AT RISK – To Bee Or Not To Bee

10 Apr 2003

As native bees are slowly disappearing in different parts of the tiny Himalayan kingdom due to deforestation and the heavy use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, Nepali farmers are now hand-pollinating their apple trees.

The northern Himalayan region of Nepal on the border with China is famous for apple farming, and apple orchards are the best feeding grounds for bees. At the same time, bees are the best agents for the quality pollination of apples. In the process of foraging food on the apple orchard, bees move from one flower to another, sucking nectar and pollinating apple flowers.

However, this equilibrium began to be lost in recent years as farmers started using pesticides and chemical fertilizers on their farms. Hence the population of wild bees has declined sharply. “This has had serious consequences on apple production,” says Binaya Chandra Amatya, a beekeeping expert.

As a result, farmers have begun to pollinate their apple trees by hand. They take pollen from male flowers and smear it on female flowers with brush and hands—a job done far better by bees.

Studies have found that over 80 per cent of the world’s food and fruit crops are pollinated by honeybees. Tree fruits, top fruit, bush fruit, oil seeds, nuts, pulses, peas and lentils, protein crops and many more crops vital to people’s survival depend on bees to help set their seed.

Farmers are increasingly worried about the decline in the population of native bees, which has not only disturbed biodiversity, but also resulted in a decline in quality apple production. Now apple farmers have launched a campaign in some villages of Nepal to discourage the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Ganesh Tamang of Dhadung of Sidhupalchock, a Himalayan district where apple farming is very popular, said that, “A return to organic farming is the best alternative. Until 40 years ago, Nepal’s agriculture was completely based on organic farming system”.

“I now prefer to use organic manure and reduce the use of pesticide on our crops,” says Dil Bahadur Hamal of Jumla. “If we absolutely need pesticides, we use them in the evening, when the bees are in their hives.“ The logic behind this is that the effect of the pesticide will recede in the morning, when the bees come out of their hives.

This is the visible example of a close link between biodiversity and sustainable development, which the farmers of Nepal have clearly realized. They are now starting to apply the more environment-friendly method of cultivation to conserve natural environment and biodiversity.

In addition, farmers have started to keep bees at home and in apple orchards to maintain the ecological equilibrium and biodiversity. “We now keep bees and apple farming side by side, which not only preserves biodiversity but also helps produce quality apples,” said Mr Hamal.

Gyan Chandra Thakur, an entomologist, says that they encourage farmers to keep bees, as this benefits farmers in three ways, “conserving biodiversity, quality apple production and additional income from honey”.

Beekeeping generates valuable income for farmers from the production and sale of honey and wax products. Honey also improves the diet of the poor people in villages. Honey has a religious significance in Nepal as it is considered a ‘holy commodity’ much loved by the gods. Honey is essential in all religious ceremonies for Hindus and Buddhists alike. It is also used for medicinal purposes to cure diseases such as coughs, colds, indigestion, dysentery, diarrhea, and headaches.

In most rural areas of Nepal, people harvest wild honey in the forest. The National Geographic Magazine once made a documentary entitled ‘Honey Hunters of Nepal’ completely based on the wild honey harvesting of the village people of the country. But the tradition of honey hunting has declined as the population of wild bees has slowly receded.

Farmers have even started hiring honeybees from beekeepers for the pollination of fruit plants such as apples, peaches, plums, and apricots. Baidhya Nath Chaudhari, owner of a horticulture farm in Nawalpur, a southern tropical area of Nepal bordering India, said it is beneficial for both beekeepers as well as horticulture farmers.

The beekeeping business is now thriving in Nepal as a result of the growing demand for bees, honey and other bee-products. However, nothing has been done for the preservation of wild bees. Experts are of the opinion that the main killers of native bees are chemical pesticides, which could be replaced by biological and traditional methods of pest control.

Yuba Nath Lamsal is an executive editor of The Rising Nepal, Nepal‚s national daily

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