Spring sees nature’s most industrious creatures hard at work. From March on, they buzz away, foraging on wildflowers and literally vibrating the pollen off plants. In so doing, bees support countless ecosystems, bolster biodiversity, anchor food chains and help ensure humans’ agricultural security. Not bad for insects no bigger than a paperclip.
Equally crucial is the role beekeepers and commercial pollinators play in food production around the world. With bees threatened by disappearing habitats, climate change, pesticides, deadly pathogens and invasive species, nature often needs a helping hand. That’s where beekeepers come in and supply swarms that can pollinate commercial quantities of crops.
The picturesque Himalayan state of Uttarakhand in northern India is home to a vibrant bee industry. It boasts of nearly 7,000 beekeepers tending to 70,800 colonies, producing over 15,000 quintals of honey each season. Some estimates say Uttarakhand exports nearly INR 80 crore (US$ 10.5 million) of organic honey every year. Beekeeping is an important source of supplementary income for many rural families.
March to May, before the onset of summers that seem to get hotter every year, see the hills come alive with flowers in bloom and the hum of bees. Usually, beekeepers import queens and other bees across state lines each spring to replenish their colonies, which decline over winter. They also help swarms relocate from existing colonies, finding new homes, new plants and new crops to pollinate.
This year, with spring came the COVID-19 pandemic. Along with that came the measures to slow its spread – which disrupted the delicate interplay between farmers, bees and beekeepers. Just when humans went inside, bees came out from their winter hibernation. “We couldn’t migrate boxes of bee colonies from neighbouring Uttar Pradesh because of the lockdown measures. For example, five beekeepers from Almora were stuck 200 km away in Bareilly, which is in Uttar Pradesh, when the lockdown was imposed,” said Sanjay Saxena, manager, agriculture/ horticulture, Integrated Livelihood Support Project (ILSP) programme management unit (ILSP is supported by IFAD). “That meant we lost colonies of new age bees, so expansion of colonies was affected. It also directly affected honey production and crop pollination. Regular beekeeping activities that kept the supply of bees going were curtailed,” he added.
Santoshi Devi, a beekeeper in Daula village, Rudraprayag district, spends around 2.5 hours every day tending to her nine beehives. “I lost four or five colonies when the lockdown was imposed,” she said. “That was a hit of INR 8,000 (US$ 105).” Ganga Devi, who keeps eight hives in Manpur village, Uttarkashi district, said she had found it difficult to tend to her hives as frequently as she normally would. “The technical experts also couldn’t to move around with the quarantine and social distancing measures, so we didn’t have those inputs,” she said.
Apple and litchi crops, which start flowering from March and go on to May, were also threatened. These crops rely on bees for pollination, and farmers usually rely on beekeepers to truck in boxes of colonies to plantations and orchards. This year, beekeepers managed to meet only half the demand, supplying 1,100 boxes. This is likely to affect the production, in terms of quantity and quality, of both fruits.
The already short window of opportunity to pollinate crops was narrowing. That’s when the staff from the ILSP team – ably supported by the livelihood collectives and beekeeping communities – swung into action. “The ILSP team was able to get permits for technical experts to move around, as well as for us to manage daily activities,” said Ganga Devi.
“We spoke to the beekeepers and coordinated with local and state officials, as well as IFAD staff, to address these problems,” said Subodh Badoni, assistant manager, agriculture/horticulture, ILSP. “We were therefore able to support beekeepers every step of the way, as we had been doing as part of our project – from providing technical inputs in rearing bees, extracting honey, and connecting producers to markets.”
The Government of India, once it was made aware of the problems caused by the restrictions, quickly announced revised guidelines allowing transport of bee boxes. The Uttarakhand government then moved to issue a limited number of passes for beekeepers, which allowed them to move around during the lockdown. The state, through the district horticulture officer and sub-divisional magistrate, also connected beekeepers with honey buyers.
There is one silver lining to the COVID-19 emergency. Across the world, as nations went into lockdown, bees and other pollinators are flourishing in the wild, as some of the harmful practices that led to dwindling populations have reduced during the crisis. But as people return to the outside world, any long-term benefits for bees would depend on these changes being carried forward – and the recognition that bees are essential workers for our food security.