Why is all the buzz only around honey bees, ask researchers

On World Bee Day, May 20, The Hindu explores The Bee Garden Project, an ongoing initiative to highlight the importance of non-honeybee pollinators in a city like Bengaluru

Updated - May 20, 2024 07:20 pm IST

Published - May 20, 2024 09:00 am IST - Bengaluru

Checking for signs of bee occupation.

Checking for signs of bee occupation. | Photo Credit:  Sunil G M and Jagadishakumara B

The word bee almost always conjures up a singular image: a furry insect with striking yellow-and-black stripes and huge eyes collecting nectar as it buzzes from one flower to another, carrying the nectar back to its crowded hive and converting it into thick, amber honey to nourish the colony.

“Even in art, when you say bee, it is drawn with yellow and black stripes, with a honeycomb background, a typical honey bee,” says Chethana V. Casiker, Senior Research Fellow, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE). 

Bee hotel app

Bee hotel app | Photo Credit: Maria Antony P

A small minority

While this is the most prevalent portrait of the bee in popular culture, it represents only a small minority of these insects: of the 20,000-odd species of bees in the world, only eight are honeybees. “We are so attuned to thinking that bees make honey, but most bees are not honey bees. One familiar example is the large black carpenter bee,” she says. In fact, most bees aren’t even social insects as is commonly believed. Though some of them, such as honeybees, bumblebees and stingless bees are organised into complex societies, the majority end up leading a more solitary lifestyle.

Solitary bees, like all other bee species, play a crucial role in pollination but do not receive anywhere close to the attention they deserve. Chethana and her colleagues at ATREE are trying to change that. She is part of the team behind The Bee Garden Project, which seeks to better understand these poorly studied bees and highlight their ecological importance in urban landscapes. “Through this project, we hope to spread awareness about bees that look different and behave differently (from honeybees) but are still very important.” 

Powerful pollinators 

If you’ve enjoyed a meal containing tomatoes, chillies, eggplants, gourds or lentils, guess who you probably have to thank for it? That’s right: solitary bees.

Solitary bees are accomplished pollinators, making them an essential component of human food systems. “Since they don’t have pollen baskets (a modified part of the hindlegs of honey bee workers) where they brush and tightly pack all the pollen into, they end up collecting more dry pollen all over their body. This helps pollen get passed around more easily,” says Chethana. Also, these bees are more effective in pollination than honey bees. “They are strong fliers and can visit a lot of different flowers.”

Additionally, many solitary bees perform a behaviour called buzz pollination, significant for plants, including many important sources of our food, that have something called poricidal anthers. These anthers (anthers are part of the male sex organ of a flower called stamen and contain pollen which produces sperm cells) are shaped in such a way that it makes it difficult for them to release pollen without help from buzz pollinators.

“The bees hold the flower and vibrate their thoracic muscles at a specific frequency, agitating the flower and dislodging the tightly held pollen,” explains Chethana. As a result, pollen gets dislodged from the anther and falls on the bee’s body. The bee, now covered in pollen, transfers the powdery substance to pistils, the female sex organs of flowers, and helps in their fertilisation. 

Bee resort at Venkateshpura Lake.

Bee resort at Venkateshpura Lake. | Photo Credit:  Sunil G M and Jagadishakumara B

The bee garden project

Given how crucial solitary bees are to our food security and the well-being of ecosystems, Chethana and her colleagues started The Bee Garden project in December 2021, initially funded by the Bengaluru Sustainability Forum’s Small Grants Programme.  “My colleagues and I have been studying bees in urban landscapes around Bangalore,” says Chethana, who leads the project. 

The team consists of Jagadishakumara B. and Sunil G.M. from ATREE as well as Maria Antony P. and Tamizhazhagan S. of ATREE’s Agastyamalai Community Conservation Centre. This team, which is being advised by M. Soubadra Devy, Senior Fellow at ATREE, is also collaborating with Dr. Arati Pannure, an entomologist and expert in bee taxonomy for the project.

Their initial research threw up an interesting finding. “There are quite a few solitary bee species in the city,” Chethana says. But, as a report on the project points out, “solitary bees require immediate conservation action in fast-urbanizing landscapes such as Bengaluru’s.” This is because, unlike social bees that nest in buildings and other human-made structures, solitary bees need dead wood, twigs, woody rafts or exposed soil for nesting, all of which are becoming scarce as the city loses its green spaces.

Bee hotel in the city.

Bee hotel in the city. | Photo Credit:  Sunil G M and Jagadishakumara B

Nesting structures

This led to the concept of “bee hotels”, nesting structures for bees built out of natural materials that simulate these insects’ natural nesting habitat.  According to Chethana, the team designed a bee hotel to cater to the nesting requirements of different bee species, comprising three parts. While the upper compartment is made of twigs and cavities, the middle section is composed of bamboo fragments and the lowest is filled with soil.  “We tried to figure out what works in terms of structure, design and components,” she elaborates.

The bee hotels were then distributed free of charge to people in Bengaluru who expressed a willingness to have them in their homes and gardens. “We advertised this on social media, and whoever was interested got in touch with us,” says Chethana, adding that they also delivered and helped people set up the hotel. The team has also developed a bee hotel app that helps users record observations and identify common species of bees and has conducted several outreach activities around bee hotels. “We wanted to motivate people to take up this kind of action in houses, communities and schools,” she says.

Bee activity in bee hotel.

Bee activity in bee hotel. | Photo Credit:  Sunil G M and Jagadishakumara B

The road ahead

Since they started, the team has set up around 60 bee hotels in the city and plans to continue, even though the Bengaluru Sustainability Forum funding ended in early 2024. They have already begun establishing bee resorts, larger installations that provide nesting spaces for cavity-nesting bees (bee resorts) in public greenspaces such as Venkateshpura Lake and Jakkur Lake in North Bengaluru. 

At Venkateshpura Lake, their most recent project, the team has even planted a patch of bee-friendly plants around the bee resort. “We have seen some bee occupation already,” Chethana says. They are also experimenting with using bee hotels to support the integration of pollinators in urban agriculture in Bengaluru, in collaboration with the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS). “We are trying to create multifunctional edible gardens in urban spaces that not only provide food but also support pollinators,” she explains. 

As urban areas grow and natural landscapes shrink, it would be very wise to focus on the biodiversity in our cities, believes Chethana. “Many of us are so motivated about conservation and biodiversity support, but it is a bit daunting; you worry about what you can do,” says Chethana. Being part of a study like this that focuses on home and garden space allows ordinary citizens to do something concrete and make a difference in the world around us. “It would be nice if we had a network of spaces which are available to provide for bees and other creatures.”

A quick reference guide in the app.

A quick reference guide in the app. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

What ‘hotels’ do

These hotels, besides providing homes to solitary bees, provide researchers with valuable data. “We don’t have sufficient baseline information, as there are few studies in urban landscapes and they are typically somewhere else in the world,” says Chethana. “Studies such as ours could tell us what species of cavity-nesting bees are around us and what conservation measures might or might not work for them.”

If you are interested in being a part of the study or installing a bee hotel, you can write to team_push@atree.org. 

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