Last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged cooperatives to venture into areas like beekeeping and seaweed farming to help farmers double their income by 2022 and boost the rural economy. He noted that cooperatives were mainly present in the sugar and dairy sectors, and there was a need now to explore new avenues like beekeeping through which farmers could bring a “Sweet Revolution” to the cooperative movement.
The web site of the Khadi & Village Industries Commission (KVIC), which according to experts keeps official data on beekeeping in India, says: “Presently it is estimated that [there are] 25 lakh bee colonies, 2.5 lakh beekeepers and wild honey collectors [who] harvest around 56,579 MT of honey…, valued [at] Rs 476.04 crore”. The sector was organised in 1953, and KVIC subsequently established a Directorate of Beekeeping in Mumbai and the Central Bee Research and Training Institute in Pune, which started “beekeeping in [a] modern and scientific way throughout the country”. Field observation stations and zonal beekeeping extension centres (now state beekeeping extension centres) were established in states with beekeeping potential.
A pollination deficit
Bees are essentially pollinators who play the crucial role of transferring pollen from male to female parts of plants to help in fertilisation. The government recognises four species of honeybees that are available and/or cultivated in India: Apis dorsata, Apis cerana, Apis florea and Apis mellifera. The first three are indigenous species, the last was introduced in 1987.
“The Apis mellifera is a European bee that the government is consciously promoting for its high yield (honey production),” Dr Parthiba Basu, director of the Centre for Pollination Studies at the University of Calcutta, said. “But why introduce exotic species when you have indigenous varieties? This (species) is prone to lots of diseases.”
But a bigger problem apiarists are facing is the use of pesticides, Dr Basu said. “In our research, we found severe traces of high pesticide residues in honeybees like Apis dorsata and Apis cerana, which led to loss of their ability to smell, which means they were unable to return to their hives,” he said.
A decline in bee population has led to a “pollination deficit”. “In an unpublished study, which we have already presented at an international forum, we show a severe pollination deficit in fertiliser-intensive crop areas. This is specifically in mustard and brinjal production. There is a very clear deficit in terms of yield, with a deficit in bees,” Dr Basu said.
Professor Shantanu Jha of the Department of Agricultural Entomology at Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswavidyalaya in Nadia, West Bengal, said only 30%-40% of the honey is harvested, while the rest simply dries up. “There is huge variation at the national level. 70% honey is not harvested mostly because of a lack of awareness. Beekeepers say they are harassed by farmers who believe that bees sucking out nectar causes plants to fade,” Prof Jha said.
Apiarists, he said, had a “miserable life”. “In Bengal, there is no support system. Beekeepers make about Rs 50 per kg of honey because people often say the honey is not of good quality. You will soon see beekeepers leaving the profession if no support system is evolved. Beekeepers are not organised, and even cooperatives are controlled by big business people,” Prof Jha said.
According to estimates made by Prof Jha, there are 2 lakh beekeepers and 18 lakh colonies of bees in India, who produce 75,000 to 80,000 metric tonnes of honey per annum. This is a minuscule fraction of India’s potential to maintain at least 200 million bee colonies, which could provide employment to 215 lakh people, he said.
The Prime Minister has indicated a stronger government push towards helping the industry. Said Dr Basu, “If the government is concerned about honeybees and committed to improving the economic health of farmers, the entire farming system will have to be overhauled, including reducing or stopping pesticide use in crop fields. It cannot be a piecemeal offering.”