Under The Mango Tree – latest from our project in India

Where are the Pictures of Bees?
When I finally got around to sorting the pictures taken during my two day visit in May to some of the villages where Under the Mango Tree (UTMT – our Indian partner organization) is working, it struck me that compared to previous visits I had taken far fewer ‘bee and bee-keeping specific’ photos: Yes, there is the odd picture of a beekeeper next to a hive, or even pulling a frame – but the majority of the pictures ‘document’ that UTMT’s project has expanded far beyond ‘just’ teaching beekeeping skills: What the visit (not only as reflected in my pictures) made amply clear: UTM’s work is about creating a healthy environment for bees and humans alike, while facing increasingly high, often man made, challenges like deforestation, drought, climate weirding.

The drive from the railway station to the group of villages where UTMT has been active for years was almost apocalyptic: The forests are seriously overexploited, with only a sprinkling of almost branchless trees left standing, and with the hot season at its peak, a deepening long lasting drought, and burnt patches everywhere, the scenery looked as if a firestorm had passed through. But oddly enough, ash was concentrated in rectangles in between the blackened trunks. These tiny plots turned out to be fields prepared for planting in the monsoon: Villagers had piled dead leaves, branches and other debris onto the land they plan to cultivate as soon as the rains arrive: burning the organic matter leaves a layer of ash which acts as a fertilizer – and produces a lot of additional Greenhouse Gasses.

Which makes one of UTMT’s latest ventures (started in the summer of 2018) so promising: a tree nursery next to the ‘old’ bee training centre: A group of 10 women are in charge of growing the tree saplings. The women learn a skill that allows them to eventually start their own nursery and generate some income, farmers will be given a (subsidised) package of saplings: 5 mango trees, 10 bamboos, 5 amla (a bitter, healthy berry producing plant), 1 gulmohar (tree with huge red flowers): This will help regrow tree cover, provide bee flora and provide a source of income. There are four mango varieties in the region: Rajapuri, Kesa, Langra, Dasseri: scions of these are grafted onto ‘desi’ (native) rootstocks (grown from seed). The trees will start to bear fruit after three years, but proper harvest begins only in year six or seven; the productive life of a mango tree is 35 years.

In a cluster of villages with even scarcer water resources UTMT has expanded into a kitchen garden project. Apart from increasing bee forage, the key aims are to help villagers grow more healthy food for themselves – while making use of waste water: the water drawn from an open well is first used to clean kitchen and eating utensils, this ‘gray water’ is collected, filtered and then used to water the vegetables. The kitchen gardens are created as close to the water source as possible. And (as this is a UTMT project) there needs to be a beehive within a 500 m range. Kakdu Kharpade showed me around her kitchen garden: the family well is about 15 meters behind the house, the washing area is right next to the well, the kitchen garden sits in between. She collects the ‘grey water’ in three big steel vessels which she then empties into a big blue plastic barrel within the kitchen garden (via a piece of cloth for filtration). Now she can fill the watering cans whenever she is ready to tend to the plants. And of course one of her bee hives is right behind the kitchen garden.

The gardens follow a specific design: two rings of beds around a centre piece. The inner of the two rings is planted with fenugreek, spinach, ladyfinger, pigeon peas, chilli, aubergine, methi; in the outer one are creepers like bottle, sponge, and bitter gourd, as well as corn: The outer ring is designed to provide shade; initially the centrepiece is planted with greens, too, but in July (Monsoon) a tree will be planted; favourites are apple, jujube, guava, lemon, papaya, white jamun, or coconut: these trees will then provide more shade, bee food, as well as more food and income for the owners.

In the shade of the veranda of the 2nd, new bee training centre, the women tell me about the kitchen gardens. Before the women were trained, most just grew aubergines, tomatoes and chillies. Now they grow a huge variety of vegetables – their diet is better. Because they are now making use of the waste water they can grow vegetables even in the dry season. Before they had to buy vegetables in the market, the amount needed for a family per day was about Rs. 20 (ca. 22 pence) – money they can now save. And surplus vegetables are sold at the farm gate or in the market.

But of course: at the heart of UTMT’s work remains the attempt to increase harvests via improved pollination. Bees Abroad has co-funded a study to measure the impact. Data is still being collected, and some farmers could not even participate because their land was too dry to grow all ‘test crops’, but anecdotal evidence indicates: plots with pollination fare better even under drought conditions than those without bees. The same goes for mangoes, whether Rajapuri (seen in harvest: green, excellent for pickling) or sweet varieties straight for consumption. Non-traditional fruit like jackfruit – an ideal tree for dry areas, as it needs very little water, benefit, too.

Bhikare Rama Urade not only has some of these trees and fruit giants, but also cashew and chilli fields. He has eight A. cerana hives – and three Trigona (stingless) colonies. Mr Urade is also the UTMT carpenter, and the demand for Trigona boxes is increasing – ‘living proof’ that the first grant by Bees Abroad is showing results.

Mr Urade says that in his opinion it is too early to judge the impact of Trigona on pollination, but what is already clear is that Trigona are even more cost effective to keep than A. cerana (and A. cerana are rather low cost/maintenance compared to the ‘European’ honey bee): a Trigona box sells for Rs. 1000, an A. cerana hive for Rs. 1200-1500.

UTMT is also promoting other drought tolerant plants. E.g. ‘cluster beans’ – according to the family of Ambilal, another farmer, 0.5 kg seed produced 200 kg of harvest (until the water of his well ran out and the plants died) – all recorded by UTMT organized field staff – and soon to be reported on a world stage: UTMT was given one of the coveted presentation slots at the APIMONDIA (World Beekeeping Conference, Montreal, September) to report on the study.

The last stop on the return journey is next to a ‘drumstick-tree’ – a possible ‘miracle plant’ for an area which in all likelihood will have to live with drought for a long time to come: The tree leaves provide fodder; the seeds have medicinal value; powder made of the leaves can be to cow feed, which is said to result in 40% higher milk production – a land where milk and honey flows?

Let’s have a drum(stick) roll for UTMT and its work.

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