Decline in pollinating insects, antibiotics in Indian honey - what's the connection?

Honey BeeThis week two articles caught my eye - one about antibiotics in Indian honey in the Down to Earth magazine and the other about decline in pollinating insects in India which is affecting vegetable harvests in the BBC. On the surface they may not seem to be correlate, but environmental awareness is understanding that ecosystems, biodiversity are more interconnected than distinct. All this brings us to main protagonist of this story - the humble honey bee.

Honey is one of those foods which is all-natural, or supposed to be. With the increase in market for commercial honey, a few years ago a very bad decision was made to introduce the European honey bee (Apis mellifera) in India; which although is a prolific honey producer is not well-suited for Indian conditions. Eventually these bees pretty much replaced the native Indian bees which are naturally more resistant to diseases. Enter antibiotics - many beekeepers use antibiotics in sugar solution to improve over-all health of the bee colony predominantly made of Euro-bees. Antibiotics eventually find their way into the honey and the person who consumes them. Many leading brands including Dabur and Himalaya tested positive for a large amount of antibiotics in their product.

The FAO estimates that 71 out of the 100 crop species that provide 90% of food supplies for 146 countries are pollinated by wild bees. Globally, pollination is estimated to be worth $224bn each year. This is worrying especially in the light of bee colony collapse. Studies have shown that this affects primarily the European honey bees and many factors like disease, GM crops, diet, antibiotics, pesticides etc have been attributed to the cause of colony collapse.

This brings us to second part of the story. Bees are essential for pollination of many fruits and vegetables. The colony collapse has severely affected the Californian almond farming industry. In India it is said to affect the production of vegetables. India produces about 7.5 million tonnes of vegetables. This accounts for about 14% of the global total, making it second only to China in the world's vegetable production league table. Decline in vegetable production can be catastrophic for India's economy. Agriculture accounts for almost one-fifth of the GDP, compared with the global average of just 6%. The sector also provides livelihoods for more than half of India's 1.2 billion population.

Out of the five major honey producing bees in the world, four are found in India. The population of Apis dorsata, an Indian been has fallen by 20% over the past 10 years. These bees cannot be kept; the honey is hunted by tribals using sustainable methods, falling bee population means that livelihood of these people are affected.  The honey of these bees are naturally organic because they forage on forest plants. They honey is of a much darker colour and far more flavourful than the honey of the kept Euro-bees.

As an ethical consumer, it is essential to only endorse wild honey to improve the lives of tribals as well as to ensure that the product is free from harmful antibiotics and other chemicals.

Photo: Akhila Vijayaraghavan ©