Helping native Indian bees fend off deadly virus and exotic Europeans

The honey industry in southern India can be saved from a virus that has decimated local honeybee colonies through a combination of training, extension work and beekeeping techniques developed in Asia, according to an FAO report. After studying the situation, beekeeping expert Nicola Bradbear shelved plans to introduce high-yielding European honeybees (Apis mellifera) to the southern Indian state of Karnataka as a way to check the impact of the Thai sacbrood virus (TSBV). "There is no evidence that Apis mellifera will survive well under the prevailing conditions" she said.

Karnataka: an extension agent with local bees

Karnataka used to be a big producer of honey. But over the past five years up to 90 percent of indigenous Apis cerana bee colonies in the state have been wiped out. Beekeepers, who once earned a decent local income of more than US$2 000 a year from Apis cerana, must now subsist as farm labourers or itinerant workers.

Extension workers seeking a way out of the crisis heard that exotic European honey bees, which are resistant to TSBV, had been successfully introduced in northern India and were giving high yields. But Dr Bradbear found that importing Apis mellifera to Karnataka would hardly alleviate the situation. "Apis mellifera will present new problems for extension staff and beekeepers because of the indigenous diseases to which it will be susceptible, and because of the new diseases it may introduce" she said. She also warned of an environmental risk: "Evidence from other regions of Asia suggests that large-scale introduction of Apis mellifera ... can lead to loss of indigenous bee species ... Loss of honeybee species could lead to loss of pollination of plant species, and therefore even greater loss of diversity."

Her report also points out that the European bees are only economically viable when kept on a large scale, which is inappropriate for the landless beekeepers of Karnataka. The experience of local beekeepers confirms the consultant's reservations. Some of them have already tried to keep Apis mellifera colonies and have found that they do not thrive and that when it rains they do not leave their hives at all.

An FAO Technical Cooperation Programme has been set up to help reestablish the beekeeping industry in Karnataka as a source of income for landless farmers.

The programme has three basic aims:

  • to teach extension agents how to manage Apis cerana effectively, particularly how to continue keeping this species in the presence of TSBV;
  • to encourage extension agents to begin working with the mainly nomadic wild honey collectors, who by some estimates harvest well over 50 percent of the state's honey from wild colonies of Apis dorsata;
  • to help beekeepers and wild honey harvesters maximize the market potential of their honey, beeswax and pollen.

The programme will take advantage of Vietnamese experience in managing TSBV. Six Indian extension agents and beekeepers will be sent to the Bee Research and Development Centre in Hanoi for training. Experience in Asia over the past 20 years shows that - with careful management - TSBV-resistant Apis cerana colonies begin to emerge within ten years of the disease's outbreak, and there are already signs of a recovery of the Apis cerana population in Karnataka.

12 May 1997

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