by Martin Kunz, UK. No.22 Winter 2022
For the last six years I have been trying to import honey from A. cerana into the European Union in order to highlight biodiversity among honey bees: While A. mellifera, ‘the European honey bee’ whose Asian ancestry has only recently been uncovered, dominates headlines about pollution, degradation of nature etc. there are at least ten other Apis species adapted to their ancestral regions, providing invaluable pollination ‘services’.
In my search for possible honey suppliers I have come across A. cerana in various settings in India, though mostly higher up in the Himalayas. And encouragingly, not only in very traditional settings, but also in some very modern incarnations. None of these locations were ‘suitable’ for honey export, the volumes of a colony (and its production) in most wall hives being far too small. But as far as demonstrating biodiversity and sustainability are concerned, the following four settings are hard to beat.
1. Traditional Wall Hives in Kutachi: Bees & Cows
The village Kutachi is home to 450 people. The road from ‘further down’ in the foothills of the Himalayas stops at the edge of the village and goes no further. Bees are kept in wall hives in every cow shed, up to six colonies per shed. During the hot season, cows are kept inside their sheds – the mud structures are cool and keep out the flies. In winter the bees benefit from the heat produced by the cows – and the insulating properties of mud.
The purpose of keeping these (small) colonies of A. cerana is pollination (e.g. beans) – there is hardly any honey surplus beyond what the families use themselves. But people drive up from the next bigger town to buy the odd litre of honey.
2. Traditional Wall Hives: Bees, Cows & Humans
Uday Singh is 85 years old. He looks after the cattle his family owns: two adult cows and two calves. His village is at an elevation of 1,800 m, and usually it is under snow in December and January. The region is sometimes referred to as the ‘land of the gods’, as both holy rivers ( the Ganges and the Jamuna) originate here. (1)
The cows provide warmth for people (who live above them) and bees (see green number top left – the ‘house number’ for one of the wall hive colonies).
Uday’s wife Rukmani (who is ‘only’ 60 years old) started beekeeping at age 25 and now looks after 25 colonies, most of them in wall cavities. Rukmani is not only the president of the local beekeepers’ association, in 2014 she got an award for being the best keeper of A. cerana bees in the Indian State of Uttharakhand.
Honey is the main cash income for the family: in 2015 Rukmani sold 20 kg for INR 10,000 (just over GBP 100). There is only one harvest (in November). Here, too, the main benefit of keeping bees is pollination – vital for a village which is remote and mostly self sufficient.
3. Asian Hornet
This Asian hornet colony is right next to the home of Rukmani and family – and thus next to her 25 colonies. Rukmani uses a wooden paddle to try and scare away hornets from one of her (stand alone) hives – although this is not really necessary: A. cerana – even though smaller than A. mellifera – have learned to deal with a hornet attack: They ‘ball’ the aggressors and generate so much heat at the centre of the cluster, that the attacking hornet is ‘cooked’. Very recent research also shows that A. cerana communicate ‘danger’ among themselves when an attack by hornets is imminent and prepare for it. (2)