Editorial: Bees, neither Buzzing nor Busy

At least the horticulturists should have noticed

The Baramati sub-division under Pune district in Maharashtra is a rural belt of pomegranate and onion growers. Some of the farmers, those who became part of a pilot project - Madhu Sandesh – reported their first bumper crop in a while two years ago. In fact, not only had the volume of their produce grown substantially, the quality too was markedly better. The pilot project was launched in November 2015. For farms to report a substantial turnaround within a year should have gotten everyone interested. Unfortunately, it appears that no one elsewhere has been keeping track or taking notes. Growers in Baramati reported harvests of around 12 tonnes from farms which used to otherwise yield between 7 to 8 tonnes. Sure, these could be cyclical variations, but traditional growers would know that, Hence, when they credit the improvement in volume and quality to honey bees, everyone should sit up and take note, especially horticulturists in Sikkim who continue to struggle with failing crops and poor quality. Under the Madhu Sandesh project, farmers were trained to rear honeybees on their farms and use them extensively for pollinating their pomegranate and onion fields. So dramatic have the improvements been that more farmers are lining up to take the training and those who already have honeybee hives in their farms, are looking around to install more, even on rented patches! There is nothing earth-shatteringly new in the Baramati experience given that colony collapse (of bees) and the resultant effect on fruit orchards across the world have been much discussed worries in these times of climate change and ecological distress. Unfortunately, not enough people are speaking of this phenomenon in Sikkim. But if one were to look around, the warning signs are aplenty. Farmers from Dzongu have been complaining of falling produce in their orange orchards. Local orange produce could be in decline elsewhere as well. It has been several decades since the State lost its North Sikkim apples [although one hears off and on about attempts to revive apple orchards there]. Large cardamom plantations stand devastated across the State. Between an entire Board devoted to spices and a department charged to look after Horticulture, an explanation remains awaited which makes a durable solution even more distant. Although one hears often about mischievously named crop diseases afflicting the fruits and frequent reference to the advanced age of the [large cardamom] plantations, these only explain the symptoms which are manifesting in the fields and not the overall crop failure. There have even been reports of disease-resistant strains being developed and attempts to promote improved plantation management practices. What one does not hear being discussed as often is the health of pollinators in Sikkim’s fields. Agriculture does not require pollination, but horticulture, every expert will agree, is not possible without pollinators. Fruit-bearing trees flower to attract pollinators, and the number of pollinating agents is directly proportional to the number and health of fruits borne. Bees are among the most prolific and important pollinators and the role of wild bees in pollinating large cardamom, as against the damage that honey bees can wreck, has been studied and documented. The same applies to oranges and apples, which are also serviced by a host of other insects. Studies on declining produce in orchards elsewhere in the world have flagged shortage of pollinators as the main culprit. Bee populations are in unexplained decline across the world and even casual surveys will prove this to be the case here as well. It is perhaps important then that horticultural issues facing Sikkim should start at the basics by checking first on the presence and health of pollinators in the farms. Another good place to pick up some tips would be Baramati, and a study tour to that corner of Pune could be easy managed. The Bee experiment also ties in well with Sikkim’s Organic Mission. In Baramati for instance, a substantial part of the training was on how to use pesticides and fertilizers without affecting the bees. That worry does not exist in Sikkim since chemical pesticides and fertilizers which are known to wipe out bee colonies are not used in farms here anymore. These are all ideas and suggestions and would be of some consequence if there was some follow-up.