It was raining when we started our journey from Kolkata for a thrilling professional trip to Sundarbans. Monsoon had just arrived and honey collectors of Sundarbans were still scheduling their trip to deep inside the World's Largest Mangrove Forest. Our Field Audit Team for Sundarini Naturals was assigned to visit, meet cooperative honey collectors face to face, learn more about them, and report field level situations.
After a hectic journey of almost four hours finally we reached Kultali block of South 24 Parganas district very close to Sundarban forest. Local field staff met us near a crossing at Petkulchand Bridge and then we started walking as our vehicle would not be able to take us to destination due to muddy village road. Covered by almost all thatched houses having less agricultural practice most of the villagers of Deulbari used to go nearby river to catch mud crabs, fishes. During April to June they conduct the dangerous trip to deep inside the nearby forest for wild honey collection.
Finally we could meet Droupadi Halder at her very small house located close to river bund. She was preparing to go to river for mud crab hunting and fishing when we reached. She started feeling very confused as what she would do. It was her livelihood, rather to say it as one of the most important livelihood for a landless villager. We requested her to complete her job and we accompanied her to the nearby river to catch her in fishing. Droupadi was very energetic and struggling lady. She had one son and one daughter and both helped her in fishing, she informed. She along with her husband and other villagers used to go to jungle for honey collection in seasons. She was very upset when she started talking about honey collection. Last year one of her team members was taken away by tiger during honey collection. Gradually villagers were moving to other profession due to very high risk of tiger or crocodile attack, she added.
Droupadi with her small fishing net started fishing and mud crab hunting and we waited for a while at Ghat (a space where boats halt). After one and half hour she came back with lots of local river fishes like Parse, Dantne, Khaira, Chingri and obviously mud crabs. These would be taken to market by her husband or son for selling.
Our inquisitiveness could not resist us from asking her all about honey. We enquired more about her honey hunting experience at Sundarban forest in detail. She was tireless and started answering, too.
When and how do you do such dangerous honey collection procedure?
We generally go to forests during April to June and after that we don't get forest permission. There are three kinds of bees in the Sundarbans and among them Giant Honey Bees (we call that as Apis dorsata) comparatively make more hives and honey. A bee goes to and circumambulates 80 flowers to collect just a single drop of honey. This honey is reddish in color and sweet but woody in taste.
We go in groups and always have a team leader who is very experienced and senior. Irrespective of all religion we pray to our Goddess Banabibi before starting our journey with boat, utensils, rice, vegetables etc. because we will return from the forest after almost 10-15 days. During honey collection trip, we do not quarrel with each other, or tell lie and do not misbehave with others.
We have to be very alert all the time because tiger or crocodile may attack anytime. We use face mask from back but if anyone is left alone or become absent minded there is every possibility of tiger snatch. Last year we lost one amongst us. We were so afraid that we came back with only 400 Kg honey where as our average collection was 700-800 Kg. in previous years.
How do you locate bee hives in the deep forest?
After anchoring our boat besides the bank of river, we go toward the deep forest for searching of beehives. During honey collection, we observe the movement of bees as per our previous experience. Bhari Poka is honey bees loaded with honey in their honey gland. The honey loaded bees comparatively fly slow and move straight rather than moving in the right and left direction. Observing the movement of the Bhari Poka we usually locate bee hives.
During searching of beehives, we fix our eyes in the trees upper side causing victims to tiger- attack most of the time.
What is the procedure of honey harvesting after locating bee-hives?
After finding beehives, we make a broom like bouquet with green leaves for making smokes. We all cover our mouth with clothes or mask that time to protect from the bite of bees. Our experienced team members cut only the part of the hives that contains honey with fierce chopper and the other parts where bees and their larvae stay are left away for further growth of honey bees. Destroying full honey comb is not our practice and we consider it as harm to our sacred forest.
The collected honey is kept inside stainless steel cans which are flat in shape to reduce the moisture and honey does not get thick and sticky.
Is there any chance of mixing of water or anything after collection?
Madam, this is our livelihood and we don't mix anything with our forest's blessing. Many traders from outside come to Sundarbans during season and purchase honey. I have heard several times that our pure honey is somehow mixed with other honey before selling in the market. But we sell our raw, pure honey at our cooperative. The cooperative people test for adulteration, moisture. If they find our honey good then only we get acknowledgment slips to get payment. And we feel proud that our organic honey is sold to consumers as it as without altering by our own brand - Sundarini.
So, what types of flowers are available in Sundarban forest? And where from this honey is coming?
There are so many mangrove plants in the Sundarban forest. But generally we get best quality honey deep inside the forest where we get Sundari, Garan, Geoa, Khalisa, Keora trees. Our bees (Giant Honey Bees) prefer these flowers for their hives and honey accumulation. Our honey is a mixture of these all unique mangrove flower nectar (we call it as multifloral honey).
How is the quality of honey you sell at your Cooperative?
Best quality mangrove honey is available only deep inside the Sundarban forest. We dare to go deep every year and that's why one of our people was taken away by tiger. Many honey collectors harvest honey at forest fringes as they are afraid of tiger attack. We may stop honey collection, shift to other profession but will always collect best quality honey from deep forests. We charge more and also get more price also from our cooperative for this best quality honey.
Back at her house she had few more pending works. She had one cow also and she had to feed her. It was our very tough experience to see such a fighter very closely. Droupadi with only Rs. 4000-5000/- average monthly income dreamed to buy one more cow and sell milk at Sundarini's Dairy Cooperative Society. She believed that besides honey collection her organic cow milk production and selling at cooperative would bring happiness in her family. We too pray for her.
We were informed by our Field Staffs that Droupadi's team had a scheduled trip to jungle for honey harvesting next day. After night hault at a progressive farmer's house at Petkulchand Bridge area we again reached to Droupadi's house in the next day morning. She was extremely busy in preparing herself for the trip and was little anxious. She had her mask to protect bites of the honey bees. With a fierce chopper and stainless steel pot she was ready to go with a hope for her two children and father-in-law. Her husband had already gone to meet other team members. They all were to meet at a Ghat near to Banchapri jungle. We also started walking with her up to the Ghat. With a small boat we reached after half an hour journey through a small river, captured her smiling face in her honey hunting appearance at the fringes of the jungle and say adieu to all team members for a safe and successful trip to the world's largest mangrove forest. We prayed to God for their safe return to home this year with lot of honey and bviously without loosing ant team member.