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Bees feel the sting of climate change

Deepti Ganapathy Jan 10 , 2017
IMPORTANT Bees play a key role in plant evolution by spreading pollen
The 1,600-km stretch of the Western Ghats traversing the six western states in India is unique in many ways. However, people in these forests have lived in complete harmony with nature for many years and show great reverence for it. The Kodava community, for example, who grow coffee, pepper, cardamom and rice in the district of Kodagu, are nature worshippers, and their conservation efforts can be seen in the form of sacred groves.

The Western Ghats is home to over 5,000 species of flowering plants that attract the earth’s oldest and most vital inhabitant: the bee. More than 16,000 species of bees, organised into seven families, are known to exist in the world. Bees are known to play a key role in plant evolution by spreading pollen, and preferring to pollinate some types of plants over others.

A recent study on the importance of bee pollination in coffee production in Kodagu by two researchers, Virginie Boreux and Lavin Biddanda at the College of Forestry, Ponnampet in Kodagu district, reveals that bee pollination increases the number of coffee berries harvested per cluster. “Bees have a particular behaviour when they collect nectar and pollen: they visit many flowers from different coffee bushes. Thus, many pollen grains of different origins are deposited on the stigmas, and through competition, only the best of these pollen grains manage to fertilise coffee flowers,” the research paper states.

The study gains significance as better selection of pollen results in producing stronger berries that are healthier and increase in productivity of coffee berries, says coffee planter Naren K K, whose plantations the researchers visited. The research paper also suggests methods that coffee planters could adopt to ensure more bees in their estate. “The effects of climate change can be seen with the slow disappearance of the bee. Ten years ago, we used to see a lot of bees in the estate, especially around particular trees,” says Naren.

Honey production affected
This has, in turn, affected the production and practice of honeybees that are in existence for around 120 million years. Though nearly one million tonnes of honey is produced worldwide every year, the delicate nature of the honeybees — which collect wild flower nectar in order to produce honey — is facing a threat due to the impact of climate change. Along the Western Ghats, the honey collection societies of Kodagu, Sakleshpur and Dakshina Kannada are facing a rather uphill task of sourcing honey locally as well as the challenge of catering to a huge demand.

“In the Talacauvery belt, a local tribe called Jenu Kurubas would venture deep into the forests and climb the tallest tree to bring us honey. Today, most of the people in this tribe have migrated to the cities. It is during the months of March and June when the coffee flowers blossom that we get a good yield of honey,” explains an official from the Coorg Progressive Beekeepers Co-operative Society, Bhagamandala. “We also have a bank of 200 commercial beekeepers and give a subsidy to these farmers to keep a box for the honeybees,” he says, while agreeing that the area of operation has shrunk rapidly due to deforestation and deficit rainfall in the region.

“The local production continues to suffer as we grapple with issues such as the overuse of pesticides, a disease which wiped out entire colonies of bees a few years ago, and climate change,” says Thimmaiah K V, manager, Coorg Honey and Wax Producers’ Marketing Cooperative Society Limited, Virajpet. According to S Satish, chief executive officer, Beekeepers Co-operative Society, Sakleshpur, “Deforestation and poor rainfall patterns have affected honey production in recent years.”

Further along the Western Ghats is the South Kanara Beekeepers Society, Puttur, “Every year, we get close to 30,000 kg of honey from the entire district, mainly from the honeybee which feed on plants such as rubber. There is an increasing demand for honey but we cannot meet the demand as production is less. This is a lucrative business. We provide wooden beehives to the farmers, and have around 10 large-scale beekeepers,” says an official.

Growing needs
However, the commercial beekeepers are also largely dependent on the ecosystem around for the bees to fly to. The demand for honey has gone up over the years as the world’s population has swelled, lifestyle diseases rising, and the importance of honey for its medicinal value has been promoted.

“Bees have not changed, but the environment they have thrived in for centuries has changed,” says Satish Kumar, an entrepreneur in the honey processing industry. There are many indicators of climate change, but a look at the honeybee production patterns will possibly give a whole new insight into the situation that demands our attention, since it is also linked to our very own existence.

 

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