Mumbai Local

Hunger for bees

Neema Rakesh Bilkule, a 28-year-old farmer and beekeeper, checks honeycombs at Dhule’s Kevdipada village. Photo: Special Arrangement  

Bees carry on their wings a lot more than just honey. From one flower to the next they carry the pollen that brings life to 75 per cent of the world crops. The taste in our food, and above all the nutritional benefits of fruits and vegetables like zucchinis, tomatoes, apples and carrots, depend to a large extent on their buzzing. If these little pollinators disappeared, 71 million people could suffer malnutrition and lack of Vitamin A, while 173 million could suffer a shortage of folic acid, according to a study published last year in The Lancet. Both micronutrients are key to humans’ good health. Pregnant women and children could be the most affected, with increased chances of mortality caused by infectious diseases, blindness and neural tube defects, among other consequences.

Will the world’s agricultural production be able to meet the food demand of a population that will reach 9.3 billion in 2050? Will the loss of biodiversity, which certain studies already place above the alert level, continue?

The buzz fades

Since 2006, in Europe and the USA more than one third of the bee population disappeared. The same has been happening year after year with an impact on our economic situation. Pollinators bring US$ 235,000 million to the world economy, according to the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). This is a figure that can only grow, considering that the volume of agricultural production that depends on pollination has been tripled in the last 50 years. They are tiny insects but very relevant when it comes to serving our tables.

From one side of the world to the other, some groups of people — including like farming families, the scientific community and ordinary citizens — engage in a not minor battle to protect these tiny but valuable insects.

In India, there are people and NGOs that teach rural communities the important role of pollination in improving their crops production and consequentially their life standards, nutrition and well-being. On the other side of the globe, in countries like Italy, some beekeepers become nomads to improve the productivity of the crops thanks to the flying of the bees; while small communities organise a referendum with the aim of protecting biodiversity and producing food of a better quality. A battle to protect the bees but that is closely related to global food security.

India: a potential food crisis in the making

“India is losing its pollinators” says Parthib Basu, a professor at the University of Kolkata. “We don’t have a data base to prove it, but from the Pollination Studies Centre, we are investigating in the area of Tripura, on the border with Bangladesh. The two main factors contributing to [the loss of bees] are the loss of the natural habitat and pesticides”.

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. “In our country, from 160 million cultivated hectares, 55 million depend on bees for their pollination” explains Professor Shashidhar Viraktamath, from the Universityof Bangalore, “this means that more than one third of our food exists thanks to these services”.

The consequences of bees’ disappearance in India could have a strong impact on people’s economic situation. “We have assessed the effect of pollination on five different crop productions and the annual loss can be estimated in about 726 million dollars”, explains Prof. Basu. “Not only money would be lost. This reduction could affect the family’s standard food basket. It is about the loss of food, hunger basically.”

But there is interesting work happening in the field. “After one year of studies in six different kinds of crops, we have been able to verify a raise of the productivity by 30 per cent to 48 per cent, thanks to the presence of hives,” says Ritam Bhattacharya, a researcher at the University of Kolkata. “We are currently investigating the effect of apiaries on the agriculture practiced by tribal families.”

In Tamil Nadu, meet the guardian of the bees

As a kid, A. Parthiban lived surrounded by palms, tamarind and banana trees, luxuriant vegetation typical of the state of Tamil Nadu, in south India. He used to look for bees on his way to school; the little insects he had seen on his biology books and he liked so much were flying around everywhere. He would explore under rocks and then look up to the sky to find them among the flowers hanging from the trees.

This was over three decades ago. Today, Mr, Parthiban is 43 years old, a bus driver and a family man. He works twelve hours a day, three days a week, driving the route from his town, Gobychettipalayam, to Madurai. One thing hasn’t changed, though: his interest in the tiny pollinators. The rest of the week he’s a beekeeper. And his passion has achieved unimaginable results.

“How does the work of the bees affect the productivity of my trees?” he wondered. On his tamarind fields, he has performed an investigation on the concrete benefits of pollination on his plantations and biodiversity. His experiments have received the support of the Indian government, and now he works together with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) as a trainer. In that way he tries to bring back the greenery, and the buzzing accompaniment to his childhood, to the surrounding landscape.

Although far from any University, Mr. Parthiban is investigating the same subject.

On his free days, rides his motorcycle to his tamarind fields, where he now has 450 hives, all built by himself. After several year of observation he could verify that the production of his 250 trees went from 1,000 kg to 4,350 kg last year, thanks to the bees’ contribution. For his tireless dedication he became famous throughout the state, and he now provides training to his neighbours on how to increase productivity and consequently improve their nutrition. “I want to protect bees for the sake of future generations,” he says, showing off the awards that he has received for his work.

Bees are changing farmer’s lives in rural Maharashtra

Neea Bilkule (28) must walk two kilometres from her home, a hut plastered with mud and cow dung, in the small village of Kevdipada (a seven-hour drive from Mumbai), to her beehives, in a wooden hut. This young beekeeper walks barefoot, her feet disappearing in the monsoon’s rain-soaked fields part of the way, then over a road that runs between green rice fields. She waves to her neighbours, working on the rice fields, protected from the rain by shells made of wood and plastic fabric.

Ms. Bilkule has been a farmer her entire life, but a beekeeper only for the last two years, “It’s a training program that we have carried out with over 500 farmer women from very poor or tribal areas”, says Rhea Cordeiro, of the NGO Under the Mango Tree, 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 30 per cent to 60 per cent growth in the productivity of their crops. These are fruits and vegetables which benefit from pollination, like tomatoes, guava, mango and aubergine among others.”

Farming communities like these, in very poor areas, make up 80 per cent of the owners of agricultural land in India. Most of them eke out a living from just two or three hectares.

After the monsoon, they will harvest the crop and store it near their homes, to feed themselves the rest of the year. If these supplies run out before the following harvest, these families must make difficult decisions. The most common one: husbands move to the city looking for jobs, mostly in the construction industry.

But, says Vimal Vadvi, Ms. Bilkule’s neighbour and also a beekeeper, “Thanks to the hives, this last harvest gave enough food for all year round and of better quality. My earnings for selling guavas in the market went from Rs. 20,000 to Rs. 60,000.”

“At the beginning I was very afraid of being stung”, Ms. Bilkule remembers, smiling, “but I made up my mind when I saw the benefits on the crops and my family’s health. We caught fewer colds and fevers, which are so common during the monsoon season.”

The bee crisis in Italy

In 2008 a large number of the insects died in Italy. Pesticides, especially neonicotinoids, used in corn fields caused the bees to get disoriented and unable to fly back to their hives.

That year, the government imposed a precautionary suspension of those chemicals, and research on the subject began. “According to the results of the national programmes, Apenet and Beenet, these measures have diminished the problem,” says Claudio Porrini, an entomologist of the University of Bologna and one of the leaders of the projects. “We went from an average of over 19 per cent of deaths in 2010-2011 to 10.85 per cent in 2013.”

The National Committee of Italian Beekeepers (Conapi) sent out an alert about the honey production in Italy: it shrank almost 70 per cent in comparison to 2011’s harvest. The causes are, primarily, climate change and the use of pesticides in agriculture.

“These deaths have multiple causes, and their impact varies according to the area and the time of the year,” says Agnes Rortais from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). “Chemical and nutritional treatments, climate change, diseases, inappropriate beekeeping practices and lack of environmental resources.”

According to Serena Milano, of the Slow Food for Biodiversity Foundation, “Single-crop farming is not suitable for the life of these insects, which need to eat different kinds of pollen, they are rather harmful for their immune system.”

These effects are well known, says beekeeper Armanda Manghi, who chose to leave the Padan plain and move to Santa Maria di Medesano, a town only a few kilometres away from Bologna, in the centre of the country. “This year has been difficult due to climate change. Bees continue to fly during these warm winters. Springs are cold, and flowers don’t produce any pollen, therefore the bees don’t find food. In some cases they even starve to death.”

Another indicator of these insects health that people like Armanda can verify. “The production of acacia honey, which in average was of 25 kg per hive, is now of 2 kg”, says Armanda while walking on her vegetable garden, among artichokes and herbs that she planted herself in order to help recover the local biodiversity.

Nomadic beekeepers help Italian farmers

Giorgio Baracani has been driving all night, chasing the morning light and the scent of the flowers. At a quick stop for petrol, he meets and greets other beekeepers, then drives on into the sunflower-covered hills near Marzocca, 300 km from Rome. Once there, without bothering to protect his hands, Mr. Baracani opens up the hives and the swarm of bees fly around and then towards the sunflowers.

A tendency that responds to the consumption in this country where the population bought a 5% more fruit and 3% more vegetables during 2015, according to the association that gathers the Italian producers of the agricultural sector, Coldiretti.

Giorgio drives his pickup truck through the Padan plain in the centre of Italy, characterized by a monotonous landscape, full of single-crop fields like corn, wheat, vineyards, fruit trees, carrots, onions and alfalfa.

Mr. Baracani (46) owns 350 hives. For over 24 years, he has been practising nomadic beekeeping. Farmers call him to have their fruits and vegetables pollinated during blooming time and in this way improve the quality and quantity of their harvests. Nomadic beekeeping was born to produce different kinds of honey, but in time it has become a necessary tool in the attempt to improve food production and to protect the life of the bees.

In Malles, a referendum for biodiversity

Malles is a quiet, small Alpine town in Alto Adige — in the far north of Italy, 10 km away from Switzerland and 20 km from Austria — where the locals started a little revolution. This one was about values, like caring for biodiversity and human health. And the health of bees.

This area is one of the biggest producer of fruit in Europe. But the citizens did not want the intensive farming of apple trees to be part of their landscape, like it is in most other parts of this region. They became the first town in the world to decide — through a referendum — to ban the use of pesticides.

Johannes Fragner, the town’s pharmacist, wears a white coat, and round, gold-framed spectacles, and speaks with a German accent. As he tells the story of Malles, church bells ring loudly. At home, for breakfast, Mr. Fragner eats apples, home-pressed elderberries juice, and a dessert that he prepared himself. Everything is strictly organic. He was one of the promoters of the referendum, conducted on 2014, when 76 per cent of Malles’s citizens chose to live in a pesticide-free town. After the referendum, municipal regulations were changed in order to reflect the citizens will: those who violate it have to pay fines from €300 to €3,000.

“The idea was born in 2010,” says Ulrich Veith, mayor of Malles. “The farmer families from the area that produce organically were worried about their cows eating grass that could have been contaminated with pesticides applied on neighbouring fields and that are carried by the wind.”

Gazing at the snow-capped mountains, Mr. Fragner says he wishes that this landscape could stay intact. That’s why he is convinced that in the future there’s only room for the kind of agriculture that respects biodiversity and where bees are the essential indicator of that.

“Without the work of pollinators,” explains Francesco Panella, president of the National Union of Italian Beekeepers Associations (Unaapi), “important parts of the food chain would disappear and that would affect our diet. Bees will ensure the production of food in the future, but we have to build more sustainable agricultural models.”

Malles is now a home to environmentally friendly agriculture, and the path it took is one that the scientific community also supports: “Food has to be a synonym of life, and not of dangerous substances”, says Patrizia Genilini, oncologist and member of the International Society of Doctors for the Environment (ISDE Italy), as she shows some studies about the effects of pesticides on human health. “For every dollar used to buy pesticides, two more are needed for externalised sanitary and social costs.”

Growing change

This year, France has approved an amendment, part of the biodiversity law, that aims to ban the neonicotinoids; this will come into effect in 2018.

On our side of the globe, it’s not just people like Ms. Bilkule and Mr. Parthiban who see the benefits of pollination right on their tables. One Indian state has been the first in the country to be declared “organic.” That is Sikkim, the tiny green state that nestles between Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan, home to the third highest mountain in the world, Kanchenjunga. In only 6,000 sq. km., it holds more than half a million inhabitants. Over a decade ago, Sikkim banned pesticides. This decision not only increased the productivity of their crops but it also made biodiversity bloom and brought the wild bees back.

Little insects that can now be seen looking up to the sky or under the rocks, like Parthiban used to do as a kid.

Illustrations by Andrea Lucio. Translation by Cecilia García. Produced in India (Tamil Nadu/Maharastra/Kolkata/Sikkim) and Italy Emilia Romagna/Marche/Alto Adige).

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

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Printable version | Jun 13, 2021 5:52:38 PM |

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