The mystery of disappearing honeybees

“To Autumn” by Keats, is one of the most anthologised lyrical poems ie emotional and songlike poetries. As a lover of English literature I went to see Keats’ house – a small house in Hampstead, north London, many years ago. It is now a museum with an autumn look. The plum tree in the small front lawn, under which he wrote ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ in 1818, as he fell in love with Fanny Brawne, the next door neighbour, still stands proud. Keats died at the age of 25 with tuberculosis before the autumn of his life.

The cold, dark days of autumn cry out for nasty surprises. My downbeat spirit in this autumn of 2015 came to a freeze when I saw the mismatched colourful parade of the 124th raising day of Manipur police on Oct 19. I first thought the display was in Kathmandu. It was as depressing as autumn.

The most popular Kabui, the Deputy CM Gaikhangam inspected the parade, donning a Nepalese cap, looking like Koirala; a unit wore flamboyant Peshwari Pashtun turbans like BSF soldiers at the Wagah border, looking like old cows with new ropes; another put on the first DM College NCC lookalike berets with pompoms; and the traffic women detachment, uniformed disproportionately in white WWII British officers’ service dress, looked like animated cartoon characters. Can’t anyone smarten them a bit rather than making them caricatured? I am offering my services should you require one.

After the season of smoke and autumn leaves, and the unfaithful language of love in tribal unity, I write my ode to Manipuris: ‘before a premature autumn brings the harsh winter, a good sense or sanity should prevail in the long running battle of apparent economic disparity between the hills and the valley’. Nothing could be further from truth that all the districts of Manipur should now be developed as a priority, once the drone of nail biting anticipation of the terms of GOI and NSCN-IM accord has died down.

Whist Ibobi Government, implicitly supported by his deputy Gaikhangam – a future chief minister cut from a similar cloth, has sensibly acknowledged that unity is good for Manipur, a few politicians should make a case for their reintroduction of unity across Manipur.

To drive my point home of the pitfalls of dismembering of communities, let me bring to you the unsolved mystery of disappearing honeybee colonies. The educated world is in a state of painful suspense, nervously waiting on tenterhooks to find out what is going to happen to the world’s food shortage.

In the 1950s, my father and two elder brothers used to keep bees for honey in our country garden at Iroishemba. That, bees are hardly just for honey came to me when in April 1997 my wife, son and I went to Kulu near Manali in Himachal Pradesh. We stayed with a young couple friends, Ashok and Anita who live in a Swiss style chalet by their sprawling apple orchards. We flew in a five-seated plane from Delhi taking 2 hours and landing at the Kulu-Manali airport,10 km south of Kulu.

My friends were breeding honey bees not for honey but for release in their apple orchards for pollination, with the estimate that a hundred fruit trees require 20,000 to 30,000 honey bees. So much static electricity builds up in their fur that almost everything apart from pollens will stick to their bodies, legs and wings.

UN scientists first reported in the winter of 2006-2007 that there was a mysterious case of disappearing bees en masse from beehives, which they called “Colony Collapse Disorder”(CCD) of the honeybees They just disappeared leaving only the queen, immature babies, few nurse bees to care for the babies and a lot of food (honey). No dead bees were ever found.

A natural beehive is a protected structure for the dwellers while domesticated honeybees live in man-made wooden boxes. The beehive’s internal structure is a densely packed group of hexagonal cells made of beeswax, called a honeycomb. Only the Western honeybee and the Eastern honeybee are domesticated.

A bee queen is reared in a special cell that looks like a peanut, hanging from the bottom of the hive. It takes 14 days to be adult after hatching from the egg. She then leaves the hive with about a dozen drone (male) bees and flies out to a “drone congregation area” in the sky. There she will mate with several of them. The drones die soon after mating as their belly rips open during the process, and she returns to the hive, mated for life.

Normally, there is only one queen in a hive. She is waited on hand and foot by the worker bees for the remainder of her life. Only when she becomes too old to breed or diseased, she will be killed by the workers in a procedure known as “supersedure” by collectively stinging her. She will be replaced by another queen.

The queen will store up to 6 million sperms in her sperm sac, and then lay a thousand eggs a day. She uses only a few of these sperms at a time. She controls the sex of her offspring by deciding which of her eggs are to be fertilised as they pass from her ovary into the oviduct. Unfertilised eggs become male bees or drones with larger cells, while fertilised eggs develop into female workers into smaller cells.

Worker honeybees fill these cells with royal jelly – a protein-rich secretion from glands on the heads of young workers and prevents larvae from falling. Soon-to-be-worker bees are fed royal jelly within the first two days, while future queens are fed through the entire larval period.

CCD first hit the United States in 2013. In June 2014 President Obama created a task force to study the issue and requested for 50 million dollars for his 2015 budget for further research.

It is now hitting Europe. In more than half of European countries, there are not enough honeybees to pollinate crops. Researchers in the UK, believe that wild pollinators including bumblebees and hoverflies are making up the shortfall. It has now reached China, Japan and the Nile valley in Africa. A few cases have been reported from India.

It is not known whether the disappearance of bees is caused by parasites, a virus, or use of pesticides. While many point the finger at pesticides, the cause of CCD has not been proven. In June 2015, European Union after 2 years’ study banned the insecticide neonicotinoid that affects the insect’s nervous system, blaming it for destroying bee population.

Almost a third of global farm output depends on animal pollination, largely by honey bees that pollinate nearly 100 commercially grown crops.   These foods provide 35pc of our calories, most of our minerals, vitamins, and anti-oxidants, and the foundations of gastronomy.

CCD is significant economically, because many agricultural crops (although no staple foods) such as apples, cucumber, almonds and blueberries worldwide are pollinated by honey bees. According to the UN, the worth of global crops with honeybee’s pollination was estimated to be close to $200 billion in 2005. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)’s food index, which tracks monthly changes in the global prices of staple foods, reached the conclusion that another food crisis is upon us.

Scientists believe that a boom in biofuels such as biogas, biodiesel, and methane is derived from renewable biological matter. This has sparked a massive increase in the need for pollination. The research suggests that much of the work is now being done by wild pollinators including bumblebees, solitary bees and hoverflies. Little is known about the number of wild pollinating species as they are not being monitored.

Under the European Union renewable fuel directive, 10% of transport fuel must come from renewable sources by 2020, though the final figure is still being negotiated. Whatever the ultimate target, the directive has seen large increases in the planting of oil crops including soybeans, oil palm as well as oilseed rape.

The number of honeybees in the UK and elsewhere has been in decline in recent years though the area of biofuel feed crops, like oilseed rape, sunflowers and soybeans, increased by almost a third in the same period. Wild pollinators like bumble bees are providing a critical link in the food chain for humans. Not in China where labour is cheap. Human beings themselves hand-pollinate the crops.

Recent research in Feb 2015, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences believe that bee colonies are dying off because stressed bees start foraging when they are too young to do the risky job.

Bees or no bees – in Manipur – in order that some communities do not disappear overtly across the border, we need to follow what is called the ‘Anthropic principle’ ie the necessity for observance to exist in order to get a result. Example: if intelligence had not evolved we wouldn’t exist.

The writer is based in the UK