Little Insects, Big Impact

January 26, 2017

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

By introducing bee hives to their fields, Indian farmers are improving productivity – and lives.

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As a child, A Parthiban used to look for bees on his way to school, as he walked past palms, tamarind and banana trees. This luxuriant vegetation is typical of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and Parthiban would explore under rocks and look up at the flowers hanging from the trees to seek out the little insects that he had seen in his biology books. They would be flying about everywhere. Today, Parthiban is 43 years old, but he is still interested in the tiny pollinators – though they are harder to find.

Three days a week, Parthiban drives a bus between his home town, Gobychettipalayam, and the city of Madurai. The rest of the week, he is a beekeeper. In his tamarind fields he has been investigating the benefits of pollination on his plantations and biodiversity. ‘How does the work of the bees affect the productivity of my trees?’ he wondered. His experiments have received the support of the Indian government, and he now works with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) as a trainer. In this way, he is trying to bring back to the landscape the green and the buzzing of his childhood.

Parthiban is not the only one to recognize the high value of pollinators in improving the crop production, which in turn improves the quality of life, nutrition and well-being of the Indian people. ‘Of the 160 million hectares of cultivated land in India,’ explains Professor Shashidhar Viraktamath from the University of Bangalore, ‘55 million depend on bees for their pollination. This means that more than one third of our food exists thanks to these services.’ India is the world’s second-largest producer of fruit and vegetables, after China, and 99 per cent of its harvest is for domestic consumption. So the disappearance of bees could have a huge effect on people’s economic situation.

‘India is losing its pollinators,’ says Parthib Basu, professor at the University of Kolkata. ‘The two main contributory factors are loss of natural habitat and pesticides. We have assessed the potential effect on the pollination on five different food crops, and the annual loss can be estimated at about $726 million. It’s not just about the lost money, though. This reduction could affect a family’s diet. It is about the loss of food – hunger, basically.’

Although far from any university, Parthiban is investigating the same subject. On his free days he takes his motorcycle and drives to his tamarind fields, where he now has 450 hives, all built by himself. After several years of observation he has been able to verify that the production of his 250 trees has risen from 1,000 to 4,350 kilograms, thanks to the bees’ contribution. He now provides training for his neighbours on how to increase productivity and consequently improve their nutrition.

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Food for thought
Women beekeepers in the region of Maharastra, located in central-west India, are also asking these tiny insects for help in the fight against hunger.

Neema Ramesh Bilkule, a 28-year-old beekeeper, has to walk two kilometres from her house to her hives, which are located under a wooden hut in the small village of Kevdipada, a seven-hour drive from Mumbai. She waves at her neighbours working in the rice fields in the rain.

Neema lives in a house that she and her family built using mud and cow dung – a typical practice in this area. She has been a farmer her entire life and has been keeping bees for two years.

‘Neema is taking part in our training programme with over 500 farmer women from very poor or tribal areas,’ explains Rhea Cordeiro from Under the Mango Tree, an Indian NGO which encourages beekeeping as an important way to ensure food supplies for this rural population. ‘Thanks to the hives located near their crops, Neema’s community has seen increased productivity of 30 to 60 per cent in crops that benefit from pollination, like tomatoes, guava, mango and aubergine.’

This finding is confirmed by research being carried out at the University of Kolkata. ‘After one year of studies in six different kinds of crops, we have been able to verify a rise in productivity of 30 to 48 per cent thanks to the presence of hives,’ says Ritam Bhattacharya, a researcher at the university. ‘We are currently investigating the effect of apiaries on the agriculture practised by tribal families.’

These little insects not only affect the productivity of the crops but also the health of the people. Researchers from Harvard University published a study last year in the The Lancet about the possible nutritional consequences of the disappearance of pollinators. Among them, 71 million people could suffer malnutrition and lack of vitamin A, while 173 million could suffer a shortage of folic acid. Both these micronutrients are key to good health. Pregnant women and children could be the most affected, with increased chance of mortality caused by infectious diseases, blindness and neural tube defects.

The communities of farmers who live in poor and remote areas work 80 per cent of the agricultural land in India. Most support themselves on just two or three hectares. After the monsoon, they harvest and store the food that will feed them all year. If supplies run out before the next harvest is ready, these families must make difficult decisions. The most common one is that husbands move to the city to look for jobs, mostly in the construction industry. ‘Thanks to the hives, this last harvest gave enough food for the whole year, and it was better quality. My earnings from selling guava at market went from 20,000 to 60,000 rupees [$293 to $879],’ states Vimal Dileep Vadvi, a beekeeper and Neema’s neighbour. Beyond the economic benefits are the health of Vimal and Neema’s families – they are getting stronger every day.

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Translation by Cecilia García. Hunger4Bees is a project with the collaboration of Journalism Grant, Innovation in Development Reporting Grant Programme (IDR) from the European Centre of Journalism.

Tags: native pollinators, pollinators, rebuilding resilient food and farming systems