To protect India’s bees, we need to understand their impact on agricultural practices

 Farmers worry about effect of genetically modified crops on honey bees

By Fahad Nahvi
Published: Monday 15 May 2023
Beekeepers and farmers from various states have reported anecdotal accounts of the decline of honey bee populations. In picture, Apis Cerana. Photo: iStock
Beekeepers and farmers from various states have reported anecdotal accounts of the decline of honey bee populations. In picture, Apis Cerana. Photo: iStock Beekeepers and farmers from various states have reported anecdotal accounts of the decline of honey bee populations. In picture, Apis Cerana. Photo: iStock

The increasing production of genetically modified (GM) crops has raised concerns about their potential negative impact, especially on pollinators such as bees. As honeybee populations decline, beekeepers in India have united against GM crops, including the recently approved GM mustard.

The decline of honeybees can be an agricultural catastrophe for India, as crops in 50 million ha across the country depend on pollination by bees. 

Apiarists and farmers from Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana have voiced their concerns and asked the central government to retract its decision. 

Read more: Apple orchardists in Himachal worry after unseasonal rain and snow kill Italian honeybees

The Supreme Court of India is hearing a batch of petitions seeking a ban on commercially cultivating indigenously developed GM mustard. The central government has, however, stated GM crops are safe for cultivation and not harmful to honeybees. 

Mapping bee decline

Bees, both wild and managed, play a crucial role in pollinating a significant portion of the world’s wild flowering plants and crops — about 85 per cent of all cultivated crops globally

The decline of bees in recent years has raised concerns about how it might affect food security and biodiversity. However, the bulk of evidence is mostly based on local accounts or regional studies. There is a lack of pan-India evaluation of the scale of bee decline.

Beekeepers and farmers from various states have reported anecdotal accounts of the decline of the honeybee population. However, verifying this information has proven difficult for scientists due to a lack of pre-existing data to compare it with.

Only a handful of studies have tried to map the declining bee populations, but their geographical scope is restricted. 

A 2017 study conducted in Odisha based on input from farmers suggested that among five different types of bees, which included species such as Apis cerana, Apis dorsata, Apis florea, Amegilla spp and Xylocopa spp, four species experienced a decline up to 70-90 per cent, with the exception of Apis dorsata

Another recent study conducted in Bangalore revealed a decrease in the abundance of bees of up to 20 per cent. A few more studies from the Centre for Agroecology Pollination Studies at Calcutta University show similar trends

A study of giant honeybees in India also affirmed they are endangered in India.

Understanding causes of decline

Various factors may contribute to the decline, but a lack of comprehensive studies makes it difficult to determine the extent of each factor’s contribution and requires further investigation. 

Read more: Interaction of domestic, wild honeybees results in efficient sunflower pollination

One of the reasons, primarily attributed by farmers and apiculturists, is the increasing use of GM crops. GM crops could have direct and indirect impacts on bees, they said. Direct impacts can be from the toxicity of the product of genetic modification. 

Despite conclusive evidence from studies conducted in other countries that Bt cotton, the sole genetically modified crop cultivated in India, does not harm bees directly, farmers in India remain apprehensive. 

The farmers and beekeepers are more concerned about the indirect effects of GM crops. The timing and length of flowering in GM crops may pose a significant threat to bees. Some GM crops flower earlier or later than conventional crops, which can cause a mismatch in when bees need nectar and pollen and when it is available. 

This mismatch could ultimately lead to a drop in honey production, which can lead to starvation in bee colonies. Farmers are already reporting a decrease in honey production.

Many studies have also identified habitat change as a significant factor in the decline of bees. Rapid urbanisation, agricultural expansion and deforestation have led to the destruction and fragmentation of natural habitats critical for pollinator survival. 

Between 2001 and 2021, India’s relative tree cover declined by 2.07 million hectares, representing a decrease of 5.3 per cent since the year 2000, causing habitat loss for bees. 

The government’s push for GM crops and the Green Revolution have incentivised monoculture. Monoculture practice has simplified the biodiversity of insects in many ways. It has reduced the number of pollinators, as well as the number of insects that naturally control agricultural pests. 

Additionally, monocultures create an environment in which pests can thrive, leading to a further decline of bees due to diseases caused by these pests. The agricultural intensification via monoculture farming has increased dependence on synthetic agrochemicals like pesticides and fertilisers. 

Environmental pollution, including fertilisers, synthetic pesticides, sewage, landfill leachates, air pollution and industrial chemicals, is a significant contributor to bee decline, ranking second only to habitat change. 

Read more: How do you vaccinate a honeybee? 6 questions answered about a new tool for protecting pollinators

Pesticides like neonicotinoids and glyphosates are highly toxic to bees. Even though the government had banned 28 toxic pesticides, including some neonicotinoids, the usage of highly lethal ones like clothianidin, imidacloprid, thiamethoxam, dinotefuran, fipronil and glyphosates continue.

Most of these ‘beekillers’ are banned elsewhere. 

In India, measures to save bees have also led to the decline of indigenous bee populations. The prioritisation of high honey-yielding nd non-indigenous species like Apis mellifera results in the displacement of local bee species like Apis dorsata and Apis cerana indica.

This leads to a decline in their numbers and genetic diversity.

Impact of bee decline 

India, with its predominantly agrarian economy, heavily relies on the activity of pollinating bees to optimise the yield of 70 per cent of food crops

Using 45 years of Food and Agricultural Organisation data, the first assessment of pollinator-dependent vegetable production in any country was conducted in India in 2011. The study found that while the area under pollinator-dependent crops increased until 1999, it declined thereafter. 

Furthermore, the relative yield growth rate of pollinator-dependent crops declined after 1993, indicating pollinator limitation.

Recent research indicates that the decline in bee populations is resulting in a decrease in crop yields, which has impacted the accessibility and cost of nutritious foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts. 

Read more: Book notice: Indigenous Honeybees of the Himalayas

The research also links it to around 5,00,000 global premature human deaths each year. Due to declining bee populations, this human death toll has been particularly severe in middle-income nations, such as India, where chronic illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, and strokes are already prevalent. 

The decline in bee populations not only affects the yield and cost of nutritious foods but also significantly impacts farmers’ everyday work and livelihood. 

While there is limited data available on the situation in India, the case of China provides insights into the impact of pollinator decline on farmers. In China, farmers have resorted to hiring manual labour to hand-pollinate their crops, a time-consuming and cost-intensive process. 

The situation would be even more critical in India, where farmers are already struggling with indebtedness and consequent high suicide rates. “Crops like apples and bottle gourds have to be hand-pollinated with paint brushes to mimic bees; otherwise, they will be crop loss,” said farmer Binod Singh. 

Without the support of pollinators, farmers face the risk of decreased crop yields and further financial strain. 

The declining productivity in China and falling prices of bee pollination-dependent crops have led farmers to phase out such crops and replace them with other fruit and vegetable crops, resulting in a major shift in cropping patterns. This can become a grim reality in India as well. 

Combating bee decline

The lack of information and documentation on insects in India is hindering efforts to understand the extent of the decline of bees and their impact on crops and biodiversity and to formulate effective conservation plans and policies.

The government can play a crucial role in funding research institutions and universities and collaborating with entomologists, ecologists, and other scientists who can contribute to the study. 

Read more: World’s first vaccine for honeybees gets conditional nod in US

Promoting organic farming represents a promising alternative to intensive agriculture and has the potential to address bee decline caused by pesticide use, monoculture, and genetically modified crops.

Organic farming prohibits the use of synthetic inputs and increases biodiversity both on-site and in adjacent fields, which will enhance bee species richness, boost the abundance of solitary bees and bumblebees, and improve pollination rates. 

Additionally, all highly toxic and lethal pesticides to bees should be banned as soon as possible. Incentives should be provided to foster cooperative behaviour among farmers to coordinate their plot-level decisions and foster landscape-level improvements in bee habitats. 

Moreover, India’s Pesticide Management Bill, 2020 needs to be revamped for effective pesticide banning and management, as it lacks provisions for reducing and mitigating the risks of pesticide use.

Fahad Nahvi is a research consultant with think tank SPRF India

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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