The Neelakurinji flower blooms once every 12 years. Allison Stewart visits a beekeeper's farm in Coorg when the Neelakurinji is in bloom, to harvest honey that captures the unique flavours of the Western Ghats.
Bees and pollinators are critical to a thriving biodiverse habitat, and it could be argued, even more important here in India, where there are several species of native bees that pollinate both wild flowers and agricultural crops. By buying unique varietals of honey, a consumer can support traditional beekeeping methods as a form of biodiversity conservation.
The sun was already starting to set behind the misty rain clouds, straight ahead of us. We were driving on dirt roads carved into the hillside, climbing in altitude to about 3000 metres above sea level, deeper in ghats, just West of Somwarpet, in the Kodagu region.
As a plant lover and a beekeeper, I had heard about a particular plant growing in the Western ghats, mostly in the area around Munnar, called the Neelakurinji, that blooms only once every 12 years or so. 2018 was the next predicted bloom, and I was excited to see it, dreaming of an elusive, hard-to-find plant in uncultivated forests. But driving up into the mountains, my host for the day, Rashid pointed out these flowers — they were everywhere! Small flowers, a pinkish-purple colour with a white tinge, the Neelakurinji flowers covered the hillsides as we continued to drive several kilometers out of this small town, and further into the foothills.
With the altitude came an enchanting fog, and the absence of all noise except for strong winds and the beginnings of a trickle of rain. Soon, we arrived at Chanraj’s house, sitting on a small hillside. Chanraj, a beekeeper and planter, tends to 50 hives of Apis cerana, the Indian honeybee. Behind the house and the paddy, the hillside continues, where coffee, cardamom, oranges, bananas and more are cultivated. Here, in this entanglement of wild and cultivated fruits, lie 50 beehives. Surrounding these beehives, in this domesticated forest area, the neelakurinji moved in the winds.
Bees are a keystone species that by pollinating plants, holds together much of our agricultural and ecological systems. Many of the most common vegetables and fruits depend on pollination by honeybees, and without these plants, our diets would suffer, and the global ramifications to landscapes, both agricultural and wild, will be tremendous. There is much debate about why bees are disappearing, but it is safe to say that a fast-changing environment has a big role to play. Seeing how beekeepers guide and suggest, rather than rear, made me want to learn how to work alongside bees to pollinate and support a holistic vision of nature. While the specifics of plant availability and methods differ, I often seek to meet beekeepers in every place I visit.
Chanraj quickly put on a veil and went into the hills. Moving from hive to hive without the use of smoke, he cracked open the hives he suspected would have the most harvest, and pulled out frames of capped honey.
Beekeeping in India is similar to what I’m used to in the U.S. but the biggest difference is size. The local honeybee, Apis cerana, is similarly domesticated as the European honeybee. It is smaller, darker in colour, and a bit more docile. The Asian honeybee does not need to collect and preserve honey in the same manner as a European honeybee, storing for winter so that there is food in the absence of flowers. Because India has a variety of flowers almost all year round, there is honey to collect all year round, and the flavour of honey varies based on these seasonal flowers. In the summer after the rains, the honey is watery and less sweet. In December, the prized honey is made from the nectar of the paddies. And in the springtime, honey comes from the coffee and orange blooms.
As Chanraj collected the capped, waxy frames from twelve different hives, his wife pulled out the honey extractor. The sun was slowly setting behind the hills, and we placed the extractor on the door stoop, to continue extracting in the light emanating from the house. Using a hot knife, Chranraj sliced the wax caps off the frame, and then positioned the frames inside the extractor.
Two empty litre-sized whiskey bottles were grabbed, and as Chanraj spun the extractor, golden honey began to drip into the cloth-covered bowl, to be strained again before being poured into the glass bottles. The frames we collected made 2 kilograms of honey, which beekeepers like Chanraj can sell for about INR 800/ kilogram on the local market. During paddy honey season, Chanraj hopes to harvest about 25 kilograms of honey.
Because honey is made from the nectar of plants near the beehive, honey can describe the local landscape; representing terroir much in the same way that wine represents the flavours of its region. It literally is the taste of the local vegetation and the specific season — the plants at that particular time of the year, encapsulated in a drop of of sweet syrup. More than anything, it is important to buy single varietal honeys that are raw. Most of the the honeys available in the commercial market are combined, heated, and filtered to create a streamlined product that is mild in taste, far from the intense flavours of raw single varietal honeys that embody terroir. Some honey experts have even created a tasting wheel for tasting notes of varying honey varietals. I’ve tasted dozens of honeys; some are salty and crisp, some are mellow and creamy, some are dark-coloured and resemble molasses. The taste of the Neelakurinji honey, more than anything, tastes like pineapples with distinct notes of lavender. This is the taste of the Western Ghats in 2018.
Allison Stewart works in food innovation, sustainable agriculture, and food sourcing, and is an avid beekeeper visiting India and the plantations in Coorg. She was a 2018-2019 Fulbright Nehru Scholar in collaboration with Fairtrade India. She now writes at Northseaspices.com.
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