Small bees, big effects

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Small bees, big effects

Indian farmers are putting bee hives in their fields and they are growing more and making lives better.

24-01-2017-bees-590.jpg ©

When he was a child, Parthiban looked for bees on his way to school. He walked past palms, tamarind, and banana trees. These are common in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Parthiban looked under rocks and looked up at the flowers on the trees to find the little bees from his biology books. They flew about everywhere. Today, Parthiban is 43 years old, but he is still interested in the bees. But they are more difficult 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 sees the good effects of the bees. ‘How do the bees help my trees?’ he asked. The Indian government have helped him and he now works with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) as a trainer. In this way, he is trying to bring the bees back.

The bees make the crops better and this helps the quality of life, nutrition, and the health of the Indian people. Professor Shashidhar Viraktamath is from the University of Bangalore. He says, ‘Of the 160 million hectares of cultivated land in India, 55 million depend on bees for their pollination. This means more than one third of our food.’ India is the world’s second-largest producer of fruit and vegetables, after China. And 99 per cent is for the Indian people. So if there are no bees, it will affect people’s economic situation.

‘India is losing its bees,’ says Parthib Basu, professor at the University of Kolkata. ‘The two biggest reasons are loss of natural habitat and pesticides. We have thought about the possible effect on the pollination on five different foods, and the loss every year is about $726 million. It’s not just about the money but the effect on a family’s diet. It is about the loss of food – and hunger.’

Parthiban is far from any university, but he is thinking about the same thing. On his free days, he takes his motorcycle and rides to his tamarind fields, where he has 450 hives. After many years the production of his 250 trees has risen from 1,000 to 4,350 kilograms, thanks to the bees. He now trains his neighbours on how to grow more and to live and eat better.

Food for thought

Women beekeepers in the region of Maharastra, in central-west India, are also using the bees to help with the problem of hunger.

Neema Ramesh Bilkule is a 28-year-old beekeeper. She must walk two kilometres from her house to her hives. Her hives are under a wooden hut in the small village of Kevdipada, seven hours by car 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. She has been a farmer all her life and has had bees for two years. Rhea Cordeiro is from Under the Mango Tree, an Indian NGO which sees beekeeping as an important way for people to have enough food. Rhea says, ‘Thanks to the hives near their crops, Neema’s village has 30 to 60 per cent more crops, like tomatoes, guava, mango, and aubergine.’

Research at the University of Kolkata found the same thing. ‘After one year of studies in six different kinds of crops, we have seen a rise in productivity of 30 to 48 per cent thanks to the bees,’ says Ritam Bhattacharya, a researcher at the university. The bees help crops and the health of the people. Researchers from Harvard University wrote about a study last year in the The Lancet on the bad effects of losing bees. Maybe71 million people will not have enough vitamin A. Maybe 173 million will not have enough folic acid. These are both very important for good health. It is possible it will affect pregnant women and children the most, with more chance of death from infectious diseases, blindness, and brain defects.

The farmers in poor and remote areas work 80 per cent of the farm land in India. Most farm only two or three hectares. After the monsoon, they store the food that will feed them all year. If the food is gone before the next harvest is ready, these families must make difficult decisions. The most common decision is that husbands move to the city to look for jobs, mostly in the building industry. ‘Thanks to the hives, this last harvest gave enough food for the year, and it was better quality. My money from selling guava at market went from 20,000 to 60,000 rupees [$293 to $879],’ says Vimal Dileep Vadvi, a beekeeper and Neema’s neighbour. There is more money and Vimal and Neema’s families have better health – they are getting stronger every day.

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


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).