Promoting beekeeping to tackle climate-induced agricultural challenges in India

Evangeline Arethwala

5 February 2024

This is an article from the CSC Development Theme: Strengthening resilience and response to crises

For any work to have global or national level impact, it needs to start at the grassroots. My organisation, Under The Mango Tree Society (UTMTS), applies a bottom-up approach where decisions come from the community.  UTMTS has engaged farmers in meetings to discuss challenges, solutions, as well as framework to implement projects.

Dhanshree Chavan

Bees are crucial in maintaining biodiversity and directly contribute to food security. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), a third of the world’s food production depends on bee pollinators to improve crop yields for food production which in turn supports farmer livelihoods and income generation. Climate change poses as a serious threat to the global bee population.

Climate stressed plants change their scents making it difficult for bees to find plants for food. Changes in weather patterns has also impacted when flowers produce pollen, which now does not align with when bees are ready to feed, resulting in a decrease in seed production and food shortages. Habitat loss due to climate change has led to an extinction of native bee colonies. As such, there is a need to protect bees and safeguard biodiversity for a sustainable future.

Between 2014-15, Commonwealth Alumnus Dhanshree Chavan worked at UTMTS, a not-for-profit promoting beekeeping and supporting livelihoods of farmers in India. She rejoined the organisation in 2018 as the Senior Programme Manager where she supports UTMTS in sustaining the delivery and implementation of beekeeping activities through donor engagements and fundraising.

Supporting smallholder farmers through beekeeping activities

Founded in 2009, UTMTS works with smallholder farmers to promote beekeeping of indigenous bees, such as the Indian honeybee and Trigona (stingless bees), in three states in India: Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.

Dhanshree works with UTMTS teams and beekeepers across these states to implement beekeeping projects, draft project proposals to further embed beekeeping practices, and develop resources on beekeeping.

Farmers typically experience the immediate impacts of climate change through its effects on their agricultural productivity. FAO estimates that 82% of farmers in India are smallholder and marginalised, making them particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Climate-induced agricultural challenges can lead to the loss of their primary source of income and contribute to wider social challenges, such as famer suicides, child marriage, human trafficking, and increased school dropouts.

Dhanshree supports UTMTS in delivering projects designed to address these challenges through the power of beekeeping. One such project is Bees for Poverty Reduction (BPR), which trains smallholder farmers in beekeeping as an additional income.

Prior to delivering the BPR project, UTMTS carries out an area assessment to ascertain if the region is suitable for beekeeping. This is crucial in understanding the ecosystem for bees, whilst also assessing farmer awareness of beekeeping.

Through an intensive two-days training, farmers learn best practices in beekeeping, bee box installation, beekeeping seasons and pollination times, bee management, and how beekeeping contributes to increased agricultural productivity. To anchor their interest in beekeeping, UTMTS distributes bee-friendly flora which aids in attracting bees to farmers’ land. With increased flora, bee colonies multiply which increases the opportunities to engage in wider bee-related activities, such as honey production, which supports additional income generation.

As a result of installing bee boxes during flowering seasons, Dhanshree shares that farmers have reported an increase in agricultural yield by at least 20-30%. Due to the pollination, the quality of flowers and fruits have also improved.

UTMTS farmer in his agricultural land inspecting cultivation

Image credit: UTMTS / Farmer inspecting his agricultural produce


“Because of the pollination process, pests attack reduces and so farmers save the cost of spraying pesticides. Farmers have seen the crops improve in quality. For instance, farmers have shared that the vegetables were greener, or the mangoes were juicier, further reiterating the benefits of the bee boxes.”

Based on this success, Dhanshree and UTMTS has extended the BPR project to new districts in the three states where bees are endemic. UTMTS has also recruited experienced beekeepers and trained them to become Master Trainers (MT). As MTs, experienced beekeepers receive advanced training to enable them to offer technical support to new beekeepers.

To date, UTMTS has trained over 13,500 farmers in beekeeping and has recruited over 200 active MTs.

“If farmers have any queries on their bee boxes, such as how to get rid of a bee enemy, the MT will be their technical contact to assist with such queries.”

UTMTS’s work in preserving biodiversity, protecting indigenous bees, and promoting livelihood opportunities to marginalised farmers has gained national and international recognition. The organisation has received awards including the Beekeeping for Rural Development Award by the Asian Apiculture Association (AAA) and Highland Agriculture Research and Development Enterprise (HARDEN), Nepal, the Everest Climate Action Award, and the Hindustan Computers Limited (HCL) Foundation’s grant.

Bridging the knowledge gap

In 2019, Dhanshree was awarded a Commonwealth Professional Fellowship at the Bees for Development Trust (BfD), a global charity promoting sustainable beekeeping to combat poverty, build resilient livelihoods, and enhance biodiversity. Dhanshree acknowledges the mentoring and support received from stalwarts in the beekeeping sector gave her a new perspective on ways to implement information to develop her work at UTMTS.

Following her Professional Fellowship, she was promoted to senior roles and applied her skills to strengthen and sustain donor relations through improved evidencing on the impact of beekeeping. Working with teams on the ground, UTMTS now gathers success stories from beekeepers which are incorporated in project proposals to demonstrate the impact of beekeeping on local farmers and biodiversity. Dhanshree shares this change has led to an increase in successful proposals and in generating income for UTMTS.

“As a result of the Fellowship, I was able to identify gaps, access information, and implement projects to bridge the gaps.”

Reflecting on this experience, Dhanshree has also implemented her improved communication skills to address knowledge gaps on beekeeping within remote communities. Whilst many people in these communities practice honey hunting, a form of gathering honey from wild bee colonies, and as such are well-acquainted with beekeeping and indigenous species of bees, they are often unaware of the integral role bees play in agriculture. To address this, Dhanshree developed training and resources to inform people about the multiple benefits of bees.

“Bees can be domesticated to improve people’s incomes not just with honey produce but also through increased agricultural production.”

Improving livelihood opportunities

Prior to the BPR project, Dhanshree notes that smallholder farmers cultivated limited grains and pulses for their own consumption, should crops fail.

Due to the measures implemented through the BPR project, Dhanshree is pleased to share that through increased bees and pollination, farmers can now grow and cultivate more variety of grains, fruits and vegetables for self-consumption and to sell locally.

To sustain and compliment beekeeping activities, UTMTS has trained farmers in additional income-generating opportunities. These include carpentry skills to build bee boxes and other products which can be sold, and in making organic, bee-friendly fertilisers to assist with sustainable agriculture.

With support from the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) in Gujarat, UTMTS has also established a Farmer Producer Organisation (FPO). Through the FPO, beekeepers can sell their harvested honey through direct connections to buyers, ensuring better access to   the market and removing middlemen costs.

Advocating for women beekeepers

Women beekeepers with a bee box

Image credit: UTMTS / Women beekeepers

UTMTS supports women’s participation as beekeepers to break gender stereotypes and provide economic independence. Through specific training, women learn about beekeeping practices and management, as well as how beekeeping can support wider household activities women are involved in. For example, women beekeepers in drought affected regions are taught how to combine increased pollination due to bee boxes and grey water obtained from household washing to increase productivity in their kitchen gardens. This has helped women to grow vegetables to support household consumption and to sell in local markets for additional income.

UTMTS has trained over 1800 women as beekeepers and supported them to organise self-help groups to sell harvested honey. Through a women’s MT programme, female beekeepers and farmers can receive further training and develop confidence and financial independence.

“Women are able to understand that beekeeping is not gender exclusive, it’s not only a man’s job, women can also do beekeeping.”

Dhanshree credits her team on the success of implementing beekeeping projects for women in India. They have published an article in the reputed agricultural publication, Low External Inputs Sustainable Agriculture (LEISA), highlighting their learnings on the role of women in agroeconomics.

Promoting UTMTS’s work at national and global platforms

Dhanshree acknowledges her Fellowship experience at BfD helped in building her confidence which she finds useful during national and global events. She recently presented on UTMTS’s work during the 48th International Apicultural Congress, APIMONDIA 2023, in Santiago, Chile.

Post-Professional Fellowship, she continues to maintain strong links with her host organisation, BfD. UTMTS now leads the distribution of the BfD journal in India, collaborating with academic institutions, especially those offering agricultural studies, to share insights on global beekeeping to promote this practice.

“The Fellowship with BfD provided an opportunity to learn and understand best practices in beekeeping and network with others in the area, it also gave access to various resources which otherwise would have been difficult to access. Anchoring these experiences, the networks have expanded and strengthened further.”

Dhanshree Chavan is a 2018 Commonwealth Professional Fellow from India. She completed her Fellowship at The Bees for Development Trust.