As Dhananjay Takle moves around the fruit-laden trees in his three-acre pomegranate farm, he can’t but recall the scene just over five months back. This farmer from Agoti village in Indapur taluka of Pune district had a real scare when the same 1,000-odd trees weren’t setting fruit, despite good flowering.
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“I had planted pomegranate for the first time and invested around Rs 6 lakh in inputs, including labour. The trees started flowering towards September-end. But the flowers, instead of developing into fruits, were simply dropping,” he notes. Consultation with other farmers in his village revealed that the flower drop had to do with the lack of pollination. There weren’t enough honey bees and other pollinating insects in and around his fields to transfer pollen from the stamen (male organ) of one flower to the stigma (female part) of the other. The result: No fertilisation and fruit formation.
Takle, then, followed the advice of his fellow-farmers: Take beehive boxes, each containing a colony of 20,000-30,000 insects, on hire and install them in the field, as some of them had done earlier. “I contacted Dinkar Patil, a bee keeper from Latur, who rented out three boxes for my orchard. By early November, 90 per cent of the trees started bearing fruits and I hope to harvest around 20 tonnes of pomegranate in the next 15 days. Without those bees, all my hard work would have gone waste,” he says.
The importance of honeybees to agriculture – more specifically, the role that the tiny-winged insects play in pollination – is too well-known to require elaboration. Not as well recognised a reality, however, is the destruction of beehives that the indiscriminate usage of pesticides have wrought and, in turn, contributed to a not-insignificant agricultural crisis. There’s no better proof of that than farmers like Takle today having to hire beehive boxes to “aid” in pollination.
Highly cross-pollinated crops like onion, cotton, oilseeds and most fruits and vegetables depend entirely on winged insects that, during their flights to collect nectar, also transport pollen from one flower to another. “Honeybees are best suited to perform this function. Our experiments have shown an average 30 per cent increase in crop yields – from 17-19 per cent for cotton to 48 per cent in sunflower and 150-170 per cent in lychees – if honeybees are artificially introduced in the fields during the flowering stage even in normal conditions,” informs Laxmi Rao, assistant director of the Pune based Central Bee Research and Training Institute (CBRTI).
Not for nothing, then, that as pollinator insect populations have seen reduction – linked to factors from widespread pesticide application and mono-cropping to climate change — it has spawned a business of artificial introduction of beehive boxes. In Maharashtra, there are professional beekeepers now charging farmers anywhere from Rs 1,000 to Rs 3,000 for renting out boxes for a month.
Dinkar Patil has doing this for the last 15 years. Proprietor of the Latur-based Patil Bee Keepers, he was initially supplying beehive boxes to companies producing onion and vegetable seeds. But in recent years, he has noticed an increasing demand from even farmers for his pollination services. “Much of it is from pomegranate, oilseeds and mustard growers, who have reported sharp dip in the natural bee numbers in their areas. The demand-supply gap is huge, because I myself get queries for 5,000 beehive boxes a year, but am in a position to fulfill barely a fifth of these. There were orders for around 500 boxes from pomegranate farmers in Indapur alone last year, but I could provide only 50,” claims Patil, who owns and rents out 700 boxes round the year.
Beekeeping, promoted as a cottage industry by the Khadi and Village Industries Commission, has so far focused mainly on honey. But now, a new demand avenue has opened up for beekeepers — in the form of pollinators-on-hire services. The beehive boxes are kept for a month or so during the flowering season. Once fruit-setting happens, the boxes are removed and taken to the field of the next crop whose flowering is due. Since flowering happens for different crops all through the year, barring the peak summer and monsoon months, there is a steady demand for the services offered by the likes of Patil.
Patil maintains colonies of Apis mellifera or European honeybees that normally travel within an area of four square-km area to collect nectar and pollinate flowers. On the other hand, Vipin Mahajan, another beekeeper from Talegaon Dabhade, a town in Pune’s Mawal taluka, employs Apis trigona bees. The former species require regular supplementary feeding of concentrated sugar solution to ensure no starvation, but the bees don’t migrate and farmers only need to install one box per acre.
The trigona bees require less maintenance, but the requirement is three boxes per acre. Also, mellifera beehives can survive for three years, whereas trigona hives need to be re-populated every year.
According to CBRTI’s Rao, the lack of trained bee breeders is a major concern. This is even more so in a scenario where the destruction of the natural habitat for bee populations is already impacting pollination in major crops. “There can be no second Green Revolution without conservation of honey bees. Farmers need to be sensitised about the importance of the winged visitors to their fields,” she points out.