The good, the bad, and the ugly
With our constantly growing world there is also an ever growing demand for food and resources. Ultimately the increase of human population consequentially means there is a growth in agriculture, and with land needed for agriculture there is a continuous felling of more forests to make land accessible. This is also the case in the Nilgiris, especially in regards to the tea plantations. Tea plants were not a naturally growing plant in these Blue Hills but rather began to be cultivated in the 19th century during time of colonial rule and took off as a cash crop in this area by the late 19th century. For further information please refer to this site (https://www.teabox.com/blog/history-of-the-nilgiri-tea) that gives a detailed history of the tea in the Nilgiris, starting with Coonoor.
Tea is one of the most abundantly and economically savvy crops in the Nilgiris, however it came at a heavy price that is being noticed more and more today. The natural Shola forests and grasslands have been reduced for more than a century. This has severely reduced the habitats for the natural wildlife, including for the honeybees. Not only are these bees losing the substrates (i.e. trees) necessary for their homes there are also losing much of the natural flora, which they used for nectar collection. With the reduction of the Shola forest and the conversion of grassland there has been more soil erosion, causing a loss of nutrients. In addition, tea plantations require a great amount of pesticides, which has numerous adverse effects when it spreads to surrounding areas as a run-off.
There is no current research on the severity of impact that pesticides have on the Nilgiri environment and wildlife, such as in regards to the honeybees. However, extensive research has been done in other parts of the world and this global research can be a testament for the potential consequences taking place in the Nilgiris. One important piece of literature comes from the study paper called “Are Neonicotinoids Killing Bees?” that was done out of speculation as to why the honeybees of Europe and the US are dying off.
Neonicotinoids are systematic chemicals that can be found in many pesticides. These chemicals can be absorbed by the plants on which the pesticide is put and the chemicals will travel through the vascular system, which in turn makes this plant toxic to insects. Even more concerning is that the chemicals can end up in the pollen and nectar of the plant; thereby making pollinators, such as honeybees, susceptible to the toxins. This can reach lethal levels. These toxins can persist within the soil and plants for a long period of time (months and even years). In some cases, woody plants have retained the neonicotinoid chemicals after 6 years of the pesticide being applied. When these chemicals are applied on crops they can also contaminate surrounding weeds as well as wildflowers.
Plants slowly metabolize the chemical compounds after they absorb them and some of what is broken down is equally toxic towards the honeybees or even more so than the original compound. There are a variety of adverse effects on the honeybees that are exposed to these toxins. For example, they experience difficulties with flying/navigation, reduced sensitivity to taste, and slower task learning capabilities. There is also a possibility that neonicotinoids may cause honeybees to be more susceptible to parasites and pathogens. Some common insecticides that have neonicotiniod chemicals in them include, but are not limited to, Imidacloprid and Dinotefuran.
What is beneficial?
Not all agriculture is adverse towards honeybees, either directly or indirectly. In fact, there are some crops that are beneficial towards honeybees and their pollinating endeavors. For instance, millets are wind pollinated and do not require insects for pollination. However, the millet-vegetable complex characteristic found within indigenous farms offers a diversity of foraging resources for pollinators, such as the flower of the millet plant that can be a pollen supply. Other plants that also provide foraging resources include: runner and creepers of beans and gourds, okra, brinjal, etc., several tubers, as well as other herbs. Recent studies done on the vegetable farms Tadsalatti in Hasanur revealed that the diversity of hedge plants play a significant role in attracting insects and birds to pollinate and act as pest control on the crops.
Two other main cash crops in the Nilgiris are coffee and cardamom, and both contribute to the conservation of bees by the sheer fact they need these insects for pollination to thrive themselves. Studies have shown that when honeybees visit these plants then the crops have higher yields of fruiting. However, the benefit does not just go towards the coffee and cardamon but honeybees are also benefited in this relationship. Human and agricultural growth are inevitable, yet plantations like coffee and cardamon can provide habitats for these bees. These crop plots require shade trees, which are typically the trees from the original forest. Thus these shade trees provide nesting habitats to the honeybees thereby contributing to conserving these vital species even in the midst of their forest homes being destroyed.
Honeybees are considered one of the most important pollinators on the planet and along with the other pollinators the contribute to the reproduction of ~85% of flowering plants as well as 35% of global crop production. Unfortunately, honeybee populations have been severely declining due to factors such as diseases and intense habitat loss. It is not only agriculture that reaps the benefits of pollinators, so too do wildlife who feed on the seeds and fruits that require pollination. This make pollinators, especially honeybees, keystone species because they are crucial to the survival of so many other species and systems. Therefore, the conservation of pollinating insects, of honeybees, is detrimental to the preservation of biodiversity as well as agriculture.