in the Bandarawela area, as it is the red gum flower season as well. Anton says the ambrosia made from the red gum nectar is much tastier.

He picked a honeycomb from a box using another tool that is used to remove bees from the comb. The small gadget emitted a cloud of smoke and cleared the comb without a single bee on it. He then scratched the surface of the comb with a knife normally used for the job and put the comb into a sixty year old, machine. It was a small cylinder that extracted the ambrosia while it is turned by hand. It was a simple and basic method that Anton used for decades to produce best quality bee honey.

“This way we can protect the comb as it is. We are only grating the surface, so that the bees don’t need to waste time building new combs” he said.

More keepers: fewer bees

Beekeeping as an industry is now gaining more popularity than in past years. Especially, beekeeping has attracted women in the area. Anton also visits several places to educate novice beekeepers.

“But the number of bees is decreasing,” Anton turned the discussion in a different direction.

He said telephone signal posts are a serious threat to bees and other insects as powerful radio waves repel bees and insects from the area. Also, the use of pesticide is another major threat for the bees.

At present, the ‘Technical Assistance to Modernisation of Agriculture Program’ (TAMAP) in Sri Lanka funded by the European Union is engaged with beekeepers and other smallholder farmers in various areas, to improve their agriculture practices. It aims to implement research work, training workshops, policy and strategy development and also budgetary support to the National Planning Department. Anton Raja has also been selected as a valuable resource person for value chain studies of TAMAP which will be mutually beneficial soon.

Special thanks to Dr Chatura Rodrigo, Agriculture and Environment Economist for his assistance in providing information.