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The Buzz about Bees

On World Bee Day, NT BUZZ speaks to local experts to learn about bees and beekeeping in Goa

ANNA FERNANDES | NT BUZZ

If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, reads a quote commonly attributed to Albert Einstein, man would have no more than four years left to live. And recognising the gravity of this statement, professional beekeeper and owner, Raika Honey, Suprajit Raikar maintains that bees are in fact the most important species on earth.

On the sweet side

Bees are crucial to our biodiversity, our society, and our economy. “Almost 75 per cent of the food we eat depends on pollination that is carried out by honeybees. Without honeybees, the existence of many crops that we are dependent on for food and income is threatened,” says Raikar. In Goa, he informs, there are four species of bees, namely, the apis cerana indica (honey bee) and the tetragonula iridipennis (stingless bee) that can be domesticated in bee boxes; and the apis dorsata (rock bee) and the apis florea (little bee) that cannot be domesticated.

It is estimated that two hundred million bee colonies are required for pollination of major cross-pollinated crops grown in India and for enhancing their yield on par with that of crops grown in developed countries, says chief general manager, National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD), Goa Regional Office, Kamakshi Pai. This is also estimated to provide jobs to about 21.5 million persons, she adds.

Prime crops of Goa like cashew, coconut, cowpea, okra, and many vegetable crops depend on bees for pollination. “The ecosystem of the Western Ghats has been vibrant due to bees, especially honey bees,” she says, adding, “Bees not only help in sustaining the food chain, they themselves are part of the food chain as they are food for birds, reptiles,
mammals, etc.”

Further, commercial beekeeping or apiculture helps farmers to increase the productivity of their core crops, besides providing supplementary income from honey and various other bi-products such as wax, pollen, propolis, royal jelly, venom, that are also marketable primary bee products, informs Pai. Honey, itself, is a product that is nutrient-rich and has
medicinal properties.

A beeline towards extinction?

But despite their importance, bees face serious risks today. Bees, in particular the native apis cerana indica, don’t require much maintenance because they have adapted themselves, says Raikar. However, other issues such as climate change, human activity, habitat loss, etc, pose an even greater threat.

“Today, we face sudden changes in climate – sudden showers of rain and sudden bouts of high humidity. If there’s a disruption in the flowering pattern, the entire cycle gets affected,” says Raikar, adding that honey bees produce honey based on the flowering patterns. “Rain and high humidity affect the entire cycle, both the honey production as well as the reproductary cycle of the honey bee.”

He further says that if a honey bee is sprayed with pesticides and enters the beehive, the entire colony collapses. “In Goa, there’s another issue. When the area is smogged to rid it of mosquitoes, bees are also adversely affected,” he adds.

Creating a buzz

And albeit all its benefits, commercial beekeeping is not very popular among farmers, because of issues in sustaining the hives during off-crop season and monsoons. “However, commercial beekeeping management has evolved with agencies like the Bee Keeping Training Institute in Mahabaleshwar, Maharashtra and several other institutes providing training,” informs Pai, emphasising that knowledge transfer to farmers from trained apiculturists is critical for promoting commercial beekeeping and thereby increasing productivity.

“Farmers need to be educated so that they don’t destroy the colonies of bees on their farms, but on the contrary, use them to increase their yield. Farmers’ markets, where locally produced products are sold, must be encouraged,” adds Raikar, who has conducted training sessions on beekeeping and honey production for more than 500 farmers and tribals in the state.

Even today, bees aren’t popular among people. “When people see a bee their first instinct is to kill it, and when they see a hive their reaction is to light it on fire or spray it with pesticides,” says Raikar, reiterating that awareness is required. He adds that through the efforts of the Agriculture Department, Khadi, the local biodiversity board, and other organisations, beekeeping in the state has increased significantly in the last five years.

Bee boxes along with bee colonies have also been distributed to about 50 farmers by NABARD in Goa, while the farmers have been trained on various aspects of beekeeping by expert faculty from Karnataka, shares Pai, adding that handholding is being provided through block technology managers of Agricultural Technology Management Agency (ATMA), South Goa, as well as zonal agricultural offices of the Directorate of Agriculture.

NABARD has also collaborated with Don Bosco School of Agriculture, Sulcorna, on a project for creating awareness among farmers and training them in beekeeping, with a focus on farmers from Quepem and Sanguem. Bee farmers have also been sponsored by NABARD to participate in exhibitions such as Lokostav to help them market their honey under a brand name, and other related products. Looking ahead, NABARD envisages collaborations with the Goa State Biodiversity Board to promote apiculture through biodiversity management committees.

Lockdown effect

Right now, thanks to less pollution and improvements in the environment, bees are thriving. However, with the lockdown in place, the commercial aspect of beekeeping came to a standstill. “Honey was produced, but there was nobody to purchase it ,” adds Raikar.

He reveals that during the first phase of the lockdown, he was unable to visit his farm and consequently lost some of his colonies; some bees deserted the area and honey production declined. “When native bees are left unattended they multiply and desert the area. It’s a natural process. So during the lockdown, in the absence of humans, they really enjoyed themselves. After filling up the honey containers, they began to store honey in the lid of the bee box. And within 15 days multiplied and swarmed off,” he says.

The ongoing lockdown encourages farmers to look at agriculture as a viable vocation, instead of pursuing farming passively, says Pai. “Apiculture acts as another booster for improving interest in farming among farmers.”

Lessons from the hive

On World Bee Day and in the midst of a pandemic, there is a lot that humans can learn from bees. Their sense of community and their teamwork is admirable, says Raikar. “Based on their level of maturity, bees delegate their work among themselves. Once a bee is born, its first job is to clean the hive and maintain the temperature and humidity within the comb. As they grow up they are given new tasks; some guard the beehive while some go out to collect nectar and pollen.” Further, bees are excellent communicators, he adds. “When there is an impending thunderstorm, they alert each other to come back into the hive.”

Interestingly, bees live in a female-dominated society. “The worker bees are female, the entire management is female, headed by, of course, the queen bee. Males carry out very minimal work.”

And not only are they hard workers, working day and night for the ecosystem, they care for each other and their young. “Even when they multiply, they make sure that some honey is reserved for the next generation,” he says.

Citing a study in the UK, wherein bees are being trained to detect cancer cells, Raikar says: “Bees are known for their extraordinary sense of smell. So experts are now trying to utilise them and train them to recognise certain smells associated with diseases and to sniff out cancer cells.” In some parts of the world, bee venom is also used as an alternative medicine, he adds.

Bee the solution

Today, as bees feel the sting of urbanisation, climate change and other challenges, there’s a lot that we can do to keep them thriving. “For the common man, a plantation drive in the coming monsoon would be a good start. It’s a long-term but effective solution,” says Raikar. “Focus on planting local, indigenous and flowering trees, like jamun, coconut, arecanut, kokum, soapnut, moringa, etc. These flowers are required for honeybees to thrive.”

If you spot a beehive, don’t destroy it, Raikar pleads. “If one comb gets destroyed, it is as if an entire village is destroyed. Crops need bees; and if there’s no pollination, then farmers will receive a low yield.”

If you’re dealing with bees and want them removed, it’s recommended to give your local beekeeper a buzz. “We migrate the bees into a bee box, that bee box is given to tribals or farmers to facilitate pollination,” he says. If you spot a u-shaped beehive (home of the apis dorsata), don’t disturb it and they won’t disturb you, he adds. “Minimum interaction, minimum interference from humans is the best solution. When the flowering season changes, they will migrate to the forest areas,” he says, adding that the reason they come to urban areas is because we have destroyed their natural homes.

He adds that there are other simple things that people can also do at home to help support beekeepers and local bee populations. One can keep a tray of water outside their windows during the summer season, as the temperature rises and bees search for water. He further encourages people to be mindful of the use of pesticides so as to not harm local pollinators.

Because as the apocryphal statement by Einstein goes: ‘No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man’. So today, on World Bee Day, let’s strive to do our part to keep the buzz alive and thriving.

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