Beekeeping to prevent the pollination problem?
publiziert: Donnerstag, 11. Feb 2016 / 09:37 Uhr

Wild bees pollinate our crops, and in doing so produce much of the food on which the world depends. But the destruction of their natural habitats, mostly due to agricultural spread and intensification, means we are losing these valuable insects. Promoting beekeeping to compensate for the loss of wild pollinators is not a straight forward solution, however.

Something is buzzing on the roof of the Opera Garnier in Paris. Visitors to the opera are surprised, and perhaps a little alarmed, to see bee hives on the roof of the theatre. Meanwhile, New York City too has recently passed laws to allow city slickers to take up beekeeping. Beekeepers across the world despair about the loss of honeybees, a loss that has received a great deal of media attention, and has been movingly depicted in the recent film More than honey. It is this global concern that has driven the surprising developments on top of the Opera Garnier and in the heart of the Big Apple. The Parisians? and New Yorkers? new-found love of honeybees is but a small expression of a much greater concern -the global decline of pollinators, not only honeybees, and the future of our food.

Countering the loss of pollinators

Optimists believe that we can compensate for this loss; they advocate introducing honeybees to farmlands. So while the urban dwellers of Paris keep their bees on the roof of the Opera Garnier, poor farmers in India keep their bees on top of their homes. Indeed, farmers from Tanzania to Kyrgyzstan are finding that beekeeping has many advantages: pollination of crops by honeybees compensates for the loss of wild pollinators, honeybees are easy and cheap to maintain, and of course, they produce honey. 

A closer look at farmers in southern India

Let?s think about coffee for a moment. My morning coffee depends on bees; and this is at the heart of what my work in India is about. My first trip to India opened my eyes to the diversity of existing honeybees. At first sight, I was startled by their size ? three times the size of the common honeybees we are used to in Europe; these are the giant Asian honeybees, called Apis dorsata. They have a reputation for being aggressive, and their attacks are dreaded by local farmers. Luckily, they usually build their nests at the top of tall trees in or around small family-run coffee estates. Another local species, Apis cerana, also pollinates coffee. This bee, by contrast, is a gentle and easily domesticated species. And had local beekeepers not told me, I would have mistaken it for its cousin, the familiar European honeybee, Apis mellifera. 

In southern India, farmers are cutting down the large trees in order to produce more coffee. This is bad news for the giant honeybees; they need these trees for their nests. What should a farmer do? If he cuts the trees, he gains space to plant more coffee, but he loses the benefits of pollination by the wild giant honeybees. One could think of a simple solution - domesticated Apis cerana bees, cared for by farmers on their estates.

If only it were that simple

My work with farmers has taught me that it is otherwise. A few years ago, the government promoted the distribution of subsidized hives to coffee planters. But only 15% of the farmers own Apis cerana hives, and these are mostly empty or rotting in some corner of the plantation. I asked farmers why are they not using the hives. I discovered a myriad of constraints: the lack of skill and knowledge in taking care of the bees, the difficulty in finding colonies in the wild, the absence of distributors of queen bees in the region, the fear of being stung, or, more simply, the lack of time. But above all, most of the planters were just not interested in beekeeping. In their view, the benefit of bees for coffee production is marginal. Keeping bees is just not profitable, even accounting for the honey produced. Why not?

No problem perceived as yet

The sticking point is that other species of wild bees continue to pollinate coffee without needing any additional effort by the farmers. Farmers perceive no problem at all, as they can cut trees and grow more coffee, while still relying on wild pollinators from the wider landscape, which remains relatively rich in tree cover. Many small forest fragments, refuges for wild bees, sprinkle the region. Large trees are being lost, forests encroached, and coffee planting intensified, all to the detriment of biodiversity, but plenty of trees and forests remain, so coffee is still pollinated, and production remains high. There are no real losers in this equation: neither the farmers nor the conservationists, let alone the coffee drinkers. But for how long?

Preventing the ultimate sting

If farmers continue to cut trees, the giant honey bees will eventually decline and disappear, and so too will the wild bees on which famers are increasingly relying. Introducing beehives is not yet a priority in this landscape, as the wild bees are still performing an invisible but essential job. Our concern is that if farmers fail to anticipate future problems, either by retaining trees or investing in Apis cerana hives, then there is a high risk of future pollination failure, which will cause a decline in coffee production. This does not augur well for farmers, for conservationists, or for you and me (because our coffee will become more expensive).

Compensating for the loss of wild bees with honeybees requires overcoming cultural, social, and economic barriers. Traditional beekeeping does not sit well alongside the modernizing society of India, and beekeeping know-how is gradually being lost. Getting farmers actively engaged in pollinator management could be a turning point in modern integrated agriculture. Neither the urban beekeepers of Paris, nor the coffee growers of India are immune to bee stings;  and the ultimate sting could be the loss of these pollinators altogether.

(Doktorandin Charlotte Pavageau /ETH-Zukunftsblog)

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