A Sticky Situation - The Giant Honey Bees, Honey Hunters And The Others
In Chittoor district in Andhra Pradesh, I had the opportunity to participate in a short event of honey hunting. The honey season in Chittoor was in full swing, and it was a frequent sight to see the villagers going about with machetes and baskets to collect the honey-laden combs, and the objective of my foray into the adjacent field with Raghu, a honey harvester, was to obtain a colony which had grown large enough to be harvested. The preparation for the event lasted the better part of an hour; we were to make the smoke-torch which would help us get the bees off of the comb without agitating them enough to sting us. Equipped with only a machete, he walked ahead, bending down to collect the dried-up shoots of a herb, or cutting down the leaves from some of the trees – the dried shoots formed the kindling which would, in turn, burn the green leaves to generate the smoke. Once we had collected enough material, he layered the leaves and the kindling, showed a lit matchstick to it, and when a steady flame formed, wrapped the whole bundle into a long, narrow torch and handed it to me. As he moved into the thicket of trees where the colony was situated, he beckoned me to follow him with the torch, and for the briefest moments, I thought I had misheard him. Neither of us was wearing anything in terms of protection from bee stings! This fact assumed the form of a quivering fear inside me, and I stood rooted to the spot, enveloped in a dense cloud of smoke intended for the bees. He looked back at me and started waving me over insistently, and I shouted out my consternation regarding the safety of our endeavor. ‘They won’t sting,’ was his reply, and as unbelievable as it may sound, we both emerged out of this event without a single sting! I kept swinging the torch gently so that the smoke remained consistent, watching from close quarters as he chopped off the short branch where the bees were nesting. And not just any bees; there were thousands of the largest, most aggressive bees in the world flying around us, landing on us, bumping on to our faces and arms. From lighting the matchstick to walking out of the thicket holding the heavy comb devoid of the bees, the whole process took less than ten minutes. In a few hours, the now vagabond bees would have descended on another nearby tree or rock, and begin from scratch the process of building a hive and rearing a colony.
During the course of my graduate studies, I have had the good fortune to come in contact with several people and communities who were in close contact with the giant honey bees Apis dorsata, from NGOs to farmers to members of tribes who have historically collected honey from these bees. The vocation of honey hunting, or honey harvesting, is centuries old, the proof of which is evident from cave paintings from prehistoric times. In the span of a typical honey-harvest season, the honey hunters have to diligently track the development of a hive from the time the colony swarms in until the time they smoke the bees away. And in each locality, the number of colonies can range anywhere from less than five to a few hundred and can be found nesting anywhere, from dense thickets of shrubs to narrow overhangs of cliffs. This necessitates that the honey harvesters keep track of when the different colonies arrive since the difference in collecting honey by the span of a few weeks can drastically change its quality. The collection of honey itself involves a set of versatile skills since the same techniques cannot be used for bees nesting in diverse nesting substrates. What I found strange at first glance was regarding honey hunting happening during the day, despite the fact that the honey bees are day-active – one mistake, and the colony can descend, often fatally, on to the bystanders. Sometimes, the initiation of attack by one colony can trigger nearby colonies to attack as well, thus increasing the chances of injuries and fatalities. Yet, surprisingly few instances of honey hunters being stung to death have been recorded. What is even more interesting is that the number of colonies that are irreversibly damaged (where the queen and a sizable number of workers die) is very low.
This coexistence is due to the fact that despite gathering honey and selling it has a significant economic aspect to it, and it does not exist merely as a source of income for our indigenous tribes. It is intricately embedded into their culture and often takes the form of a celebration prior to the onset of monsoon, when men go in groups into the forests and stay for days at a time, often having to brave the presence of bears and other wild animals.
The lion’s share of the honey being produced in India, around 80%, comes from harvesting giant honey bee colonies. Although honey is the chief output of harvest, no parts of the colony are left unused; any leftover larvae from the colony are used in local delicacies, and the comb which is melted down and purified into beeswax is further utilised to make cosmetics and such, which in recent years has emerged as a thriving cottage industry associated with honey hunting. Satish, a farmer, residing in the outskirts of Bengaluru, has his house a stone’s throw away from an expansive banyan tree which hosted around 160 colonies at the time of my visit. ‘The number is less than average this year,’ he told us, saying that the usual tally is easily around 250 colonies. Satish, however, does not harvest the honey. He patiently waits for the colonies to go about their natural life cycle, and once all the colonies depart from the tree, he brings down the combs one by one. The combs are melted down into beeswax cakes, for which he has found a demand in recent years, thus supplementing his income from agriculture. In all his years living with the bees, no untoward incident has happened between them, and he and his family have assumed the role of protecting both the bees and the banyan tree where the bees reside. Although the case study of Satish provides hope, it also raises a conundrum from the perspective of conservation. In places like Satish’s fields, the arrival of the bees, and the subsequent pollination services that they carry out in that area, are intimately linked to the presence of large eucalyptus plantations in the vicinity. The increased presence of eucalyptus plantations has been a growing concern due to the toll they exact upon the water table. In recent years, strong legislation has been brought about to prevent new plantations of eucalyptus in several urban centres. For the bees though, the nectar surge in these trees acts as a huge incentive to choose spots such as Satish’s bee tree as their home for a few months every year. Several anecdotal reports seem to indicate that the removal of eucalyptus plantations have in turn led to a drop in the number of colonies visiting an erstwhile preferred location.
The absence of hard numbers of our indigenous honey bee populations is a serious detriment for any effort towards their conservation. Several farmers whom I had met during my fieldwork claimed that the number of honey bees has been dwindling steadily, and the absence of data regarding the dropping number of bee colonies prevents us from gaining much traction in terms of policies. Unlike their reducing numbers in the forests, the increasing presence of giant honey bees in urban areas has evolved into a case of human-wildlife conflict, which is exacerbated by the attitude of the urban public towards the bees. The lack of understanding is telling, especially in cases where the bees are mistaken for hornets which are often larger, more aggressive and reside in papery colonies made by chewing plant materials. Rather than treating the bees as important pollinator species, they are often given the same treatment as pests. The sight of dead bees littered over roads or along the sides of buildings after having been sprayed by toxic chemical cocktails is familiar and in some places, the bees are burnt to death after being doused with kerosene. I am not implying that the giant honey bees are not dangerous and the fear amongst people is not misplaced, since we do come across news articles about bees attacking unsuspecting bystanders. The giant honey bees pose a unique instance of human-wildlife conflict. These honey bees are open nesting, unlike the domesticated species of western and eastern honey bees which can be kept and transported inside boxes. The increased availability of high rise buildings and water tanks in urban centres can prove to be attractive residences for these species of honey bees. Hence the chances of encountering human beings are on the rise, and in most cases, we end up choosing the easy way out of such a conflict – exterminate the bees. This knee-jerk reaction can have wider repercussions though and could very well be one of the factors that could potentially explain the falling numbers of giant honey bees, other than the usual suspects of insecticides and parasites. All tropical species of honey bees, including giant honey bees, move from one place to another as resource availability changes. Colonies of honey bees are known to frequently revisit the same spots where they nested the previous year, often getting even the finer details right regarding what window eave or door frame they had nested previously. Once they are in a region with plenty of resources, they rapidly start consuming the nectar and pollen, and once the colony reaches a critical density, the old queen departs with around half of the workers in the colony. But not all colonies do this; colonies led by old queens may not have new, viable queens, and may end up ‘dying’ without generating more daughter colonies. This vital process of resource-based multiplication of colonies is called reproductive swarming and helps to maintain the number of bees in nature. When colonies of honey bees are sprayed or set afire, the ‘solution’ can hence become part of a bigger problem since the bees we kill in our cities could be the same bees who could have been pollinating our crops a few months later. In several countries where the absence of pollinators have been sorely felt, farmers have turned to manual pollination, oftentimes with mixed results. Even if the pollination services of bees can be replaced by human labour or technology, honey bees also belong to a vast, interconnected ecosystem which makes their absence an ecological threat. Moreover, their dropping numbers are already impacting the lives of people who depend on selling honey and related products. A sadly curious twist to this whole story is that the urban citizen, with their awareness of pollinators and pollution and ecology, are often the first to reach out for the exterminator. This very serious lacuna also holds answers as to where one must begin in order to solve the problem.
Perhaps the most achievable of these goals is to increase awareness about bees amongst the public. This can be done at several stages, starting from keeping colonies of domesticated bees in schools, which will help students to learn how to interact (or not) with bees, and get trained in basic first aid in the case of stings and how to identify emergencies and whom to contact in such cases. The students can then become ‘bee guardians’, spreading practical awareness in their apartments and communities. This way, pollinators cease becoming just words on a news headline regarding failing ecosystems and are tangible, valuable entities in our own backyards. Awareness programs like this would bring together two important stakeholders relevant to the matter at hand – the active honey bee research community within India, the dissemination of whose work is usually restricted to academic journals, and the general public who are unaware of what the scientists are discovering about our bees. Once a certain level of fruitful engagement has happened between scientists and the public, at least at the level of a few districts across the country, pilot programs to monitor honey bee populations can be initiated. A combination of monitoring for wild bee colonies as well as maintaining and checking in on managed colonies would generate active interest and participation from the public, and if such a program can be sustained, hard data regarding the number of bees in the wild will become available and further the cause of having better policies in place for protecting honey bees. We should also ensure that new policies or changes to existing ones do not detrimentally affect bees or the communities which depend on them for livelihoods. Along with attempts to change the perception of the public, there must be policies in place which recognise bees as important pollinators and stop considering them as pests. Community engagement coupled with stronger policies could act hand-in-hand to change the perception of the public in a shorter time-frame.
The skills for sustainable harvesting of honey is the cultural heritage of the historically marginalised communities of our country. The past year saw the country produce more than 4000 metric tonnes of honey, generating a revenue of around INR 17 billion. Besides the direct benefit, the yield in crops from pollination services by honey bees is pegged at 15-20 times the revenue obtained from honey sales. Despite the tremendous growth of the honey and related industry in our country in the past decade, most of the traditional honey harvesters in India live in a state of abject poverty, which has, in turn, made the art of honey hunting a heritage close to its end days. Harvesting honey is often restricted to a few months of the year, and subsisting in the income from this alone is not feasible by any stretch. Making a bad situation worse, the unjust social hierarchy of the caste system and the associated economic handicaps have restricted their financial flexibility and has led to increased migration to the cities where they seek jobs as unskilled labourers, leading to a steady loss of skilled harvesters with time. Currently, there are a handful of NGOs which work with different honey harvesting communities, providing employment opportunities during the peak seasons, and buying honey from the farmers at a fair price. A potential workaround for the lack of employment during the off-season would be to engage the harvesters to collect honey from other places, especially urban centres which experience an influx of colonies and have a dearth of trained people to collect honey. There is a huge potential for harvesters to sell honey directly to consumers, and the whole process can aid in generating more awareness regarding pollinators and pollination services. The indigenous communities can themselves start engaging with the public by organising awareness campaigns and provide training to those who are interested to take up this form of apiculture, which will bridge the gap between bees, harvesters and the urban public. But besides the activities of NGOs and the public, the protection and welfare of indigenous honey hunting communities needs for steps to be made at the level of state legislatures, with stronger policies in place for training, remuneration and benefits to the harvesters (such as insurance), and giving the harvesters more control over decision making regarding when and how to harvest the colonies and the selling price of the honey. There is no easy solution to the problem at hand. From the lack of data to create policies to the reducing talent pool to sustainably manage our honey bees, the challenges we face are numerous. Any feasible action should focus on holistically tackling the issue, taking into account the welfare of the pollinators and those who depend on it. Nothing exemplifies this complex relationship better than honey hunters of the Kurumba tribe in the Nilgiris. Pointing to a barren rock scarred by the combs from years ago, Chinnaswamy, a Kurumba honey hunter, describes the ritual that sets in motion their new harvest season – the initial flow of honey from the hive they harvest first is allowed to drip down onto the ground and then sprinkled in all the four cardinal directions as an offering to the earth and to their ancestors. As we walk away from the rock, I ask about when the colonies are usually found nesting there, and he replies that in the last few years, there had not been any.