Honey, the nectar of the gods


GEETA PADMANABHAN makes a case for the delicious and nutritious manna of the forest

I reach for the wild honey with reverence.

As I sip the zingy, aromatic, full-bodied liquid, dramatic scenes flash though my mind. I see the Kurumbas of the Nilgiri hills trekking barefoot up a 1,000-metre cliff, and then, dropping a vine ladder over the edge.

I see one of them slide down, with only faith in his fate and trust in the strength of the rope. I see him set fire to the mashaal in hand: thick smoke rises and envelops him, thousands of bees emerge, surrounding him in a cloud of buzz.

Miraculously, he cuts the beehive several feet away and catches the dripping honey in a basket – all the while swinging precariously on the sheer cliff-side. The bottle of honey I hold is the product of not just hard work by bees, but a high-risk effort by the Kurumba clan.

Promoted by Sridhar Lakshmanan’s Basecamp Social Research Foundation, Madhumeeta honey is one of the many new artisanal honeys now available in India. Raw, wild and feisty with flavour, these are a world away from conventional supermarket honey, and are currently being marketed as the new big superfood.

At Spaces in Besant Nagar, Sridhar talks about the Kurumbas who gather it, before playing the poignant documentary on them by Mike Pandey.

Few eatables equal the natural honey bees make from nectar; it is a universal food product, Sridhar tells his awestruck audience. In nature, honey comes in a bewildering range — it can be bitter or sweet. It can be scented with anything from eucalyptus to avocados.

Unfortunately, this manna-of-the-forest doesn’t often make the journey from deep jungles to the city markets. It may be rare, but wild honey is deemed to have extraordinary medicinal properties. Ayurveda and Siddha medicines use only raw honey because beneficial enzymes are retained in it. Tribals give their children raw siruthen — made by small dammer bees — collected in summer before the monsoon sets in.

Natural honey is hygroscopic. Since it absorbs water, its viscosity varies with the amount of rain in the specific area where the nectar is collected by the bees. Excess (more than 18 per cent) water reduces its shelf-life. To stabilise it, many sellers heat it in containers of boiling water, thereby changing its nature and physical properties, before filtering and selling it. However, the resulting liquid is devoid of active pollen, which is its most powerful ingredient. Pollen is what gives raw honey its distinctive grainy texture and medicine-chest reputation.

Although India has a number of honey-collecting tribes, they cannot gather enough to supply the market. Consequently, much of what is sold in supermarkets is cultivated honey. This is collected from man-made Newton/BIS/Marthandam hives for rearing bees. Here too, the bees leave their boxes when the flowering season ends. That’s not the problem. However, after exhausting all flowering neighbourhoods, beekeepers put out plates of sugar-water. Since this is done in closed spaces, the resulting honey tends to have a higher sugar content. Also, when flower cultivation is scaled up for bee-keeping, the insects must be protected from epidemics — in the past, diseases have wiped out honeycombs across India, so antibiotics are added to their “feed”.

This is why it is important to seek wild, raw, unprocessed honey. Buy it from a source you trust: adulteration can also happen through addition of jaggery and water. Additionally, look for socially responsible companies. Tribals risk their lives dangling on a vine from a 100-200-foot cliff to collect natural honey. They do this with three primitive tools — a pole to cut the hives, a basket to catch the liquid and a smoking bundle to ward off the swarm. And often they are poorly compensated. A honey-gatherer has no emergency medical back-up. Loss of life in this risky process is not uncommon. But the honey he gathers is pure; it comes from places with a variety of flowers, beyond the reach of automobiles and other pollutants.

Such a product needs to be promoted. Fortunately, foundations like Keystone and Basecamp are stepping in to organise this largely-unorganised profession. Additionally, they’re working towards ensuring that this waning art of wild-honey-gathering doesn’t die.

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Printable version | Jan 29, 2020 11:50:16 AM |

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