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close this bookBiodiversity in the Western Ghats: An Information Kit (IIRR, 1994, 224 p.)
close this folder7. Invertebrates
View the document7.1 Butterflies
View the document7.2 Honeybees to conserve biodiversity
View the document7.3 Mulberry silkworms
View the document7.4 Spiders
View the document7.5 Conserving natural enemies of mosquitoes
View the document7.6 Vermicomposting

7.2 Honeybees to conserve biodiversity

Bee-plant relationships

Bees and plants have co-existed since time immemorial. Bees depend for their food on plants: nectar provides them with carbohydrate, while pollen supplies protein. Most bees also depend on plants for shelter. In return, bees help with the vital process of plant reproduction. They cross-pollinate flowers, diversify the genetic background of seed, and help plant species reproduce and survive.

Bees can distinguish colours, shapes and scents of flowers. They cannot see red but do perceive ultraviolet light. Bees can reach the concealed nectar in flowers that have intricate structures. Their sense of time means they can accurately visit flowers when nectar is secreted and pollen grains are produced.

Bees have adjusted themselves to evolutionary changes in flowers. They have in turn influenced the evolution of flowers, causing the flowers to become more complex in colour, shape and structure, reducing the number of floral parts, and influencing the production and protection of nectar.

Many flowers have complicated ways of providing access to pollen and nectar. These reward pollinat ing insects but discourage others. The floral structures and the chemical composition of the food are adapted to the senses of certain pollinating insects. Protein-rich pollen and glucose-rich nectar are most sought after by trees

Bees need a clean and healthy environment. The existence of natural bee colonies is a good indicator of a healthy environment. Individual bees can also be useful in detecting air pollution.

Bee-plant relationships

Four species of honeybee

India can boast of being a centre of origin of the world's honeybee species. Out of the five honey-producing bee species, four have occurred in India since ancient times. They are also found in the Western Ghats.

Apis dorsata-the rock bee or giant bee

This wild bee constructs single, huge, vertical wax comb exposed to light. The nest hangs on tall tree branches or towers, or underneath bridges or on rock cliffs. It contributes nearly 75% of total honey production of India. It migrates with the season to seek food and shelter.

Apis dorsata

Apis florea-the garden bee or little bee

This wild bee constructs a single, small, vertical comb in bushes exposed to light. It produces small quantities of honey. It also migrates depending upon the availability of food and shelter.

Apis florea

Apis cerana-indica the Indian hive bee

This hive bee constructs several vertical parallel combs in dark enclosures like hollows in tree trunks or in the ground. It is relatively stationary and can be kept in wooden hives for commercial production of honey and pollination services.

Apis cerana

Trigona irridipenis-stingless bee or dammer bee

Like the hive bee, this wild species occurs in dark enclosures, but it does not construct parallel combs. It builds nests comprising of clusters of cells meant for brood rearing and storage of honey and pollen. These bees are very small-little bigger than mosquitoes.

Trigona irridipenis

Upset balance

Bees are part of the delicate balance in the ecosystem. Human interference can upset this balance and disturb bee populations. On the Mahabaleshwar Plateau, for instance, natural honeybee colonies are reduced to dangerously low levels. In the 1950s and 1960s, natural bee colonies were abundant on the plateau; later local beekeepers found it difficult to procure natural colonies. Deforestation has depleted honey production to such an extent that traders now have to procure honey from other states. What applies to Mahabaleshwar is also the case in many other honey-producing regions in the Western Ghats.

Reduced numbers of colonies of Apis cerana, the Indian hive bee, are also due to human interference. In the 1970s, thousands of colonies were lost in an epidemic of a bacterial disease. An exotic species, the European honeybee (Apis mellifera), was imported into the Mahabaleshwar region, thereby introducing European foul brood disease. More recently, an outbreak of a viral disease took a large toll of bee colonies in many parts of Karnataka and Kerala.

Like the Indian hive bee, the wild migratory species A. dorsata and A. florea are also endangered by deforestation and thoughtless honey collection. Crude honey collection methods not only reduce the quality of honey but also damage hives and harm the bee population.

Beekeeping in Goa, Karnataka and Maharashtra





No. of beekepers





No. of colonies





Honey (kg)





Honey per colony (kg)





The queen is the only fully developed female in the colony. It lays eggs which hatch to increase the population.


The workers are the bees seen busily going in and out of the hive carrying food. They are females, but are not fully developed sexually. They do not lay eggs. Whether an egg grows into a queen or worker depends on the food given to the larva that hatches from the egg.


The drones are male members of the colony. Their sole function is to mate with the queen.


Maintaining biodiversity

Capacity to produce honey, disease resistance, low tendency to abscond or migrate, and mild temper leading to few stings are a few desirable traits the beekeeper seeks in bees. It is possible to breed superior strains of Indian hive bees. Local bee species should be used rather than imported exotic bees which may introduce diseases.

Suitable techniques for collecting honey and wax from wild bee species (Apis dorsata, A. florea and Trigona irridipenis) are needed. The Central Bee Research Institute in Pune has been successful to a great extent in this regard. Besides honey, all three species produce wax, pollen, royal jelly and bee venom. These species are immensely important in pollinating flowers. A. dorsata has a longer flight range, while A. florea can work on smaller flowers. Apis indica can be kept for pollination in agricultural or horticultural fields.


Indian hive bee colonies can be procured and kept in modern wooden hives at desired locations, called apiaries. These locations should have ample flowers, shelter and a water source nearby. Little investment is necessary for the hives. Bees use readily available natural food. They do not compete with any agricultural animal for food and do not damage flora.

With an initial investment of about Rs 4000 for ten boxes and bee colonies, a beekeeper can earn around Rs 2000 per year by producing honey or multiplying bee colonies. Products such as beeswax can also be sold. Children, aged persons, men and women can maintain bee colonies. It requires no hard work or large amounts of time.

Chemical composition of pollen and honey








Vitamins B. C, D, E




10 types

Free amino-acids

10 types


10-15 types


Fruit sugars







Minerals, proteins, vitamins, acids, colouring matter, flavors


Prepared by K. K. Kshirsagar