Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Unseen 2019: Silence of the bees

  • Nearly 1 million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction worldwide, but conservation in India continues to focus on big cats, elephants and rhinos
  • Bees, which are critical to the survival of the human race, are on the decline due to use of pesticides and habitat loss

Why have 500 million bees died in Brazil in the past three months?" was the dramatic headline in The Guardian on 29 August. On 16 October, the BBC published a news article headlined 21 Species In North Ireland ‘At The Risk Of Extinction’. In a piece on 22 March 2017, the National Geographic mentioned that for the first time in the US, the rusty patched bumblebee species had been declared endangered—with its population having plummeted by nearly 90% since the 1990s. Around the same time, seven species of the Hawaiian yellow-faced bees received protection under the US’ Endangered Species Act.

Photographs: H M Yeshwanth; Graphic: Rohit Goyal/Mint
Photographs: H M Yeshwanth; Graphic: Rohit Goyal/Mint

In the past two-three years, there have been reports from different countries about the fast-dwindling numbers of bee species.

“Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history—and the rate of species extinction is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely," warns a 2019 landmark report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. The report says around a million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction. However, the conservation dialogue, especially in India, continues to focus solely on the big cats, elephants and rhinos. Bees seem to be missing from this discourse in India.

If we knew just how significant bees are to the survival of the human race, our attitudes might change. According to a 2016 article on the US-based Climate Institute (CI) website, bees are critical pollinators—they, together with other pollinators, pollinate almost 90% of flowering plants and 70% of 124 of the world’s main crops. “Which means a world without bees could struggle to sustain the global human population of 7 billion," noted a 2014 report on the science and health portal BBC Future.

This doomsday message of sorts has found a place in popular culture as well. Through a high-powered court drama, the Bee Movie, a 2007 animated film featuring the voices of Jerry Seinfeld and Renée Zellweger, put across a strong message about the exploitation of bees for honey and just how critical they are in sustaining the world’s plant life. There is a scene in which Barry, the bee, steals a parade float full of the last remaining flowers on earth and delivers them to the bees to re-pollinate the blooms. At the end, the bees manage to reverse the damage by saving the world’s flowers.

The UN acknowledged their contribution by instituting a World Bee Day last year. In a statement on 20 May, the Food and Agriculture Organization urged countries to step up efforts to protect bees—crucial allies in the fight against hunger. “Bees are under great threat from the combined effects of climate change, intensive agriculture, pesticide use, biodiversity loss and pollution," said José Graziano da Silva, FAO’s director general, urging people to make pollinator-friendly choices. “Even growing flowers at home to feed bees contributes to this effort."

V.V. Belavadi, emeritus scientist, department of entomology, University of Agricultural Sciences, Bengaluru, says India is home to nearly 796 species of bees (so far described by researchers), with 40% of them endemic to the country. According to Sujana Krishnamoorthy, executive director, Under The Mango Tree Society, which trains small farmers in beekeeping with indigenous bees, five of these are indigenous species connected with beekeeping and honey harvesting—Apis dorsata, Apis Cerana Indica, Apis florea and Trigona, a stingless bee. “These are found across the country, from Jammu and Kashmir to Kanyakumari.There is another species, Apis laboriosa, which is indigenous to higher elevations of Uttarakhand and is not as commonly found," says Krishnamoorthy. Besides honeybees, India is also home to solitary bees such as the carpenter bees, leaf-cutter bees and blue banded bees. Belavadi says it is a myth that bees are essential only for the production of honey. In India, 75% of the crops and vegetation, including apples, oranges, mangoes, lemons, gourds, beans, oilseeds and teak, rely on both honeybees and solitary bees for pollination. “The existence of fragile ecosystems like the mangroves of the Sunderbans or the Shola forests would be threatened if these pollinators were to go extinct," says Parthiba Basu, a professor in the department of zoology, University of Calcutta.

The Indian situation is made worse by the absence of data. A decade ago, Basu tried to assess the economic value of pollination loss on six-seven different crop productions. “The annual loss can be estimated at about $760 million (around 5,400 crore now)," he says. “There is a huge taxonomic gap in bee identification, and that is one of the biggest challenges in conservation. The entire tract of North-East India, and even the vast hinterland of the country, is waiting to be explored."

There is a need for constant monitoring. For instance, both in Europe and the US, the best insights into declining bee populations have emerged from data collated over the last decade. “In the West, this move towards better data collection expanded only in 2007 with the colony collapse disorder taking place," says Axel Brockmann of the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Bengaluru.

Ten years ago, beekeepers in the US came across a worrying trend—of empty hives. This new phenomenon, termed a “colony collapse disorder", led scientists to investigate the reasons and create better monitoring methods. “At first, people thought that a virus was the root cause of the collapse. But it turned out to be rampant pesticide use. It is only because of stringent data collection that this could be identified," explains Brockmann. This discovery also led to greater awareness among Americans, who now treat the Apis mellifera—a threatened species in the country—on a par with other key species such as dolphins and panda bears. “Everyone wants to save them. However, in India, honeybees such as the Apis dorsata are treated like a pest insect," adds Brockmann.

The human-bee conflict plays out regularly in Indian cities, where Apis dorsata often nests on buildings which are like “artificial rocks" and resemble natural nesting sites. Residents end up calling pest management companies to exterminate them. “In the West, this would be a big no-no. But here, people are not aware of their importance in food security and treat them like cockroaches. They haven’t recognized yet just how important and necessary they are to the ecosystem," explains Brockmann.

He adds that the fear of being stung plays a big role in the human-bee conflict. This is where an awareness of the biology and behaviour of bees plays a key role—the colonies are not aggressive by nature, but they will defend their nest or when they are threatened or agitated." People have to learn to live with them," he says.

Brockmann, who also heads the Honey Bee Lab at the NCBS, is working on a smartphone app to create a database of Apis dorsata colonies in the metropolitan areas of Bengaluru and increase awareness about the importance of this species. It will be a citizen science project under which people will be asked to observe and monitor bee colonies. “They need to revisit the sites once a month, take a photo and count the colonies. The app is still under development," says Brockmann, who did a pilot experiment in one gated community where a large population of honeybees was nesting.

His students observed the colonies for two years and mapped their arrival and departure patterns. The study showed that the bees migrated during the monsoon, with the number of colonies going down between July-October. They would return in November, and the human-bee conflict would resume. “The awareness campaigns need to start as soon as possible," he adds.

The NCBS has also been conducting meetings with bee experts over the last couple of years, in association with the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bengaluru, and Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Thiruvananthapuram. “In the last session, we decided that it was high time that an Asian Pollinators initiative should be launched to take stock of the bee population status and to discuss conservation methods across Asia," says Basu, who is part of the initiative. The first meeting of Asian researchers will be held at the University of Calcutta from 27-29 February.

He is also at the heart of an initiative to gauge the extent of decline in bee populations. Given the absence of baseline data, Basu and his team are creating a sample of pollinators in three categories of landscapes in Tripura, West Bengal and Odisha—these include areas with dense natural vegetation, those with large tracts of farmland and intermediate ones which feature both natural vegetation and farms. “This is not just a spatial study but one which captures shifts in land use over time as well. For instance, areas which are heavily farmed today were densely vegetated some 60-100 years ago. And that gives us the story of the nature of the decline in the various landscapes over time," he says.

The study, Predicted Thresholds For Natural Vegetation Cover To Safeguard Pollinator Services In Agricultural Landscapes, published in the journal Agriculture, Ecosystems And Environment recently, also shows a direct connection between habitat loss, pollinator populations and crop production.

For instance, if the natural vegetation falls below a certain percentage within a 2km radius of a farm, crop production goes down. “In the areas that we surveyed, when the natural vegetation fell below 28% for brinjal and 17% for mustard (near the production area), then the pollination intensity and, consequently, crop production went down. Once you remove the habitat for expansion of farm area, you lose out on production as well due to lack of natural pollination by bees," he says.

So, is all lost? Will bees go from “threatened" to extinct? There is hope still, or so Lauren Bennett, a graduate research fellow at the CI, would have you believe. “Although the number of bees are declining, there is still time to save them. Through the changes being implemented to protect and bolster their numbers and the education concerning bees and their importance to the environment, bees have a fighting chance to survive the hurdles being encountered due to climate change," she writes in an article for the CI website.

In India, it is critical to change unsustainable honey practices for commercial production as well. There is a need to shift to beekeeping programmes that focus on indigenous bees such as Apis cerana indica, which are better suited to the diversified cropping patterns of small farmers in tribal communities. “The UTMT Society, which works in the three states of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, provides training and support to small farmers to turn beekeepers," says Krishnamoorthy. Each farmer who signs up is encouraged to keep two-four bee boxes (Apis cerana indicaand Trigona) for pollination needs.

“This has a huge impact. With just two bee boxes, pollination improves not just on the farmer’s land but even on the farms of his neighbours. So, 10-12 beekeepers in a village leads to an increased pollination cover for the entire village," she adds.

People can do their bit by planting “bee-friendly seeds and saplings of plants such as drumsticks, guava, coconut, jamun, and more". These plants require bees for pollination; bees, in turn, thrive on pollen and nectar from these saplings.

In India, researchers are also working to sensitize farmers on the need to cut down pesticide use. “Some groups of pesticides, like the neonicotinoids, are considered to be very dangerous to bees the world over," says Belavadi. Neonics (banned by the European Union), however, seem to have entered India through the back door, and are reportedly being pushed by local retailers on to unsuspecting farmers. “Neonics harm bees’ memory and, therefore, their abilities to navigate back to their hives and to gather food," Krishnamoorthy says. This leads to immune suppression, which exposes the bees to infections and diseases.

She believes a public information campaign on pesticides harmful to bees and other pollinators is crucial. NABARD, the National Bee Board and state agriculture departments need to weave this into their programmes.

“At the end of the day, we should realize that if we are having a cup of coffee early in the morning, veggies for lunch, spices such as cardamom, and fruits for desserts, we have the bees to thank for it. It’s time we did something for their conservation," says Belavadi.

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