Action research into improved beekeeping and agroforestry in Humla district of West Nepal (2002)
 Naomi M. Saville

1. Introduction
The district of Humla lies in the North West corner of Nepal bordering Tibet to the North and ranges in altitude from 1900m to 4700m. Being one of the remotest areas of the country, Simikot the district head quarters is 10 days walk from the nearest motor road and is served by an airstrip which is accessible in only the clearest weather conditions when there is no snow on the ground. In a ranking of the 75 districts of Nepal, Humla comes 4th from worst off (Banskota et al 1997). Transportation costs into the district are very high which makes basic commodities very expensive. Lack of communications, irrigation and basic health care, malnutrition and food shortages are amongst the district's many problems. Yet the area is better off than many other areas of Nepal in terms of natural resources such as forest and high altitude rangelands, which means that beekeeping has great potential and a comparative advantage over other livelihood options.

2. Findings of preliminary surveys on beekeeping in Humla
In order to investigate the potential for beekeeping development in Humla district, two studies were conducted (in March and September 2000) to determine the problems facing beekeepers and the opportunities available to overcome them (Saville and Acharya 2001). The studies showed that there is an enormous potential for development of a small beekeeping industry in the district as honey yields quoted by Humla farmers from the local strain of Apis cerana cerana are higher than those from elsewhere in Nepal. Through Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) exercises with beekeeping communities (see Saville, Upadhaya and Acharya 2001 for details of methods), focus group discussions and inspections of bee colonies, the two surveys concluded that the beekeepers of the area are faced with the following problems:

  1. Starvation of bees in monsoon and winter dearth periods coupled with lack of cash to buy sugar for feeding bees. Sugar is prohibitively expensive (Rs90 / kg in remote areas of Humla as compared to Rs30 / kg in the plains) and the people cannot afford to make a priority of purchasing sugar for the bees when they have so many other demands on their meagre cash resources.
  2. Insecticide poisoning of bee colonies due to lack of awareness about toxicity of insecticide to bees.
  3. Bee diseases such as wax moth, phorid fly and from time to time Thai Sac Brood Virus. It was encouraging to see that the epidemic of European Foul Brood introduced to Jumla on Apis mellifera in the 1990s (Saville 2001) had not yet reached Humla. 
  4. Lack of suitable technology for the control of swarming. Traditional fixed combs hives do not allow combs to be moved, so beekeepers depend on catching swarms as they fly from hives or baiting swarms in empty hives in areas near forest. This means that beekeepers lose swarms and suffer loss of colony strength from over-swarming.
  5. Lack of suitable honey harvesting and processing methods: - beeswax is produced by cooking unsealed honeycombs and empty old combs directly over the fire rather than extracting than cooking combs in water; cooked honey is of no medicinal value; raw honey is unfiltered and dirty. 
  6. Beeswax in the form of old combs is usually thrown away and when produced is often not marketed. Honey prices are low in the selected areas.
  7. Depletion of bee forage resources and wild bee nesting habitat due to deforestation and environmental degradation from over-cropping of wild herbs and slash and burn agriculture.

3. Design of action research project to address problems facing beekeepers
In order to address these limiting factors listed above, since July 2001 Humla Conservation and Development Association (HCDA), a Humla local NGO, has undertaken a 3-year action research programme addressing the following issues (each of the numbered points corresponds with the numbered problem identified above):

  1. Non-sugar alternatives for feeding bees to prevent starvation and disease susceptibility and to increase honey production;
  2. Organic (bee-safe) methods of insect pest control using local herbs and integrated vegetable growing techniques to prevent bee poisoning;
  3. Local herbs for prevention and control of Thai Sac Brood Virus, wax moth and phorid fly;
  4. Introduction of top-bar hive technology (Jumla Top-Bar Hive as described in Saville, Upadhaya Shukla and Pradhan 2000 and Saville 2000b) in order to facilitate improved bee colony management especially colony division, uniting and swarm control;
  5. Training in improved harvesting and processing in order to improve honey quality and diversify production into beeswax for sale and for making into products such as skin creams and candles (cf. Saville 2000a);
  6. Market facilitation to assist farmers to sell honey and beeswax at good prices;
  7. Development of agroforestry and community forestry by establishing nurseries and community forest plantations plots in order to enhance bee forage availability and reduce environmental degradation.

The research method is 'participatory action research'. This means that ordinary farmers in 3 administrative areas called village development committees (VDCs) - namely Melchham, Mimi and Daarma- are involved in the trials. The step-wise method of the research overall is given in Box 1. The approach is to use social mobilisation to motivate farmers to participate in the research and capacity building of local NGOs and (grassroots) community based organisations to enable local people to conduct participatory research and disseminate successful technologies to farmers in the future. In the current project, having already identified the problems needing to be addressed in preliminary studies during 2000 (step 1), the second step in 2001 was to gather indigenous knowledge from the farmers (cf. Saville and Upadhaya 2000) about bee feeding, bee colony management, bee forage species and medicinal herbs which might have application as local insecticides or as bee medicines. This used Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) tools such as pair-wise preference ranking (Saville 2001), resource maps, transect walks and time lines, and simple questionnaires. Then the third step is to train farmers in top-bar hive making, basic beekeeping in top-bar hives, bee feeding, honey and beeswax processing, value-added products, tree nursery establishment, simple agroforestry, organic gardening techniques and herbal pest control methods. Then, with the help of local staff of HCDA, simple trials with easy-to-follow record keeping in Nepali are undertaken as the fourth and fifth steps to identify which technologies are most appropriate or effective to the local conditions. Lastly at the end of 3 years of research when successful technologies have been discovered, dissemination of results at all levels (community, district, national, international) including farmers, scientists, beekeepers and development workers will be undertaken.

Discussion and conclusion
Many programmes of agricultural and beekeeping related research conducted in developing countries employ international or national scientists with higher level degrees in order to find answers to problems facing farmers / beekeepers. Because living and working in village conditions is considered low status and forces privations upon the scientists, they tend to conduct their trials on research stations in the more accessible areas of the country. Often this means that results of the research bear little relation to the problems facing farmers or even if relevant are not available to farmers in media that they can understand. The current study, being conducted in extremely remote villages of West Nepal, is designed on the basis of problems expressed by farmers themselves and involves the farmers affected by the research in all steps from problem identification through problem solving to success story dissemination. The findings may not be highly scientific from properly replicated and controlled research plots, but they are likely to give preliminary indications of appropriate technologies and will be understood by the farmers who need them. Approaches of social mobilisation of local communities and capacity building of local organisations (NGOs and CBOs) used in the research should result in farmers and local community development workers who understand how to test an idea for improving productivity such that further research could be conducted by them in the future. Also if any findings emerge which are of particular interest, further more scientific studies could be taken up by the scientific community and tested in properly controlled trial plot in the future. The authors suggest that more agricultural and beekeeping research projects should undertake such systems of participatory action research in remote locations if research is to have relevance to the poor who live in such areas. They also urge funding institutions to lengthen the standard funding cycle for participatory action research to a minimum of five years instead of three as results are very difficult to obtain in such a short time.

Step-wise process of participatory action research
1st : Problem Identification

2nd: Information gathering

3rd : Training

Train farmers in:

4th : Beekeeping related research

5th : Agroforestry-related research

6th : Result dissemination


The authors would like to thank the beekeepers and farmers of South Humla (especially Melchham, Mimi and Daarma VDCs) for participating in the research, the staff of Humla Conservation and Development Association (HCDA) NGO in Humla for assistance in research implementation, DFID Nepal's Hill Agriculture Research Project (HARP) for funding for the current research and for support in implementation, Appropriate Technology Asia (previously ApTibeT) and the District Partners Programme (DPP) of SNV Nepal for funding the two preliminary studies, staff of the Himalayan Permaculture Group (HPG) for support with agroforestry and organic pest control technology and training.