Pollination Drives Biodiversity and Ecosystem Health: Bees and Butterflies in a Biodiversity Hotspot

In early April, six other Earthwatch volunteer and I await instructions in an apple orchard in the Kullu Valley, the fruit basket of India. Dr. Kothari and Dr. Aman, the lead scientists on this research project, hand out survey sheets.

Dr. Aman, dressed in a red fleece and black puffy jacket welcomes us. He explains how the bloom timing is changing. 15-20 years ago the apple trees started blooming in late April and lasted six weeks through May. Now the season has shortened to two weeks in early April. The valley used to get snow 3-4 times a year. Now they are lucky if they get one snowfall a year.

The scientists show us how to record observations of seven types of pollinators to assess their diversity and density. Over time, the data will be compiled to document changes in pollinator populations as the climate warms.

I find an apple tree with open blossoms and quietly wait. After a late winter and unusual spring thunderstorms, today is bright and sunny. Fuchsia buds open into sweet smelling blossoms as I watch. Snow crested Himalaya Mountains visible through red branches tower over the Beas River Valley.

A bee with four black stripes across its ivory abdomen flies in. It’s an Apis cerana, or wild Indian honeybee. Later when the day warms, bees with bright orange abdomens and three black stripes, the European Honeybee or Apis mellifera, join in.

apis cerana

I mark tallies on my sheet each time a pollinator visits a blossom, gathering data on their activities and numbers. Native bees do the lion’s share of pollinating in both the orchards and the native forests. They are adapted to the local climate and don’t mind the overcast mornings or cool breezes that keep European Honeybees in their hives for shelter.

Pollination is a key driver in the maintenance of biodiversity and ecosystem health. While flies, butterflies, bats, moths, beetles and other bugs all do the job of pollination, bees are the key player, especially in agricultural ecosystems. They pollinate over 400 different types of crops, nearly one-third of the food we eat. Yet, their populations are declining across the globe due to habitat loss, climate change, disease, and pesticide use.

Americans and Indians meeting in sacred grove discussing pollinators for The Unfolding Earth article on plight of pollinators in India and connection to traditional living

The afternoon of our third field day, we eat lunch in a Sacred Grove. This 5-acre protected park surrounding a sacred temple is an example of a community conservation. About 20 men and women from the village greet us with gifts of flowers, garlands, and smudge a tilak on our foreheads. We sit in a circle and our Earthwatch leader translates as we pepper each other with questions in an interactive exchange to gather information on the “ecosystem services” that support farming.

Five years ago, they tell us, their apple trees started producing fewer apples. Farmers down the valley had cut down their orchards disappointed by very low yields. They attributed it to climate warming at lower elevations. Concerned for their livelihoods, these farmers enlisted the help of the horticulturalists and scientists at GB Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development. With the scientists help they learned that the main cause in the upper valley was a pollination deficit. Having declined in numbers to loss of habitat, food sources, and pesticide use, there weren’t enough bees to pollinate all the apple trees.

Farmer’s started paying beekeepers to bring managed hives of European Honeybees to their orchards for the 20 or so days that the trees blossom to fill the gap. But it is a temporary fix in the orchards. Apis mellifera is a non-native species and thought to be a threat to local biodiversity.

The scientists recognized that a healthy ecosystem should be able to support a robust native bee population to provide the “ecosystem service” of pollination for free. Their work became figuring out what agricultural and forest management practices would restore native pollinators and in turn the livelihoods of the local famers.

Working in six different orchards and two natural forests throughout the week, I helped to collect data on the peak bloom period times for the region to tell the shift in phenology due to climate change, assess pollinator populations and diversity as well as record the preferred bee forage, and assess plant diversity to determine the health of nearby forests that provide habitat for native bees.

Earthwatch EU executive director Sue Holden and citizen scientists measuring tree girth in natural forests of India, Himalayas

On our last day in the field, we work in an orchard at lower elevation in the valley. Here agricultural practices informed by the study are already being implemented. A variety of crops: garlic, onions, cauliflower, dot the orchard to provide food and shelter for a number of natural pollinators and diversify the income stream of the farmer. Native wildflowers are planted under the trees adding forage for bees. Pesticide use is limited and not applied when the apples are in bloom. The farmer constructed special bee hives to raise Indian honeybees helping to revive this traditional practice.

I finish my last pollinator count and hand in my clipboard to Dr. Aman. Sitting down in the tall grass, I reflect on the busy and satisfying week. A sturdy breeze lifts the petals from pollinated flowers. They float to the ground in a soft white rain. Bees buzz in the apple trees above. Butterflies and Syrphid flies flit among the white and purple wildflowers growing underneath.

The greater Himalaya region is home to the charismatic but endangered snow leopards, red pandas, blue sheep, more than 1,500 species of plants, and the native honeybees that pollinate them. This diversity of life, combined with the fact that only 30% of the native habitat remains, makes the Western Himalayas one of the world’s Biodiversity Hotspots. That’s to say, it is a deeply important and threatened landscape.

While the challenge of saving biodiversity on the planet is great, caring people all over the world are working on the solutions.