How Madurai’s Queen Bee found sweet success, and is now empowering other women

Shruti Kedia
15th Oct 2018
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Josephine Arokiya Mary, a National Award winner for apiculture, started her journey with 10 bee boxes and presently has 7,000 bee boxes; she has helped create more than 1,800 entrepreneurs in her district. 

Josephine Arokia Mary with her 'winged angels'. Image credit: S James

Not many find their way to the proverbial land of milk and honey, but Josephine Arokiya Mary's slow and steady steps took her there. Her success is all the more sweeter as it comes after colossal personal losses.

Mary, 45, a resident of Kondaiyampatty village, lost her husband to a brief illness just after her 17-year-old daughter succumbed to bone cancer.

“After their deaths, I retreated into myself. We had huge medical bills, and I wanted my son to become a doctor so he could help patients suffering from the diseases that took away my husband and daughter. I found encouragement from friends and family, and decided to restart the bee harvesting business. Ten years of bee harvesting has given me a livelihood,” she says.

Years later, she's known as Queen Bee in her village, and sells honey to 23 districts in Tamil Nadu. She offers 25 varieties of honey with flavours like Jamun, Neem, and Amla, among others, through her enterprise called Vibis Natural Bee Farming. Mary now earns more than Rs 1 lakh per month, and her venture has an annual turnover of Rs 3 crore.

Mary and her team extract honey from bee boxes.

Besides providing employment to over 50 people and helping over 400 women set up honey bee farms, she is training more than 50,000 people in bee harvesting under the National Honey Mission, and creating awareness to save bees from going extinct. Mary is working extensively in Vadipatti town and nearby areas of Madurai district.

The beginning

Mary was born and brought up in Muththupatti, a small village in Sivagangai district. She got married to Madurai-based businessman Selvaraj after she finished her higher secondary education. However, marriage did not stop her from pursuing her education and she completed her BA. After the birth her two children, Mary decided to find a way to earn money and support her husband, as he used to earn a mere Rs 2,000 per month.

A chance advertisement in a newspaper regarding a free training programme to learn bee keeping at Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK) at Madurai Agricultural Science Centre, marked the beginning of Mary’s journey with her “winged angels”. 

Within the first few weeks, Mary made a profit of Rs 3,000.

After learning a few techniques, she started her own bee harvesting project in 2006 with just 10 bee boxes on her father’s 100 acres of land. She would leave the boxes on her father’s land and would visit them every week to collect honey. To Mary’s surprise, the first harvest gave her 8 kg of honey, and she made a profit of Rs 3,000 within the first three weeks.

Her success story spread across her village and soon the National Agricultural Movement under National Agricultural Development Scheme approached Mary to help them distribute bee boxes to farmers at subsidised rates. This made Mary realise that creating bee boxes gave more revenue than accumulating honey. She got a loan of Rs 1 lakh and created many more bee boxes.

But her success was not sweet as she lost her daughter to cancer.

“It was the most difficult time of my life. I sold all my jewellery and spent more than Rs 3 lakh for her treatment, but I couldn’t save her. Even before I could recover from my daughter’s death, my husband also died. During this time, without much care, my bees were also not in a good state. I lost all hope; I didn’t have any reason to live,” Mary recalls.
Mary at the farm.

However, Mary motivated herself to restart her entrepreneurial journey to secure her son’s future. She wanted her son to take up medicine, which was an expensive course; she also had huge debts and medical bills to pay off.

The bee business

In 2010, a year after her daughter’s death, Mary took a loan of Rs 10 lakh from Canara Bank to start Vibis Natural Bee Farming with 1,000 bee boxes. Targeting diabetic patients, she accumulated and harvested Jamun bees, which gave her good revenues; soon, Mary started to harvest honey from more than 10 varieties of bees.

Explaining the bee harvesting process, she says, “Bee harvesting is very feasible as we can get pure honey within half an hour without much hassle. Moreover, it does not require large space and huge investment. For example, if you can find a drumstick tree within a 2 km radius, you can keep your bee boxes in between those trees and can harvest drumstick honey.”

However, she says bee keeping is not a conventional job option for women. “The pollination of bees happens only in the evening, post 7 pm, and work lasts for almost 3 hours. I used to get back home by 10.30-11 pm, and people used to talk. They would say, ‘look a widow is coming back so late at night',” she recalls.
Mary sells over 25 varieties of honey under the brand name Vibis.

Mary presently has 7,000 bee boxes, with a storage capacity for 5,000 to 7,000 kg of bees. She says it is much easier to harvest than to sell the product in the market. She found that her honey had few takers as people preferred to purchase honey from well-known brands. She started to brand her products and sold over 30 types of honey, all organic. The types of honey available depend on the season and availability of flowers; the varieties include tulasi honey, rose honey, naaval honey, neem, amla, pepper, lichi, and crunch.

Apart from selling honey, Mary diversified her business by selling bee wax candles and the pollen the bees carry on their legs. She made huge profits with the sale of Royal Jelly, a honey bee secretion found in adult queens, which is widely marketed as a dietary supplement. She earned Rs 1 lakh for selling 1 kg. She also sells stands, boxes, frames, and machines to extract honey to support bee harvesting.

Creating an impact

Mary’s difficulties taught her the importance of women being financially independent and she started to teach bee harvesting techniques to women and college students. She has helped create more than 1,800 entrepreneurs in her district who are engaged in small-scale businesses of bee keeping. They sell honey locally, and make products out of bee wax. She has created 8,000 new bee harvesters over the past seven years.

Mary demonstrates the techniques of bee harvesting.

Mary is also working to create awareness and save bees from extinction. She has published two books on bee harvesting and is presently writing her third book. Till date, she has received six national awards and 36 state awards for her contribution to apiculture.

Bees help in pollination, which helps trees give more produce. If there is a bee box close to a lemon or a mango tree, the tree gives more fruit than an average tree. Through my workshops, I encourage farmers to harvest at least one bee box in their house,” she says.

“My dream is to produce honey at Rs 5 to Rs 10 per kg so that even the poor can get a chance to taste the sweetness,” she says.

Mary's other dream - of wanting her son to study medicine - is also on track. Her son is completing his MBBS and wants to to get into cancer research. “If he can make even one person smile, one person better, my life will be fulfilled,” Mary says.

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