With increasing number of members and more demand for honey in the market, the beekeepers cooperative (BeCop) in Bumthang is processing for ISO certification.
Members of the cooperative increased to 87 this year from 67 last year.
The chairman of the cooperative Tul Bdr. Chettri said there are many requirements for ISO certification and meeting them is a challenge.
“But it is good for the brand and production process would be more hygienic,” he said. However, the challenge is that it requires more investment. He said that machines and other resources are not available locally.
For instance, the ISO certification body from Kolkota, India even specifies which cleaning soaps should be used to clean the utensil. The soap, Tul Bdr. Chettri said is only available in Phuentsholing.
Besides this, the processing plant is mandated to have standard washrooms and separate dressing rooms among others.
“Fulfilling all theses requirement are difficult but we are trying to get it done,” he said adding that the Bhutan Agriculture and Food Regulatory Authority (BAFRA) are helping the cooperative. “Additional investment will translate into increased price of honey in the market,” he added.
The cooperative produced 18MT of honey last year and has so far harvested 15MT this year. Beekeepers said that the second harvest in September is usually low compared to the harvest in June. Honey is harvested twice in Bumthang.
“People spread rumors that we add sugar, but if we use sugar we can harvest every week,” a member of the cooperative said. He said that crystallization happens naturally when the temperature in winter drops. The imported honey is always in liquid state because of the preservatives, the member said.
Tul Bdr. Chettri also said that harvest is dependent on the weather and flowering season.
As for the market, he said the supply is unable to meet the demand. They supply honey to Thimphu, Paro and Bumthang where there are more hotels.
“Sometimes people call us saying they would deposit around Nu 3M to 4M to reserve the whole stock,” he said. “But we make sure that it is distributed evenly.”
The cooperative is not considering exporting the product since meeting the local demand has been challenging.
The cooperative is also encouraging more farmers to take up beekeeping since people consider it a sin because of religious sentiments, the chairman of the cooperative said. “We go to schools and also reach out to youth out of school to encourage them to take up beekeeping,” he said. The cooperative is also giving loan to its member at seven percent interest to promote beekeeping.
A farmer in Bumthang who has 230 hives, the largest among the members, earns about Nu 900,000 annually. The least is about Nu 50,000. Bumthang has more than 10,000 hives.
Beekeepers who are members of the cooperative are mandated to bring their harvest to the production unit run by the cooperative where bottling and labeling are done.
Farmers are paid Nu 350 a kg and after packaging and processing, the product is sold at Nu 500 a kg. A kilogram of honey can fill two 500ml of bottles. The cooperative keeps a commission of around Nu 15 a bottle.
However, bears often attack the hives. With recurring concerns raised by the farmers, the cooperative also explored the option of solar fencing. “But its expensive,” the chairman said.
The cooperative was initially formed as an Association in 1990. Experiments with local species of bee had been done but were unsuccessful. Since Apis Melliferra, the European species was introduced, beekeeping has been a success story.
Tshering Dorji | Bumthang