Large scale death of exotic Italian bees has been reported recently in many apple orchards of Himachal Pradesh. This news has been highlighted in the local media mainly in the context of the economic loss suffered by orchard owners who had purchased boxes of these exotic bees to facilitate the pollination process in their orchards. The death of bees has also been attributed largely to adverse weather conditions, including untimely heavy rain and hailstorms.
However there are wider issues and policy matters involved here which have not received the required attention. These relate mainly to the wisdom of introducing exotic species of bees, more particularly the Italian Apis mellifera which has generally been introduced in India due to its higher honey yield. However this potential may not be realized in conditions of excessive heat and rain or other adverse weather generally more often seen in India. In hot weather areas this exotic species finds it difficult to make visits in very hot conditions while in Himalayan region it finds it difficult to make visits in very cold conditions. However indigenous species do not have these problems and issues. The bigger risk is that of spread of disease by exotic species in new places and as there is inter-action with local species, this disease can easily spread to local species.
The National Commission of Agriculture had examined this question and advised caution. The Commission stated—“The bee (Apis mellifera) is highly susceptible to various bee diseases, particularly to acarine disease caused by mite, mostly in the North. It carries the danger of infecting the indigenous species …” So the Commission asked for giving more attention to indigenous species with their “promising potential.”
However government policy went on emphasizing the introduction of exotic bees, first ‘establishing’ them in Punjab and Haryana and then moving to South India. 15 colonies of Apis mellifera were brought from Haryana to Karnataka in December 1990; by May 1991 only two survived. Later there were several reports of local bee species Apis cerana being infected by disease and dying in large numbers. A disease resembling Europian Foulbrood ( EFB) in its symptoms was widely reported, and this is widely believed to be related to the spread of Apis mellifera.
A beemaster from Denmark, Jan Olsson, was working with some communities involved in beekeeping in South India and he was among those who drew attention to the spread of more diseases due to the introduction of Apis mellifera. In his work with local communities, he also demonstrated how it was possible to obtain better honey yields from indigenous species by making some simple improvements.
Environment activist Pandurang Hegde was also working with traditional beekeepers around this time and drew attention to the dangers of introducing Apis mellifera and the harm that indigenous bee species and beekeeper communities had suffered due to this. It appeared that beekeeper communities had never been consulted by scientists in such matters.
The most important factor is not honey yield but facilitation of pollination. The National Commission of Agriculture had clearly stated that pollination is the biggest contribution of bees while honey and wax should be seen more as by-products. It is indigenous bees which make the most contribution to pollination and they make many more visits than exotic species. The reduction of indigenous bees and wild bees is likely to be very harmful for pollination, and hence for orchards, farms and forests. Apis mellifera is likely to be much more constrained by weather extremes, particularly increasing heat when it my not be inclined to venture out much.
Coming now to recent bee deaths in Himachal Pradesh, it would be advisable to look at these wider issues and not just at some adverse weather conditions. On the one hand heavy use of agro-chemicals and other factors are allowed to adversely affect indigenous bees and other pollinators; on the other hand a lot of expenses (paying a rent of around INR 1600 per box of exotic bees for placing in an orchard for a month or so) are incurred to get boxes of exotic bees to place them in orchards to speed up pollination. Is there something very wrong in the priorities here? The recent large-scale deaths of bees should therefore be seen as more of a wake-up call for correcting policy and practice.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food, Man over Machine and A Day in 2071.