The Newest Strategy for Saving Bees is Really, Really Old
In northwestern India, the Himalaya Mountains rise sharply out of pine and cedar forests. The foothills of the Kullu Valley are blanketed with apple trees beginning to bloom. It’s a cool spring morning, and Lihat Ram, a farmer in Nashala village, shows me a small opening in a log hive propped against his house. Stout black-and-yellow native honeybees — Apis cerana — fly in and out.
For centuries beehives have been part of the architecture of mountain homes here, built into the thick outside walls. Traditionally wild colonies of bees found the hive themselves, or farmers brought a log with a hive in it from the surrounding forest so the inhabitants could set up shop in the village and produce honey for their human caretakers.
But in recent years those wild colonies have become increasingly rare in this valley, where 90 percent of farmers are small landholders. Modern agriculture has replaced natural forests and the diverse crops of subsistence farms almost exclusively with a single apple variety: royal delicious, favored at the market. Producing this high-demand fruit has improved economic conditions for farmers in the Kullu Valley. But it also has contributed to an untenable environment for pollinators. Similar to other situations around the world, a mix of monocropping, climate change, diseases, changes in land practices, pesticide use, deforestation, loss of habitat and an exploding human population that’s taxing the valley’s natural resources has caused native honeybee populations to decline. With the decline, orchard harvests have dropped by as much as 50 percent.