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Conserving Biodiversity with Traditional Knowledge, Women, and Bees

Northwest of Delhi, in the foothills of the Himalaya Mountains a couple thousand feet above the Beas River surrounded by ancient cedar trees, sits the traditional village of Nashala. About 70 families live here in the shadow of 22,000 foot snow-crested peaks where endangered snow leopards, red pandas, blue sheep, and trogons make their home.

I gather with a group of citizen scientists on expedition with Earthwatch Institute. Dr. Samant, the immaculately groomed lead scientist on this pollinator research project and the premier ethnobotanist in India, instructs us in our task for the day. We’ll be conducting surveys of local beekeeping and animal husbandry practices in the village so the scientists can integrate local knowledge into the project recommendations. We’ll also learn about the modern challenges to traditional village lifestyle.

Built in the traditional style, thick walls of stacked stones and horizontally laid timber provide shade for our conversation. Heavy blue slate shingles sit atop logs forming pitched roofs that keep out the cold and slough off snow. These traditional homes are perfectly built to withstand the earthquakes common in this region where plate tectonics are a major force

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Bees buzz around our heads flying in and out of small square openings in the walls. Dr. Samant points out the wall and log hives built into the side of the houses. He instructs us to walk around the village, talk with the homeowners, and tally the number of active and inactive hives in the homes. We’ll also indicate which kinds of bees inhabit the active hives: Apis cerana, the wild Indian honey bee, or Apis mellifera, the introduced European honey bee.

Beekeeping has a long history in the rural mountain states of northern India where Apis cerana have been kept in log and wall hives for honey. Agriculture in the Himalaya region is shifting from traditional cereal crops such as wheat and oats that support a subsistence life, to high-value cash crops – apple orchards in the case of Nashala Village.

Thousands of hectares of apple orchards have been planted in the valley bringing with them the challenge of inadequate pollination due to the lack of adequate numbers of pollinators. Loss of wilderness and habitat, land use changes, monoculture-dominated agriculture, and excessive use of pesticides are all to blame for the decline in numbers and diversity of pollinators in the valley.

With the loss of honey bee populations in the Kullu Valley, the traditional practice of beekeeping has also been on the decline. Scientists from the GB Pant Institute and forward thinking farmers in the village are hoping to change this.

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We walk through the narrow pathways that wind between the homes and talk with the farmers we encounter about their hives. We find that over half of the hives are not in use. Some of the two-foot-deep hives are filled with supplies to intentionally keep the bees from nesting there.

Our interest in the bees seems to spark the farmers’ interest. One teenage boy we talk with isn’t aware that hives are built into his home. He runs to get his middle-aged father to answer our questions and listens intently as his father talks at length about his history with beekeeping. The farmer tells us that more than ten years ago all his hives were full of wild Indian bees, now they are all empty except those he had seeded with the European honey bee. He expresses frustration at the over use of pesticides in the orchards and says they are to blame for the disappearance of his native bees.

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From porch conversations like these and other efforts of research scientists and horticulturalists, farmers have gained a heightened awareness of the importance of bees in pollinating the apple orchards. Pollination plays a key role in improving food security and the livelihoods by enhancing agricultural productivity and thus income for the farmers. Adequate pollinators, especially honey bees, equals more pollinated flowers and more fruit on the trees at harvest time.

The Himalaya region is one of the richest in honey bee species’ diversity in the world. But only one of the native honey bees can be kept in hives. Our surveys will create a baseline of data on bee hive populations in the village and monitor hopeful increase of active hives as the researchers help farmers install Apis cerana back into the wall and log hives.

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This is the first step of a collaboration between farmers and scientists working together in Nashala Village. Their goal is to find ways to increase the bee populations by reviving the practice of traditional beekeeping. Historically, this practice of apiculture has provided bee colonies a safe place to nest, but it also has been destructive as the honey combs were squeezed to remove honey, killing the bee larvae. Solan University Extension Centre in India has developed fixed bee hives with frames that will allow for honey extraction without hurting the colonies. However, farmers now see the value in keeping bees for pollination, rather than for honey.

Women are the dominant labor force in agriculture in Nashala Village and in fact throughout the Himalaya region. When I asked a group of villagers what their daily routine on the farm was like, they all looked to the women. One villager leader, a man, said, “You have to ask the women, they do all the work on the farm.” Indeed, I saw women engaged in all aspects of farming activities while in the village: carrying and applying sacks of worm compost, planting seeds, harvesting wheat, clearing weeds, caring for fruit trees, feeding livestock.

According to published studies by Uma Partap and Dr. Tej Partap, women are key to successful management of pollinators. In Himachal Pradesh, women manage colonies for use in their own orchards as well as rent them out to other farmers. Local women’s farmer’s associations known as Mahila Mandals are active in renting bee colonies for pollination. As researcher Uma Partap says, “Development of rural women and encouraging their full participation as equal partners in the social and economic mainstream is one of the greatest challenges being faced by several developing countries today.”

Conservation and management of wild insect pollinators and the inclusion of women in development, are important to ensure the long-term survival of bee colonies and also the livelihood of the villagers through their orchards.

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Resources:

Partap, Uma. (2002). Cash crop farming in the Himalayas: the importance of pollinator management and managed pollination. In Biodiversity and the ecosystem approach in agriculture, forestry and fisheries.  Paper presented at: Satellite event on the occasion of the ninth regular session of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, Rome 12-13 October 2002 (pp. 226-246).

Kothari, Ashish. (September, 2007). “Traditional Knowledge and Sustainable Development.” International Institute for Sustainable Development. 9 Dec. 2015 <https://www.iisd.org/pdf/2007/igsd_traditional_knowledge.pdf>

 

Photo of farmer with log hive courtesy of Pradeep Mehta

All other Photos © Christina Selby