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Let our bees buzz

Last Updated 20 May 2020, 19:04 IST

Honeybees are in the news in western countries. The world’s largest wasp Asian Giant Hornet (Vespa Mandarinia), which probably came from low mountain and forest of Asian countries, began a murderous attack on the commercially important honeybee (Apis Mellifera). This is a European honeybee species, that was introduced a long time back by commercial pollinators. The species has no defence mechanism against the hornet. In the meantime, Asian Bees, which co-evolved with this hornet, have developed a defence mechanism. Evolution has enriched our biodiversity and made it more resilient.

This incident has drawn our attention to an oft-neglected aspect of beekeeping--production of honey gets priority at the cost of the diversity of native bee species and their role in food production and maintaining a healthy environment. One-third of the world’s crop production depends on pollination, and bees directly increase the output of 87 of the leading food crops worldwide.

It is a fact that Apis Mellifera produced four to five times more honey than other native honey bee species. But they survive in monocultures, which fits into the industrial food production system. In contrast, native bees are multi-floral and help in pollination, thus making our food more diverse and nutritious.

According to FAO, the world has more than 20,000 bee species, out of which nearly 200 species are social -- they live in a colony, and only 12 are honeybees.

In India, over 700 bee species that have been identified, out of these 300 are endemic. Only six of these species, are honeybees. They are Apis Cerena Indica, Apis Florea, Apis Dorsata(rock bee), Tetragonula Iridipennis (stingless honeybee) and Apis Laboriosa (Himalayan rock bee) and exotic species Apis Mellifera. Rock Bees are considered the best pollinators in India.

Despite the rich bee diversity in India, the exotic bee Apis Mellifera dominate the landscape for commercial honey production. It is the primary source of honey in India. The excess presence of exotic bee put native bee species under stress. Native species need to compete for nectar and pollen with Apis Mellifera, impacting their population dynamics. The industrial style management of Apis Mellifera--which involves truck transportation of huge colonies from one place to another in search of pollen and nectar--makes native species more vulnerable to the spreading of diseases as they don’t travel much.

A scientist at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru, that studies the behaviour of bees, states that Apis Mellifera doesn’t play a significant role in pollination in the Indian context. Researchers believe that this species was introduced about two decades ago in the mango orchards of Punjab and apple orchards of Himachal Pradesh to support pollination. The high productivity of honey in these states led to its spread in other parts of the country.

FAO also recognises the importance of diversity of bee. Regions that have more bee diversity are less prone to honeybee diseases. These regions are mostly in the developing world where pesticides use is still relatively low.

Most of our wild bees are forest pollinators, which help in the regeneration of the forest ecosystem. According to the observation of scientists at Central Bee Research and Training Institute in Pune, wild bees are largely disappearing from forest due to a number of reasons that include, global climate change, forest degradation and habitat loss due to forest fire, unsustainable use of peri-forest region by forest dwellers.

India requires a policy to conserve its indigenous bee diversity. This conservation will help in increasing productivity among 86% of small and marginal farmers. These bees are locally available, and farmers can easily manage them. Also, the country requires bee breeding centres in different agro-ecological zones of the country to conserve these bee species.

In urban India, high-rise buildings are blessings in disguise for the Rock Bees. The species considers them high mountains and make their nests there. But due to both fear and ignorance of residents, pests control measures are used to ward them off. Next time that you see bees nesting in your locality, consider it a sign of a healthy environment. Don’t kill them off but adequately manage them.

(The writer is an FAO-India Representative)

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(Published 20 May 2020, 16:52 IST)

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