We Need Bees

First published in Sanctuary Cub, Vol. 44 No. 3, March 2024

Bumblebees help us understand Himalayan ecology as they survive in harsh conditions, where other bees cannot survive. They are tiny but play an irreplaceable role in ensuring human and nature health! Text by Dr. Rifat Raina, Keshav Kumar, Purnima Pathak and Trilok Jangid.

If the bee disappeared off the face of the Earth, man would only have four years left to live.

Famously attributed to physicist Albert Einstein, this quote alarmed us, and sparked our curiosity about the life of bees, and their importance for the environment and humans. Our interest took us to high-altitude locations in the Himalayan states of Arunachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, UT of Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir, where we met the rotund bumblebee. We were astounded by the critical role this tiny insect plays in the health of the entire ecosystem and humankind!

Bombus albopleuralis. Photo: Dr. Rifat Raina.

Bumblebee Biology

Bees are classified into seven families, out of which six are present in India. Bumblebees are similar to honeybees as both forage for nectar, although the former don’t produce honey. Globally, there are 265 wild species of bumblebees reported so far. Bumblebees are fast flyers and can work from dusk till dawn. They are eusocial and show great mimicry, and hence are not easily identified without a proper identification key.

Bombus melanurus. Photo: Dr. Rifat Raina.

Bumblebees are different from other species of bees as they are mostly found in high-altitude regions in the Himalaya, ranging from 1,000 m. to 5,300 m. above mean sea level. Around 64 species of bumblebees are present in the Himalayan region. These bees are helpful to understand Himalayan ecology because they are present at very low temperatures in harsh conditions, where other bees cannot survive. During winter, these bees hibernate and in spring and early summer, they resume their bodily functions and search for new places to start the colony. They are specialised pollinators, as no record of these bees has been reported from the Indian plains.

Bombus tunicatus. Photo: Dr. Rifat Raina.

Buzzing To Work

Pollination is crucial for biological diversity. Insects are key pollinators of angiosperms in the forest as well as in the agricultural ecosystem, and among them bees are the best pollinators in low-land to high-land mountain ecosystems. They are useful in the pollination of various medicinal, aromatic, agricultural and horticultural plants, which are found in the Himalayan region.

Bumblebees have dense hair on their body and a pollen basket called corbicula on their hind leg, which helps accommodate more pollen and better contact with flowering plants. Pollination by these bees thus increases fruit production. They are a socio-economically important species. They are also useful in assessing the health of ecosystems.

Bombus rufofasciatus. Photo: Dr. Rifat Raina.

Bumblebee populations are decreasing on account of natural as well as anthropogenic activities such as habitat loss, excessive pesticide use, urbanisation, overgrazing, deforestation, and climate change. Climate change is the most serious threat as these bees don’t like the heat. The decline of bumblebees may cause a serious threat to the Himalayan region.

~ Flying insects: Butterflies, moths, beetles and flies.
~ Black and white ruffed lemur of Madagascar: Among the largest pollinators in the world; it pollinates the palm ‘traveler’s tree’.
~ Reptiles: Lizards, skinks and geckos transfer pollen from one flower to another when they feed on nectar.

Conserving Bumblebees

People generally take pollination for granted, often because it’s not priced. More than one in every three bites of food we eat is possible because of pollinators. Pollinated plants produce fruits and seeds, a big part of the diet of about 25 per cent of bird species. Some regions may also be affected by poverty and malnutrition, if these bees disappear. Pollinator-dependent plant communities help bind the soil.

Bombus festivus. Photo: Dr. Rifat Raina.

We wondered about the scale of the food crisis if bumblebees disappeared. But all hope is not lost. Many conservation practices are being used to increase the number of bumblebee species. Improving their habitat and low use of pesticides may help check their decline. Their absence will shake the foundations of nature as well as human well-being. We cannot be complacent about the survival of these tiny, dedicated ecosystem builders.

Dr. Dhriti Banerjee, Director/Country Head, ZSI provided necessary facilities for this study. Financial support from the NMHS Almora, MOEF&CC GOI enabled the study of the current status of bees in the Indian Himalayan Region.

The authors work at the Desert Regional Centre, Zoological Survey of India, Jodhpur, Rajasthan. Dr. Raina is a Senior Scientist here, Pathak is a Senior Project Fellow, and Kumar and Jangid are Junior Project Fellows.


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