To Bee or not to Bee?

Every third bite of food you take, thank a bee or other pollinator adapted from E.O. Wilson, Forgotten Pollinators, 1996.

History of Bees could be traced to even further back than recorded Human history. They even find mention in several places in the Vedas, the ancient religious texts, so revered by Hindus. The usefulness of bees to mankind is not limited to only honey and beeswax. These buzzing insects are also known to be the greatest source of pollination when it comes to agriculture. While there are several insects like butterflies, beetles, wasps, ants, etc. which also help in pollination, bees are by far the most effective pollinators. From apples to almonds to the pumpkin in our pumpkin pies, we have bees to thank. Now, a condition known as Colony Collapse Disorder is causing bee populations to plummet, which means these foods are also at risk (www.nrdc.org/policy). I read somewhere that at an average a hive of 50,000 bees pollinates half a million plants. This makes bees very crucial for agriculture.

Agriculture has been witnessing decline in productivity over the last few decades, due to several reasons including lack of water, shortage of high quality seeds etc. In such a scenario, beekeeping can provide many sustainable solutions. It helps to increase yields of crops, especially fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, no specific studies have been done in this regard in our country. But estimates for UK show that the economic value of pollination effected by honeybees is worth ? 200 million pounds a year with the retail value of the pollinated products touching ?1 billion pounds a year (Source: National Audit Office of the UK). Both wild and managed pollinator populations require habitat and forage resources in order to survive, and the loss of these in and around the agroecosystem compromise crop production. Source.

In India, where 80% of farmers continue to be marginal farmers, beekeeping is a great way to sustain agriculture. In this regards, first National Commission on Agriculture (1976) had put forth a plan for apiculture in India. According to them, the benefit of beekeeping is 40 times more than the value of honey and beeswax.

An interesting study in this regard has been done by Under the Mango Tree (UTMT). According to the scientific impact study conducted in Dharampur between 2010 and 2011, 15 crops showed a considerable increase in productivity as compared to farms with no bee boxes. Niger, another local crop, displayed increased productivity by 60%, and similar reports were shown in mango and cashew.

Another great advantage is that beekeeping as a practice does not require a huge investment, but gives great results. Hence, there is an urgent need and requirement for the government to take measures and spread awareness about beekeeping. Farmers should be educated and informed about how beekeeping is beyond honey and bee wax production. One could explore possibilities to hold workshops for training in beekeeping.

In conclusion I would like to state that it is well established that beekeeping is both low cost and has the potential to double the yields of crops. Given the point in agriculture history that we are at, this could be a crucial input, and should be explored for small scale as well as large scale models.