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In certain regions of US, Western honeybee (Apis mellifera) populations are dropping dramatically at rates of up to 80%. In Europe, the situation is not better. Germany, Poland, Switzerland and Spain are reporting similar disastrous declines. In UK, honeybees could disappear by 2018.
The problem has been identified as “Colony Collapse Disorder”. With very few worker bees left in certain regions of America, farmers are forced to rent bees or import bees to get their crops pollinated!!In certain parts of China, bees have completely disappeared and people are forced to hand pollinate the fruit trees!!
According to experts, if bees were to disappear then humanity wouldn’t survive more than a few years. That is what Einstein once predicted: “If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, humans would follow within four years.” No more bees would mean no more pollination, and as a result, no more crops and plants. With no plants to feed on, animals and people wouldn’t be able to survive. No more bees would simply mean the end of life on earth.
What is causing this environmental disaster that will affect our health and food supply? The large-scale use of genetically modified plants; the destruction of habitat; or the overuse of pesticides in the environment?? Nobody knows exactly.
Colony collapse Disorder in India and Asia
In Asia, there have been reports of disappearance of bees though on a smaller scale.
Colony collapse Disorder concerns populations of Western honeybees (Apis mellifera), that have been selected and bred by the beekeepers of Europe and America to produce honey. Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is a condition of commercial beehives that occurs mainly in large commercial apiaries.
If India hasn’t been much affected by CCD, it is because modern beekeeping of Apis mellifera, though encouraged, is not as widespread as in developed countries. Still India gets 75% of its total honey production from the wild nests of Apis dorsata, a giant honeybee that can’t be domesticated.
Therefore, if we don’t want to see our most important pollinator disappear, wild bees should be a focus group for conservation.
Bee diversity of India – Asia
Most of our general knowledge about bees is about Apis mellifera, the Europeen honeybee that has been selected and bred by the beekeepers of Europe and America to produce honey.
What we don’t know is that there are many species of honeybees. Out of the five main honey-producing bee species, four occur in India.
In India, as in the rest of Asia, the most common honeybee is Apis dorsata, the Giant Rock bee. It is the largest honeybee species in the world (nearly 1 inch). Rock bees usually construct huge, monstrous, vertical wax combs of 2-3 metres that hang to the thick branch of a tree, a rock cliff or a building structure (like Taj Mahal). The honey of Apis dorsata is not ‘kept’ like the honey of Apis mellifera. It is hunted. Honey hunting is done on rocks and trees by tribals.
The population of Apis dorsata has fallen by 20% over the past 10 years. Drastic changes in habitat, preference for Apis mellifera (the Europen honeybee is the Jersey cow of the bee species), deforestation, forest fires, pests of Apis mellifera striking wild hives are to be blamed.
The Western Honeybee has a higher yield of honey but:
- it requires exacting management practices, expensive equipments and large foraging ground of monocultures
- its honey is contaminated by pesticides as it forages on cash crops that are heavily sprayed
- it is highly vulnerable to pests and diseases
The Giant Rock Bee has a lesser yield of honey but:
- it is more adapted to the environment
- it is more efficient in pollinating plants
- it visits more flowers per minute
- it forages over a larger area (10 kilometers while Apis mellifera forage over an area of only 3-6km)
- it visits a bigger diversity of plants than the foreign species
- it requires no expensive equipment to be harvested. It just requires the knowledge and expertise of honey gatherers
- it helps in conserving the local flora of the tropical forest as it forages on wild plants. It plays a crucial role in the conservation of forest flora and fauna.
- its honey is purest as it forages on wild plants that are never sprayed with pesticides – it is an organic honey
- its honey is reputed for its taste and medicinal values
- it provides a livelihood to honey gatherers.
That makes 10 good reasons to preserve wild bees.
To save the bees of the tropical forest, we then need to preserve the age-old honey hunting tradition.
The Honey Gatherers of the tropical forest
The honey gatherers, also called honey collectors or honey hunters, are the indigenous people of the tropical forest who have been harvesting honey from the wild honeybees since immemorial times.
Many of these traditional communities have survived till today in the remotest corners of the tropical forest of Asia, Africa and South America.
List (not at all exhaustive) of a few amazing groups of Honey Gatherers around the world:
India, Bangladesh: The Mowalis, the honey gatherers of Sunderbans (in the Bay of Bengal), harvest honey in April from the mangrove forest infested with Royal Bengal tigers. Before leaving for their 2 months long expeditions, the honey collectors make offerings to the goddess Bonbibi to invoke her protection.
India: The Jenu Kurubas settled in the Western Ghat in South Indiacollect honey from bee colonies situated in the most dangerous sections of rock cliffs. Like other forest tribals, Kurubas follow traditions and rules that respect the environment. Certain rocks are considered sacred and Kurubas never touch to the combs situated on those cliffs.
Nepal: The Rai are the honey gatherers of the Himalayas in Nepal. The honey season is twice a year. The men harvest honey from the combs of the giant rock bee (Apis laboriosa) hanging to the steep cliffs of the highest mountains in the world.
Indonesia: In west Kalimantan, Borneo, indigenous tribes called Dayak harvest honey by boat from the easily accessible trees in the submerged forest. Their honey harvesting system is called Tikung or honey-board harvesting system. The Tikung is a carved hardwood plank that will become a nesting site for the wild bees. The Tikung is attached with wooden pegs to the tree branches. A family of honey collectors place up to 500 honey-boards. To minimize disputes, the forest is divided between the families.
Philippines: The Ilamag are indigenous people of Northern Philippines. Their most remarkable skill is the gathering of honey from wild bees. The harvest time lasts from March to May. They harvest the honey from beehives that are thick enough. If they are not, they wait. Till then, no one is allowed to touch them. To harvest the honey, they drive away the bees with a smoke torch made out of local plants.
Vietnam: In the submerged forestsof the Mekong delta in South Vietnam, honey gatherers use split poles called ‘gac keo’ that serve as attractive nesting sites for bees.
Cameroon: The Gbayas honey collectors differ from other honey gatherers of the world by the simple fact that they don’t use smoke to drive away the bees but they use a plant that acts as a sedative and puts the swarm of bees to sleep for about 20 minutes. That doesn’t give much time for the honey gatherer to extract the honey!! Moreover, all bees don’t become drowsy. That is why the Gbayas wear a protective suit and helmet made out of plant fibres or straw and in that cumbersome attire they climb the trees. Another amazing thing about the honey gatherers of Cameroon is that they locate the wild honeycombs with the help of a bird called appropriately ‘the greater honey guide’. With his call, the honey guide leads the honey gatherer to the beehive. Unable to retrieve the honeycombs by itself, the clever bird let the man scatter the bees and take the honey before feasting on the honeycomb.
The plight of the Honey Gatherers
Today traditional communities of honey gatherers are facing an increasing pressure from the modern world. Their lifestyle is in danger of vanishing, their traditional knowledge is getting lost, and their race is on the verge of extinction.
1) Honey Gatherers are loosing access to the forest
Honey gatherers are threatened by deforestation and developmental projects (like wildlife sanctuaries, dams…) that displace them in the name of progress.
After displacement, the communities that have lived in the tropical forests for thousands of years loose their access to the forest and with it the right to practice their profession, the activity that has been their way of survival.
In many countries of Asia, the honey gatherers have to buy a permit (issued by the forestry department) that gives them the right to gather honey during the season. High fees stop many from joining the legal harvesters. More and more of them are forced to enter the forest illegally. That has given rise to poaching. For legal Honey Gatherers, that means less and less combs to harvest. Moreover, poachers are ruled by greed and not by sustainability. They want instant profits and are not concerned about future harvests. They are contributing to the devastation of beehives.
In certain countries, honey gathering is altogether prohibited by law.
2) Honey gatherers are wrongly blamed for unsustainable practices
They are criticized for their crude honey collection methods that damage hives and destroy the bee populations. They are blamed for burning hives (they don’t burn hive but smoke them) and as a result the number of beehives is coming down drastically. They are held responsible of forest fires.
The fact is that all communities of traditional honey gatherers across the world possess techniques of bee management that are sustainable. They all harvest honey only when the combs are filled. They maintain a taboo on cutting the entire bee comb. They never remove the whole comb to ensure a fast recovery for the bee colony. They cut only the part of the comb that stores honey and leave behind the brood comb to ensure bees can start building their nest anew. That guarantees a higher survival rate of colonies and good future harvests.
Honey gatherers have always lived from the produce of the forest. They are therefore most careful not to harm it. Had they been careless about the sustainability of their honey harvesting techniques and methods, they wouldn’t have survived!!
Today poverty is forcing honey gatherers to go against their own sustainable traditions to carry on. To compete with the poachers, to recover the fees they pay to the forestry department, to make their job profitable, honey gatherers are forced to forget about sustainability and resort to slice off the whole comb to get as much honey and wax as possible to increase their income.
3) Honey gatherers don’t get the right price for their honey…
Honey collectors are rarely organized to market their products and get the right price for their labour. Their honey has the potential to be marketed as ‘organic honey’ and receive a better price.
The Honey Gatherers have to be supported:
>>> to reinforce their traditional knowledge and sustainable practices;
>>> to revive the indigenous honeybee populations that are so important for the health of our agriculture and forests.
To support NGOs that work with Honey Gatherers, visit the following links
- Bees for Development
Bees for Development is an independent organisation working at the heart of an international network of people and organisations involved with apiculture in developing countries.
- Keystone Foundation
Keystone Foundation helps the Adivasi honey-collectors in southern India to get better value for their products.
To know more about the honey gatherers of India and introduce the subject to children through fascinating stories, lesson plans and activities, visit Ecological Tales for Environment Education – India.
Article Source: http://www.articlesbase.com/nature-articles/a-solution-to-colony-collapse-disorder-in-asia-preserving-the-biodiversity-of-wild-bees-and-supporting-the-traditional-honey-gatherers-1215595.html
About the Author
Muriel Kakani is the author and illustrator of the ECOLOGICAL TALES FROM INDIA series. A Belgian national settled in India after her marriage fifteen years back, she has travelled almost to every corner of India. During her travels she has tried to imbibe information about India’s culture, and India’s ecological traditions. She loves to create fact-filled stories where the central theme is an environmental issue. Set in India, her ecological tales reflect her awareness about ecological problems that not only haunt India but entire mankind. Ms. Muriel lives in Panchgani, India with her husband and her 8 years old daughter.
To know more about her work, visit:
Ecological Tales for Environment Education – India