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India needs to go local with bees too

  • Pollinators, especially bees, are a vital part of our ecosystem, responsible for the food security of not just humans but all living beings.
  • The government needs to take steps for the protection of indigenous bees before it is too late.

In his address to the nation on 12 May, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pointed out the criticality of local production. While its implications for industry et al have been discussed, one area where this matters more than anything else is the beekeeping policy. The government needs to be lauded for the attention it has given to beekeeping, with the finance minister herself explaining how important this was for agriculture recently, but the current policy tilt is to encourage beekeeping for honey. Subsequent statements by ministries as a follow-up talk of a Sweet Revolution.

From the perspective of environment -sustainability, biodiversity and livelihoods in a country where 86% of farmers are small and marginal, this approach requires re-examination.

Pollinators, especially bees, are a vital part of our ecosystems—responsible for the food security of not just humans but all living beings. The United Nations designated 20 May as World Bee Day to draw attention to the essential role bees and other pollinators play in keeping the people and planet healthy. It provides an opportunity for governments, organizations, civil society and concerned citizens everywhere to reflect upon and promote actions to protect and enhance pollinators, their habitat, improve their abundance and diversity.

This became especially relevant in the context of pollinators declining worldwide due to multiple factors—use of pesticides, deforestation, commercial agriculture and unsustainable practices like honey-hunting.

This article comes from the vantage point of us having worked in this area for a decade. In our conversations with various government departments to explain our work in the initial years, to say that our core focus was on bees for agriculture and not honey invited incredulous looks.

Not-for-profits that worked extensively on agriculture were kinder but preferred to take up beekeeping for honey, not entirely convinced that agriculture yields increase as a result of better pollination.

The Food and Agriculture Organization statement in 2016 that categorized “pollination services" as an agricultural input was a game changer. It said that improving diversity and density of pollinators had a direct, positive effect on crop yields, and outlined its importance to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

This helped buttress our argument. Today, many government departments mention the pollination impact of beekeeping as part of policy—notably the Mission for Integrated Development of Horticulture scheme of the National Horticulture Mission. Various schemes to double farm incomes also mention beekeeping.

But the focus of policy is on the hybrid bee—Apis mellifera. While being an excellent honey producer, the Apis mellifera is an expensive bee to procure and maintain, prefers monoculture and hence requires frequent migration to meet its nectar and pollen requirements. Indigenous bees on the other hand—Apis cerana indica specifically—are excellent pollinators, and work on all kinds of flora as well as agro-climatic conditions as they are native to the area. These aspects make indigenous bees extremely small-farmer-friendly—3-4 beeboxes of Apis cerana provide excellent pollination to the diversified cropping pattern that India’s farmers follow—a mix of oilseeds, pulses, vegetables and fruits. Add a couple of Trigona (stingless bees) beeboxes and eliminate honey-hunting practices and you have the perfect recipe to increase yields for small farmers.

Field-based studies conducted on beekeepers and control samples by Under The Mango Tree Society in three states have shown an increase in yield in gourd of between 40% and 60%, lemon and guava 7% to 20% and cashew 43%, to mention a few examples. In the case of oilseeds like niger, the increase has been as high as 60%. All these increases were recorded in open-field conditions at small farms in tribal communities in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.

For small farmers practicing rain-fed farming, these yield increases have been critical in creating surpluses that can be sold in the market and in many cases contributing to food security and better nutrition for tribal below poverty line families. When you add two beeboxes, grey water from bathing/washing vessels and kitchen gardens, even in drought conditions, families have been able to not just eat well but also sell 70-100 worth of vegetables every day locally. This makes it an extremely useful climate-change adaptation strategy.

While the policy attention to beekeeping is definitely a step in the right direction, we are at a crossroads now. The target-driven Honey Mission (helmed by the Khadi and Village Industries Commission) and the National Bee Board (under the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare) are almost making beekeeping synonymous with Apis mellifera beekeeping. The road to increasing farm incomes is being seen purely through the lens of honey. Studies across the world have pointed out that the income from pollination benefits exceeds the income from honey by as much as 14 times. A number of far-sighted corporate houses have understood this and supported beekeeping programmes with indigenous bees.

Beekeeping with Apis mellifera is probably right for commercial apiculture. But beekeeping with indigenous bees makes infinite sense for small farmers, especially in the current covid-19 context in which migrants are heading back to rural areas and there is a need to create more livelihoods and make agriculture more remunerative.

Our work has, unfortunately, revealed areas that had thriving indigenous bee populations as recently as five years ago, but are now bereft of them primarily because of the unrestricted use of pesticides, which have been banned in other parts of the world. In India, except for Punjab, our policy has largely turned a blind eye to them. The government needs to urgently take steps to articulate a policy on the protection of indigenous bees. A couple of years later, it might be too late.

The author is executive director of Under The Mango Tree Society, an NGO.

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