Honeybees are an integral part of mountain farming in Himachal Pradesh. They are a source of income, nutrition, and medicine for mountain communities. These tiny superorganisms help in the pollination of plants, which increases the productivity of crops and maintains the biodiversity of the region.
Traditionally, farmers in Himachal Pradesh keep the indigenous honeybee called Apis cerana. But in the last few decades, there has been a steep decline in their numbers. These indigenous bees, which are crucial to our ecosystem, are on the verge of extinction.
In 1961, Apis mellifera, a different honeybee species from Italy was introduced in the state. Many beekeepers in Himachal Pradesh transitioned to Apis mellifera. These bees can produce 3 times more honey than the Apis cerana.
Even though the honey production rocketed in the state, other issues started to show up. The Italian bees can only survive under the intense care and protection offered by the beekeeper. They need a lot of flora spread over a vast expanse of land. But this is not possible considering the geography of Himachal Pradesh.
Apis mellifera is also vulnerable to attacks from a wide array of predators, pests, and parasites (e.g., hornets, sun bears, Varroa). They must be treated with antibiotics for Varroa control. Hence these subspecies are not suitable for the hills.
On the other hand, Apis cerana is a natural host of Varroa and does not require any treatment. A vast majority of Apis cerana colonies still live in the wild and in balance with nature. While most people are opting for the commercially popular mellifera, there are some beekeepers who still understand the value of Apis cerana.
Almost all homes in Himachal Pradesh have honeybee hives. They are mainly kept in log and wall hives close to the homestead. Local honey bees come and stay in them. These hives are built into a wall. The wall of a house is carved out to make a hollow space, which is typically covered with wood, used as a door to the hive.
Finally, the wooden door is plastered and secured using cow dung. Behind the wall, through a small opening, bees could move freely and make honey. Honey can be harvested from these wall hives twice a year. Apis cerana bees have a long foraging time and the pollination rate is also higher. This helps farmers in the region who are cultivating cash crops like apples and plums.
Apis cerana population has been declining for decades in Himachal Pradesh. Deforestation, climate change, competition from exotic Apis mellifera, increased use of pesticides are killing these tiny insects. Their decline is a direct threat to crop production and sustainable biodiversity in Himachal Pradesh.