In the lush green valleys of Kashmir, a unique variety of honey is creating a buzz among connoisseurs and health enthusiasts alike.
Harvested from the spring blooms of the Acacia tree (robinia pseudoacacia), this honey has an unusual granular texture and exceptional sweetness that distinguishes it from others found elsewhere.
Acacia trees are a common sight in Kashmir, identifiable by their broad trunks and hard thorns, frequently growing amid apple orchards.
The tree is locally known as ‘Kikar,’ a term that originates from the Sanskrit word for thorny plants.
During the months of April and May, the Acacia blooms come alive, transitioning gracefully from pure white to a creamy hue and finally to yellow.
It is during this period that bees are hard at work, buzzing from flower to flower, converting the delicate nectar into a honey with a distinctive flavor profile that’s both a testament to the blooms it originates from and the turbulent Kashmiri spring.
Battling the elements
This harvest, however, is a race against time and the whims of the spring weather amid cold, rainy, and windy days. The bees face an uphill battle as fluctuating weather can abruptly halt the flowering process, sometimes confining them to their hives, unable to gather nectar.
This fragility in the harvesting process gifts this white honey a rarity that makes it a cherished commodity, seldom found beyond the picturesque valleys of Kashmir. This scarcity only amplifies its value, creating a buzz of excitement and anticipation each year as enthusiasts and locals alike await the sweet reward of patience and the bees’ diligent work.
What’s behind the distinctive flavor of this honey? The glycosides and fructose found in Acacia flowers probably. But the honey’s value extends beyond its sweetness; Kashmiris use the honey to enrich the flavor of their traditional tea, ‘Kehwa.’ Much like the way onions complement a variety of dishes, this honey pairs perfectly with many Kashmiri teas, becoming a cherished addition to daily culinary practices in the region.
The beekeeper’s craft
Beekeepers in the region, aware of its growing demand, strategically position their hives close to the Acacia trees, awaiting the blossoming of their white, bundle-shaped flowers to harvest the fragrant nectar.
Noor Muhammad, a seasoned 45-year-old apiculturist, sees beekeeping as much an art as a business. Passionate about ensuring the purity of the honey amid a market awash with adulterated versions, he is forging ahead, backed by a strong family support system. The efforts have borne fruit, as reflected in an impressive annual turnover of ₹2 crore ($240,000).
Muhammad oversees the production of two distinct types of honey in Kashmir before setting off to explore other regions. With 1,600 beehives at his disposal, Muhammad manages to produce 20 metric tons of honey annually. His enterprise further extends to buying an additional 200 metric tons from fellow producers throughout India.
“I oversee two harvesting periods here in Kashmir, including the one for white honey, before I venture to other areas,” Muhammad said. Despite facing setbacks due to the covid-19 pandemic, Muhammad cherishes the autonomy his job affords him, and takes pride in the soaring demand for the locally produced white honey.
Joining Muhammad in this venture is another apiculturist, Nikam Chowhan, who relocates from Uttar Pradesh to Kashmir, drawn by the pursuit of this liquid gold. He highlights the unmatched flavor and the rarity of the Acacia honey, factors that endear it to honey aficionados. The substantial demand keeps him motivated to aim for quality, ensuring a fruitful return on investment of time, money, and effort.
“Acacia is rare and you cannot get it from other parts of the country. Though places like Rajasthan produce honey in abundance, there is nothing like Acacia. It always remains in huge demand among honey lovers; so as a businessman, you always strive for what sells in the market,” Chowhan said.
This year, Chowhan said he has set up around 450 beehives, employing 13 workers, with an expected annual turnover of ₹20 lakh. He believes that honey production in Kashmir holds immense potential, provided the government addresses the honey producers’ concerns.
Chowhan’s endeavors echo the spirit of hundreds of other proactive honey producers in India, who navigate diverse regions in search of the perfect climatic conditions conducive to honey production.
The historical background of beekeeping in the valley has seen significant shifts over time.
While initially reliant on the indigenous bee species ‘Apis cerana indica’, a virus-induced crisis in the 1990s led to the introduction of a European bee variety, ‘Apis mellifera’. This change, backed by scientific research and advances in honey extraction techniques, has fostered an increase in productivity.
Munaza (who goes by just one name), an associate professor at the Sheri-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences (SKUAST), credits this species with rejuvenating the industry.
“Apis mellifera has a few advantages over the indigenous bees, yielding slightly higher and is easier to domesticate as they are comparatively gentle,” Munaza said.
This species can be migrated to various flora-rich locations, unlike the ‘Apis cerana indica’, which prefers smaller nest cavities and “does not take well to disturbances,” she added.
Traditionally, honey was extracted by squeezing honeycombs in cloth. However, modern extraction tools have expedited and improved the process, enabling immediate bottling after the removal of wax and excess moisture, Dr Munaza said.
Experts, including Qazi Showkat, an assistant entomologist at the Directorate of Agriculture, Srinagar, believe that honey production in Kashmir has evolved, thanks to heightened awareness, product commercialization, and the introduction of new bee species better adapted to the region’s climate.
“Kashmir honey has a unique color and taste and is organic with less moisture content. Its processing does not involve any chemicals,” Showkat said.
Honey in numbers
The Indian government has allocated ₹500 crore ($60 million) for the three-year National Beekeeping and Honey Mission, which began in 2020 with the goal to encourage and advance scientific beekeeping.
India exported about 60,000 metric tonnes of natural honey worth ₹716 crore ($96.77 million) in 2020-21 predominantly to UAE, Europe, North America, and China, government data showed.
Jammu and Kashmir alone produces 23,050 quintals of honey annually, including the Acacia variety. Apart from J&K, the states of Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Punjab, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra are significant contributors to honey production in India.
In fiscal 2021, India exported nearly 60,000 metric tonnes of natural honey, bringing in ₹716 crore ($96.77 million), predominantly to UAE, Europe, North America, and China, government data showed.
Jammu and Kashmir contributed 23,050 quintals of honey to the annual production, a significant portion of which is the distinct Acacia variety.
Other key honey-producing states are Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Punjab, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra.
Health in a bottle
Roughly half of the honey produced is used domestically, with the remainder being exported. The global demand for honey increased during the covid pandemic, as many sought it out as an immunity booster and a healthier alternative to sugar.
Dr Zubair Ahmad, a retired chief medical officer in Kashmir, said Acacia honey is packed with health benefits, including vitamins, minerals, and anti-inflammatory properties, and it has a long history of use in traditional medicine. “It can serve as a sleep aid, cough suppressant, and remedy for diarrhoea,” he said. “Its influence on the body varies based on its method of consumption. When mixed with tepid water, it can enhance the red blood cell count, aiding in the alleviation of anemic conditions.”
Honey helps increase the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood, which can mitigate symptoms like fatigue, breathlessness, and depression often associated with iron deficiency anemia, he added.