Ghosts of SPS Interns Past: The Hunt for Honey and Paneer Burgers

The Honey Hunters of Juladhar

Two days ago, we went to speak to the honey hunters.  The day before, while looking through past SPS intern blog posts, we found one in which the honey hunters were mentioned.  According to Julie from 2011, the honey hunters were unreliable and drunk! “When we reached the village I was disappointed to find several staggering men but absolutely no honey.  The honey hunters had brought their entire season’s yield to SPS and were currently subsisting off of some kind of rice liquormy follow-up visit minutes read ‘8:10am: Meeting suspended due to acute village intoxication’ so I couldn’t pitch the idea.”  In preparation for the trip, I also watched a few extreme YouTube videos of tribal people scaling tall trees wearing little protection, brandishing bundles of smoking foliage to scare bees away, and chopping down huge bee hives.  I read about honey hunters in West Bengal who are often mauled by tigers during their honey expeditions into mangrove jungles, but need the honey in order for their families to eat.  This was not the image of bees pleasantly buzzing through meadows of flowers that the term “wild honey collection,” had invoked in my mind.


Interviewing Gyan Singh, the honey hunter- photo courtesy of Geneva

Notes from the interview with Gyan Singh:

  1. Location: All the honey hunters from whom SPS purchases honey live in Juladhar.  Juladhar is a village, or rather a series of hamlets located in the forest outside of Agra Village.  It was established about three generations back by people from other regions in search of available land.
  1. Honey Location and transportation: To collect honey, the men travel one group per car, each to a different jungle.  Or they will walk from their village to the main road, and then catch a bus a distance of 20 to 5 km, before walking another 20-50km into the jungle.  Some will split off from the group going home and take the bus straight to the Neemkheda SPS office to sell their honey.
  1. The Art of Honey Hunting

The people of Juladhar learned to collect honey from their fathers, who learned from their grandfathers.  The great-grandfathers of the current inhabitants, who were not accustomed to collecting wild honey in where they came from, had learned the skill from a local indigenous doctor.  The Juladhar honey hunters pride themselves in collecting honey in a sustainable way.  Men from nearby villages only collect a few hives per year for personal consumption, so they are less experienced in honey collection and are less invested in sustaining the bee population.  As a result, they destroy entire hives in the collection process.  The men from Juladhar, on the other hand, are seasoned honey hunters and have historically depended on honey as a source of income.  Thus, it is in their best interest to conserve as much of the hive as possible during the collection process.  Rather than removing the entire hive, which is the prevalent method of wild honey collection, the Juladhar honey hunters remove only the small portion of the hive where the most honey is produced, leaving the bulk of the hive, where larvae are raised.  The bees may abandon the hive after the disturbance, or they may stay and repair their nest, which means the honey collectors will be able to harvest again from the same spot in the future.  It takes 15-30 days for bees to regenerate the removed section of the hive.

Because bees are more docile at night, the honey hunters leave their homes during the day for the long journey into the jungle and begin their hunt after nightfall.  They carry torches of brush to ward off jungle predators.  To collect the honey, one man climbs up to the hive, holding one end of a rope with a bucket attached.  The others use the rope to pass the climber a stick dipped in kerosene, which he lights and waves under the hive to smoke the bees out.  He then cuts the honey-rich section from the hive and places it in the bucket, then descends.  The yield is about 1.5kg honey per hive.

  1. Honey seasons and trees: The main season for honey collection is March through May, although some people also collect honey and after Diwali in October.  In April, the honey hunters find bitter honey from flowering neem trees on the outskirts of forests.  Deep in the forest, hives can be found on arjun and mahua trees.  Other honey host trees include mango and behra.  Both small honeybees (muval) and large honeybees (bual) can be found in the region, but these hunters only collect honey from the bual bees, which build their hives in the tall trees listed above.  The collectors return to the same trees from trip to trip because they know the jungle well and hives may have regenerated.
  1. Honey Sale: The Juladhar honey hunters currently sell the bulk of their honey to SPS at Rs 150 per kilogram.  On the way to Neemkheda, they may sell a few kilograms (at Rs 200/kg) to individuals in order to get some hard cash and pay their bus fare, but it is not convenient to sell their honey in such small quantities.  For the same reason, the collectors do not often sell their honey at the local bazaar.  They can also sell their honey to traders in Bagli and Udainagar, but SPS is the preferred buyer because SPS guarantees the purchase of the entire honey haul.  SPS no longer buys beeswax, but it fetches Rs 150 when sold at the bazaar.  The honey hunters keep only a small amount of honey for themselves, as they can collect more for personal use whenever they wish.  According to Gyan Singh, not too many people he knows eat the honey.  It is mostly reserved for those who are ill or diabetic, or for young children.  If they do eat honey, it’s by the spoonful, not as a spread.
  1. Changes in honey collection trends
    • Honey as a source of income: As the villagers of Juladhar have acquired other stable sources of income in recent years, they made fewer honey collection trips.  Of the 150 families in the village, only about 40 still collect honey.  Notably, they gained access to electricity.  Multiple farmers built tube wells, from which they use the electricity to pump water to fields.  Beforehand, people from Juladhar only could grow one crop per year, and had to travel to Malwa for labor during the off-seasons.  In the past 4-5 years, irrigation has enabled the villagers to farm a rabi (winter) crop as well.  Typically, they grow maize, cotton, and red gram during the monsoon and wheat and moong (mung beans) in the winter.  The farmers of Juladhar grow an average of 4-5 quintals of moong, which they aggregate Gyan Singh’s house to sell to RRPPCL (the SPS-supported crop aggregation producer company).  They also sell their crops at the market.  Some of the maize, red gram and green gram is kept for household consumption.  Most farmers have 12-16 bighas (1bigha= ¼ Ha) of land.  If the holding is any larger, a farmer will divide the land record between his sons, so that the family can still qualify for government schemes.
    • Other job options: Some men have been finding other summer employment than honey hunting.  For work as a day laborer in a nearby town, the pay is Rs 150 per day, while a honey collector can earn 400-500 rupees for three days of collection.  So Gyan Singh thinks honey collecting is worth the effort.  Others may disagree because of the danger and upper body strength requirement.  Some men have also stopped coming because hives have become harder to find.  If the group gets less than 7-8 hives, it is not worth the collection effort.
    • Bee population stability: Gyan Singh says that the bee population does not seem to be declining.  Bees are however building their hives under bridges and on homes as the come into closer contact with human settlements.  This has caused a reduction in honey availability compared to 20 years ago.  Bee populations are also susceptible to variations in weather.  Two years ago, there was a sharp decrease in honey collection.  Hail storms had disturbed the flowering patterns of Flame of the Forest and Mahua trees, so honey production was low.
    • Legacy: Gyan Singh believes that people in his village will continue to collect wild honey in the years to come. Because the bulk of the collection happens in the summer, when there is not much farm work to do, there is not much to deter people from continuing the trade.  Although his sons do not always accompany him on honey hunts, other men still bring their sons once they reach the age of 15.

All in all, although we only got to interview one collector, the trip went better than I had feared.  Gyan Singh patiently answered all of our questions and was certainly not slurring his words!

Hype for Hypermarkets

However, the honey hunter interview was not the only thing we had in common with Julie’s blog that week.  Among many other topics, she covered their trip to Indore, in which they visited an Indian McDonald’s that serves Paneer burgers at Treasure Island, the large commercial mall.  Although I haven’t been to a McDonald’s in at least 10 years, I really liked the ring of “paneer burger.”  After trying unsuccessfully to hire a car for Omkareshwar last weekend, this post inspired us to test our luck with Indore this weekend.  Just like the for the honey hunters, I’ve done my preparatory research for this outing.  According to the McDonald’s India website (assuming I was correct in looking at the North and East India version instead of the South and West India site—we’re in western central India), the chain offers three types of veggie burger, one paneer burger, an egg sandwich, a fish filet, and four chicken sandwiches, and no beef or pork to speak of! To think, a McDonald’s without burgers! I wonder if Burger King exists here and what their “burgers” are…

Although Rohini who coordinates our work, laughed at our plans and told us there was nothing to see in Indore, Geneva and I are really excited for this mall and the hypermarket in its basement.  When I spent the summer of 2014 in China, I stayed with 25 other American students at a middle school in the city of Jiaxing.  We were allowed to go out into the city in the evenings ad often went to malls.  But our favorite destination was RT-Mart, a store that sold everything—groceries, office supplies and stationery featuring poorly-translated English phrases, every type of rice cooker imaginable, grass mats for sleeping, clothing, literally 20 types of fresh tofu, etc.  I loved roaming through the aisles and noticing all of the differences between RT-Mart and the Target at home.  I’m looking forward to expanding my international hypermarket repertoire tomorrow.

Our Urban Excursion…

Last night we got back from Indore just in time to grab some dinner before the cooks cleaned up.  It was a fun, full day! Geneva and I went with our new roommate and past SPS intern, Dani, and the three interns staying in the room next to ours.  One intern, Shampa, is from a neighboring district in Madhya Pradesh.  Between Shampa, her friend whom we picked up at the mall, and our SPS driver, we were able to navigate the city easily.

Our first destination was McDonalds, where we successfully tried a paneer wrap, saccharine iced coffee, paneer pockets, and a veggie burger.  I didn’t have any sort of culinary awakening, but my McVeggie was as good as any veggie burger I’d find in a Trader Joe’s freezer aisle.  Although Treasure Island was closed, the mall we went to also has a hypermarket, called Big Bazaar.  My expectations were met! There weren’t many novel Indian candies, but we marveled at all the different types of namkeen, a salty-spicy-sweet fried snack.  There were barrels of lentils, lots of unfamiliar vegetables, and eight varieties of mango.  I also discovered that India is the place to go for vegetarian ramen packets, which are scarce in the U.S. and China.  Vibhuti, the other Indian intern who came on the trip, humored us by explaining all the items we didn’t recognize.




Unashamedly to sampling all the ice cream flavors on our second trip to Naturals

On her first trip to India this year, Geneva’s professor introduced her to a great ice cream store called Naturals, and it was just our luck that Indore has a franchise!  It was so delicious that we went not once, but twice!  We had to come back on our way out of Indore to get a few tubs of it for Geneva’s birthday this week.  After wandering alleyways in search of sim cards, only to be turned away for not having proper documentation, we went to a strip of 52 street food vendors.  We cautiously tried some Nepalese-inspired veggie dumplings, which are called momos in India, and respectfully declined our companions’ offer to try their paan.  It was enough of an experience watching the vendor make the paan by dipping his fingers in various unfamiliar concoctions and spreading them on a leaf.   The shop had an apothecary feel to it.  I wondered about the jars full of silver-leaf-coated goods that lined the walls.  Apparently the spice-filled roll is eaten after meals as a “refresher,” but the air-conditioned break from our rural campus was enough of a refresher for me.


Dani and Vibhuti with their momo


Making paan

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About Bevan Pearson

I'm an Earth Science major concentrating in Environmental science in the College Class of 2018. This summer 2016, I'll be a CASI intern with Samaj Pragati Sahayog in Bagli, Madhya Pradesh.