Erratic rainfall and weather have severely affected the bloom of the buckwheat and fruit trees, the main food source for the honey bee population resulting in a decline in honey production in most of the Dzongkhags.
While the price of honey in the market is soaring, the exporters made deals months ago, based on lower prices. This year, due to change in weather condition and mismanagement of queen bee, honey production has seen a severe decline.
According to the Research and Extension Division, Department of Livestock, Towchu Rabgay, 60% of the honey produced in Bhutan is exported. Now the sellers cannot meet orders, while farmers are only paid at earlier rates, far lower than the current market rate.
He said there are lots of people in the country who solely depend on the sale of honey for their livelihoods. They have been affected the most this year. Usually, each member earns more than Nu 200,000 annually but that’s not going to happen for sure this season.
In 2017, National Apiculture Department collected around 48,274 Kg of honey and the production increased to 65,853 Kg in 2019 though the data is not compiled.
Towchu Rabgay said out of 100% hives in the country, almost 50% got wiped out. Reports about the mass death of bees were shared to the Dzongkhag administration which asked the RNR Research Center to study the causes. RNR attributed it to “inadequate natural forage (pollen and nectar) during autumn season when colonies are multiplied after first honey harvest.”
He added National Apiculture Program (NAP) under National Highland Research and Development Center (NHRDC) has a national mandate to maintain beekeeping research and development across the country.
“During the reporting period (2018-19) the program had facilitated on-station and on-farm beekeeping development activities in collaboration with regional and dzongkhags livestock sectors,” he said.
Livestock production officer, Prasad Bhujel said poor quality queen bee due to lack of adequate knowledge and facility for selective queen breeding techniques has caused decline in production of honey this year.
“Inadequate knowledge on managed beekeeping management techniques particularly among new beekeepers and less practiced by those who are already aware of the techniques were reasons too,” he said.
He added other reasons were use of agricultural chemicals in the vicinity for pest and disease control and beekeepers’ unawareness of time for use as beekeepers. “The problem is not just the death of bees. The cooperative is also suffering financially with most of their honey left stockpiled in their store without buyers,” he said.
Meanwhile, most of the honey businesses has been badly affected by the COVID-19 situation. Chimi, a Board Member of the Cooperative said, “We approached the Dzongkhag administration for support and they told us that they will render their help. They also talked with the Agricultural Marketing and Cooperatives Department from which our chairman got a call saying the department is looking for solutions.”
In a bid to offload their honey stock, the cooperative has come up with a new product called the Cream Honey, which will soon hit the market. Prices range from Nu 150 to 380 per jar of the honey.
According to Towchu Rabgay, the changes in habitat and biodiversity, coupled with increasing use of chemicals and pesticides, have led to a sharp decline in bee populations.
Along with farmers, exporters of honey are suffering. Of the honey produced in Bhutan, about 30% is sold in local markets.
One of the farmers said every year, he earns a reasonable profit but in the last season, due to reduced production, the price reached a record high. “This brought heavy losses to me. I delivered my consignment at a 50% loss,” he said. Exporters suffered huge losses as they had made deals with buyers six months earlier when the price was lower.
Honey farming in particular, is still a profitable business, as international demand is high. But a loss in local production and soaring prices will have a huge impact on the industry.
The Agriculture Ministry is exploring means to export the cooperative’s honey. Dr Sonam Wangchuk from the ministry’s RNR Enterprise Development Coordination Unit said they have talked with three individuals to potentially export the products to the United States and Europe when flight restrictions are eased and international markets start returning to normalcy.
“Officials from the ministry are on their plans to discuss the quality and pricing of their products with the farmers,” he said.
There are 83 members in the cooperative currently. As of now, there are more than 547 members across the country.
Kinley Yonten from Thimphu