Published: Sunday 15 January 1995

Wrong buzzword

I read the article Cooking up honey by Bhanusingha Ghosh (October 31, 1994) with interest. Although it is informative from a historical point of view, at some points it lacks clarity and analysis.

It is incorrect to say, "Gathering honey was a harrowing experience in ancient times." If one studies the methods of African honey hunters in Babati district, Tanzania, or the Kurumbas in the Nilgiris, one sees that it is an skill performed with reverence, in which the entire community participates.

In the same paragraph, he says, "Bees are captured and released periodically in the course of walking for a distance in the general direction of the hive." This is the narrative of an English beekeeper or a hobbyist. Tribal beekeepers first detect bees in the flight path and finally relocate the natural bee colony with the combs and the queen, workers and drones in their preferred receptacle -- an earthen pot, a hollow log, or a conventional movable hive. He will generally leave the new hive close to the bees' original nest for a few days till they become accustomed to their new home.

In the districts of Sirmaur and Shimla in Himachal Pradesh, bees are reared inside houses. A small hole on the exterior allows the passage of the bee, while the cavity, inside the room, is closed. When the time is ready for harvesting, the beekeeper removes the honeycombs from inside the cavity and replaces them with empty bars for comb building.

A statement like "commercial beekeeping took a huge leap forward when hives were taken out of the trees and brought to the ground" is wrong. This relocation was not a decisive factor. Even today, innovative beekeepers are hanging their beehives on trees to escape ground-level predatory attacks.

The conclusion of the article, "But despite these efforts, humans have not succeeded in domesticating bees. Honey gathering involves more learning to accommodate the needs of bees rather than domesticating them," is a bolt from the blue. The article does not logically carry the reader to this conclusion, nor is it true in reality. Honeybees have been reared and gathered by people in many ways -- inside earthern pots, bamboo baskets, hollow log hives, clay pots placed in hay stacks to catch passing swarms, etc.

In Tamil Nadu, there is a tradition of keeping Dammer bees (Trigona and Melipona species), which are the smallest among honey-yielding bees, in bamboo hives. The bees are easily hived and seldom abscond from their nest. People have succeeded to a great extent in domesticating species like the Apis cerana and Apis mellifera.

In India, the common technology disseminated is the Newton hive system, developed 100 years ago by Father Newton in Kodaikanal. It is common to find improvisations and innovations in beekeeping.

However, this article comes at an important juncture when the indigenous Apis cerana is passing through a difficult period due to the viral disease, the Thai Sac Brood virus. ...

Wildlife vs humans

The article Rogue elephants in the backyard (August 15, 1994) invokes many useful points on wildlife conservation vs the life of human beings and economic losses, which are otherwise largely overlooked. A holistic approach to conservation is required and various perspectives need to be looked into. For instance, the shrinkage of wildlife habitat is much talked about, but habitat resources development and the sustaining capacity remain poorly studied.

Conservation programmes do not take into account their impact on people's lives. Crocodile breeding does not take into account its impact on fisheries, for example, and no alternative livelihoods are suggested for bird-trappers or traders.

The scientific community ought to look at wildlife conservation as a whole rather than suggest one-track conservation programmes which overlook the everyday lives of human beings and economic losses. ...

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