Saving bee population in the age of climate crisis
On April 1, I received an email from Vasanthi Kumar, a Delhi resident who happened to read my report about the rare sighting of a Himalayan bird, Fire-capped Tit, in Delhi-NCR. “It is such great news and it’s even greater to read good things about animals and birds when most news about them is rather sad,” Kumar wrote.
Kumar wondered if I would be interested in writing about honey bees. The title of her email, which I found to be quite poignant, was ‘The Largest Pollinators in the World at my Window’.
I visited Kumar’s home in Delhi’s Vasant Kunj on a balmy morning a few days later, specifically to view this sight. What I saw were five of the largest beehives I have ever come across nestled on a sprawling peepal tree, at eye-level outside her third-floor apartment. They were teeming with bees, and you could hear their proverbial buzzing in the air.
In a city where professional honey hunters are constantly on the lookout for hives such as these, Kumar has spent over a decade defending the ones outside her window. “These bees have been faithfully visiting us year after year, for the last 10-12 years, and I am very happy to mention that none of us, including my three dogs, have ever been stung by them even once,” Kumar said.
One of the reasons why Kumar has become an advocate for these creatures is her awareness that they are disappearing due to the changing agricultural traditions, which use pesticides that are harmful to bees. “You hear so many stories of bee populations disappearing across the world, and many different species are already extinct. It’s a scary scenario because bees are the most important pollinators of the natural world,” she said.
Without them, several of the foods we eat will lose their ability to reproduce in nature. By some estimates, plant species might decline in productivity by 80% without bees. “Einstein said it won’t be possible to feed ourselves if bees are wiped off face of the earth,” Kumar said.
A 2017 study by the Centre for Pollination Studies in Kolkata — one of the only such study to be carried out in India — found a 80% decline in bee population in Odisha. Experts have enough reason to believe that the phenomenon is a global one, and since 2006, reports of declining bee populations and even extinctions across the world have got experts worried about the biodiversity loss.
Besides pesticides, climate change and disruption of land use patterns have rendered large tracts of forest and agricultural land unsuitable habitat for bees. Moreover, conservation efforts in India have focused mainly on introducing a non-native bee species, Apis mellifera from Western Europe, known for its high honey production. This has resulted in the species becoming invasive, and causing decline of local species diversity by reducing the numbers of Indian rock and hive bees. Such a loss of bee biodiversity will in turn result in a loss of all plant species that depend on bees to reproduce.
Kumar recollected how, in 2016, when the honey hunters tried to set fire to the hives, she and her husband intervened. “It wasn’t easy to explain to people why we were being so protective of the bees. We printed almost 600 pamphlets on the importance of protecting these bee colonies. Now everyone here knows these bees aren’t to be touched,” said Kumar.
Kumar also has a lush terrace garden, wherein flowers are pollinated by the bees. “I wonder if this is an indication for them that it is a safe spot,” she said.