On a hot sluggish morning, wearing a net-cap to prevent bee stings, 50-year-old Mosam Khan is busy in his newly-established camp at the centre of Tamarix forest locally known as ‘Ghaz’ close to the grid station on Waziristan Road. Hundreds of wooden honeybee boxes lie strewn besides the highway leading to a militancy-hit tribal agency.
“Don’t go close to the boxes, if the bees get disturbed, they might sting you,” the beekeeper warns, inspecting one of the traditionally made hives, before he shook hands.
A native of Nowrang Bannu in Khyber Pakhtunkhawa, Mosam Khan has been running the apiaries for over two decades. But this is his first ever honey-collecting camp set up in the bordering district, Zhob.
Beekeeping, if developed well, has the potential to become a primary source of income in Balochistan
Khan says that he was a labourer and also worked as a woodcutter and brick- kiln worker before he undertook beekeeping in 1994. Starting the business with 30 bee boxes, today he owns 500 honey-producing boxes and earns thrice the amount he earned otherwise.
While Khan is content with his work, he claims that severe hot and cold weather, deforestation, off-season rains and stagnant water around beehives led to a drastic decline in the population of honeybees and honey production in the country, pushing a number of beekeepers out of business. His perceptions about the decline in honey production are belied by the actual figures.
But he is one ‘lucky’ beekeeper with a story different from the others.
Speaking Banochi, a dialect of Pashto, Khan says that he used to set up camp in the Shawal tehsil of North Waziristan. Since operation Zarb-i-Azb got underway in the area, however, he does not go there anymore. Now he travels to other parts of the country including Balochistan.
“The deteriorating security situation of the area and the military operation are the major reasons behind my migration from KP to Balochistan,” says Khan. “This is how I earn bread and butter for my family of five children who help me in my work instead of going to school.”
Pointing towards the boxes he says, each hive box costs 2,000 to 6,000 rupees and houses approximately 5,000 honeybees.
“Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is rich in beekeeping with thousands of beekeepers and honeybee colonies in every nook and corner of the province,” he adds.
Having spent 22 years in the profession, Khan says that Pakistan exports honey to more than two dozen countries but Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates are the biggest buyers of Pakistani honey.
According to him the colour and flavour of honey vary naturally, depending on the blossoms which are the nectar source. Lighter-coloured honey is generally mild in flavour, while the darker one is usually stronger in flavour.
He elaborates that Jujube (red date) honey is dark; sunflower honey is bright yellow with delicate sweetness; Alfalfa (seh barg) nectar produces white to extra light amber honey that has a mild flavour and aroma similar to beeswax, Calcacia (Palosa) and Eucalyptus nectar yields greyish honey while Hyssop honey is white in colour.
Jujube trees are in abundance in Zhob region along with other honey-producing trees such as Eucalyptus, Tamarix, Acacia, Hyssop and many others.
Showing a bottle of dark honey, he explains that Sidr honey, dark in colour has a distinctive aroma and is considered one of the most expensive and finest honeys in the world. It is exported to Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. He adds that there is an ever-increasing demand for it in the Arab world due to its fine quality and taste. “It is made from the nectar of the Jujube blossoms and dark honey has higher medicinal value as compared to other honeys.
Sidr honey is dark in colour, has a distinctive aroma and is considered one of the most expensive and
finest honeys in the world. It is exported to Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. He adds that there is an ever-increasing demand for it in the Arab world due to its fine quality and taste.
While opening one of the honey jars that are displayed near his roadside tent to attract passersby, Mosam says the honey collected in various parts of the country is transported to a Peshawar market, from where it is packed in 20kg plastic cans and sent to Saudi Arabia and other countries. There it is branded and repackaged.
“High-quality honey is exported abroad, while honey of inferior quality is consumed within the country. Honey is a great source of nutrition while beeswax is used in cosmetics,” he explains.
Talking about his hectic journey to Zhob valley, Khan says that as the ‘beeing’ season approaches, he and his family travel with hundreds of boxes and other material to Balochistan. He also experimented with Ziarat and Musakhail districts last year but Zhob, according to him, is the most suitable for honey production as it has dense forests of Tamarix and other trees.
“The fields of Tamarix and other trees are abundant and the atmosphere of the area is also ideal for beekeeping. But both government and community support is required,” he says. Mosam encourages the local people to take up beekeeping.
Khan says it takes the honey about a month to ripen. In some areas the beekeepers are not in a position to bear the expenses of shifting camps, feeding and medication — beekeepers use medicine/chemicals to improve queen and colony health. The majority of beekeepers belong to poor families and some of them lead miserable lives as the beekeeping business is fraught with a host of problems, while the government which has so far given a cold shoulder to those engaged in the business has yet to recognise it as a legitimate industry. “This sector is running without any government support and patronage,” he laments.
The director of Honeybee Research Institute at the National Agricultural Research Centre, Pakistan, Dr Rashid Mehmood, says that the ancient, traditional method of honey beekeeping with indigenous species Apis cerana has been replaced with modern beekeeping, adding that Western honeybee Apis mellifera colonies have been introduced to the beekeepers.
“More than 400,000 colonies of Apis mellifera exist, increasing honey production in the country from 7,500 metric tons to 10,000 metric tons generating 35 million to 40 million rupees as revenue,” he said.
Balochistan’s North-eastern district Zhob (Fort Sandeman) is an area of lush green mountains, a great diversity of forest wealth and natural flora where bee-farming activity can be done very easily and freely. The area is very suitable on account of different ecological zones containing rich bee flora and friendly climatic conditions. Zhob shares borders with Afghanistan and South Waziristan agency. The source of income here is agriculture, livestock or private and government employment, while some failing to find jobs locally are moving to gulf countries.
Alamgir Mandokhail, head of the Nutrition Programme and resident of a nearby village, says that the area has the most unique wild species of honeybees, and is quite suitable for apiculture due to its favourable climatic and environmental conditions.
“If the business is promoted here, not only hundreds of poor people of the area could earn their livelihood but it will also improve the socioeconomic status of thousands of people,” he says. He further adds that the business can prove to be an environmentally sound, income-generating activity. The region has great potential to prove itself a major honey producer in Balochistan, where majority of the people live below the poverty line.
“It is an innovative way to save precious forests that are being cut down. Apiculture can easily be adopted here as it requires very little investment,” Alamgir says optimistically.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 21st, 2016