February 15, 2016 —
In northwestern India, the Himalayan Mountains rise sharply out of pine and cedar forests. The foothills of the Kullu Valley are blanketed with apple trees beginning to bloom. It’s a cool spring morning, and Lihat Ram, a farmer in Nashala village, shows me a small opening in a log hive propped against his house. Stout black-and-yellow native honeybees — Apis cerana — fly in and out.
For centuries beehives have been part of the architecture of mountain homes here, built into the thick outside walls. Traditionally wild colonies of bees found the hive themselves. Farmers also brought a log with a hive in it from the surrounding forest. That’s so the inhabitants could set up shop in the village and produce honey for their human caretakers.
Causes of Honeybee Population Decline
But in recent years, those wild colonies have become increasingly rare in this valley. Moreover, 90 percent of farmers are small landholders. Modern agriculture has replaced natural forests and the diverse crops of subsistence farms almost exclusively with a single apple variety: royal delicious, favored at the market. Producing this high-demand fruit has improved economic conditions for farmers in the Kullu Valley. But it also has contributed to an untenable environment for pollinators. Similar to other situations around the world, a mix of monocropping, climate change, diseases, changes in land practices, pesticide use, deforestation, loss of habitat, and an exploding human population that’s taxing the valley’s natural resources has caused native honeybee populations to decline. With the decline, orchard harvests have dropped by as much as 50 percent.
To close the pollination gap, farmers who could afford it started to hire beekeepers from the neighboring warmer state of Punjabi to bring managed hives of European honeybees — Apis mellifera — to the valley during the apple bloom season. “The problem with this is that poor farmers are now paying for an ecosystem service that the native honeybee previously provided for free,” says Pradeep Mehta, research and program manager for Earthwatch Institute in India. Not only that, but the introduction of non-native honeybees can bring with it disease and competition for nectar sources, reducing some populations of native bees even further and robbing ecosystems of important biodiversity.
The Himalayan Ecosystems Research Project
Now, however, scientists are enlisting nature to turn that around in this remote corner of the world. The Himalayan Ecosystems Research Project — a collaboration among scientists, Nashala villagers, and international volunteers like me brought in by Earthwatch — is studying pollination in this area and applying what’s learned at the farm level. Last year, the group began restoring traditional pollinator services with training and stocking new hives with native Asian honeybees. Moreover, introduced modified practices, such as using an extractor to harvest honey rather than crushing hives. That’s in addition to boosting the bees’ ability to thrive under their modern circumstances.
To feed the Asian honeybees throughout the growing season, Nashala village farmers have started to diversify their farms again. Garlic, onion, cauliflower and wildflower varieties that pollinators have shown a preference for in field research now grow under the apple trees — after the trees bloom. The distributed flowering strategy keeps the bees focused on pollinating apples during their short bloom season. That’s while still providing a variety of nectar sources that help keep them going during the rest of the growing season.
Worldwide, cultivation of — and collaboration with — native bees through traditional beekeeping is fast becoming collateral damage of modernization. Industrial agriculture employs only a handful of pollinator species to sustain it. Mostly uber-efficient honeybees and bumblebees that are toted from one farm to the next to provide pollination.
Writer: Christina Selby, Ensia Magazine
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