Retreating Indigenous Bee Populations (Apis Cerana) and Livelihoods of Himalayan Farmers


The term 'Mountain Agriculture' comprises crops, livestock, fruit, vegetables, forests, and honeybees. Mountain farming systems are geared to deal with threats such as famine, drought, and other natural disasters. As they have few other resources, most mountain people depend on the income generated by farming or livestock. As honeybees and bee products are a source of cash income, nutrition, and medicine, beekeeping has become an important component of (middle) mountain agriculture.

Honeybee biodiversity of Hindu Kush Himalayas (HKH) include Apis dorsata, Apis florea and Apis laboriosa, whose products are collected, but these bees can't be kept in hives, Asian hive bee Apis cerana and exotic Apis mellifera are being kept in hives. The region is also home to many species of stingless bees, bumble bees, and solitary bees. Traditionally bees have been kept for the production of honey and other bee products. But as farmers turn more towards cash crops, especially fruits and vegetables, there is an increasing recognition of their important role in pollination.

Status of Apis cerana Beekeeping

Apis cerana is a part of the natural heritage of mountain communities. Studies carried out by International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) reveal that Apis cerana populations can be divided into three sub-species, namely Apis cerana cerana, Apis cerana himalaya and Apis cerana indica. Of these, Apis cerana cerana is distributed over North-west Himalayas in India, North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan and Jumla region of Nepal. Apis cerana himalaya is found in hills of Nepal, Uttar Pradesh, North-East Himalayas and Bhutan, Apis cerana indica is found in plain areas and foothills of the region (Verma, 1996). Similar studies carried out in China reveal presence of five sub-species of Apis cerana. These include Apis cerana cerana, Apis cerana skorikovi, Apis cerana abaensis, Apis cerana hainanensis and Apis cerana indica (Zhen Ming et al 1992, Partap 1999).

Population of Apis cerana in the HKH region is declining due to the following reasons;

Aggressive introduction and promotion of exotic Apis mellifera by government and non-government agencies through development interventions.

  • Changes in habitat and plant biodiversity.
  • Incorporation of monoculture in mountain farming systems and change in land use patterns.
  • Increased pesticides use due to introduction of cash crop based farming systems.
  • Diseases and parasites

Increasing population pressure leads to increased exploitation of land resources and changes in land use and agricultural patterns. As pesticide use is an important element of mono-culture based agriculture so, its use becomes more prevalent. Stationary beekeeping with Apis cerana becomes primary prey to pesticide poisoning. For example in Sichuan, China and Himachal Pradesh, India apple farmers use 8-10 sprays of pesticides per year for protecting their apple orchards. In Baluchistan, Pakistan apple farmers are using 3-4 pesticide applications per year.

China made a policy decision to transform wild mountain territories into fruit orchards and designated them as economic forests. This left no escape for wild bee populations in the area as their economic forests are being sprayed and managed for higher yields.

Indigenous honeybees (Apis cerana, Apis laboriosa, Apis dorsata, Apis florea) have co-existed through centuries and kept on going without inter specific transfer of diseases and parasites. But with the introduction of exotic Apis mellifera Thai Sac Brood Virus (TSBV), European Foul Brood (EFB) and Acarine diseases were introduced in the area, which disturbed the balance and harmony of co-existence among bee species. Apis cerana populations were practically diminished to the level of extinct but within two decades resistant populations emerged and started expanding their horizon of influence in different areas, which have been reported by different authors from India, China, Pakistan and Nepal (Reddy, M. S., 1999, Ge et al, 2000, Ahmad and Partap, 2000, ICIMOD,2001, respectively). Melisococcus pluton, a parasite of Apis mellifera was detected in the colonies of Apis laboriosa (Allen et al, 1990). Though Tropilaelaps clareae is a parasite of Apis dorsata but it found breeding grounds in the colonies of Apis mellifera. Stationary colonies of Apis mellifera in the nesting areas of Apis dorsata keep on inoculating them while migratory Apis mellifera colonies keep on spreading the menace. Oriental mite (Varroa jacobsoni) expanded its sphere of influence through out the world hence crippling the managed beekeeping industry in North America, Europe and Africa.

During past decades beekeeping was defined and understood by different quarters of development workers in the perspective of honey production, which resulted in more focus on Apis mellifera promotion in the context of beekeeping development. Keeping this false in the mind institutions planned and invested heavily in training agriculture development workers in Apis mellifera beekeeping in order to achieve high honey production. The trained manpower from within the countries and policy planners trained from abroad with honey hype in their minds forgot this fact that bees are not only honey making machines but are very important element in conserving biodiversity and increasing farm productivity. They were not able to appreciate this fact that Apis cerana and other indigenous honeybees of HKH region have evolved in this bio-complex with all the attributes of strength against local and exotic enemies. As appreciation of planners and development workers was limited and most of the time based on European and North American research and development process, they thought that it is easy to adopt a bee from northern hemisphere for sweet revolution. Though modern technology sometimes helps in pushing forward economic round turn but if it is not linked to greater social and biological reality this turn becomes fatal and ecologically backfires. This is what happened in the context of beekeeping development in the mountain areas of HKH region.

This story repeated itself in each and every country of HKH region as the policy making institutions of these countries are the people from plains and influenced by plain area agriculture so they further reinforced the idea of introducing Apis mellifera in the mountain areas. This introduction was made without knowing this fact that Apis mellifera requires migration, intensive management practices, standardized equipment and larger foraging grounds with monoculture-based agriculture. In addition to this Apis mellifera is prone to diseases, parasitic mites, wasps and it is very difficult for this bee to sustain in regular changing temperature regimes. All these interventions and attempts ultimately resulted not only in the failure of Apis mellifera introduction in the mountain areas but also accelerated decline of indigenous honeybee populations.


Value of Apis cerana Beekeeping for Mountain People

Mountain areas are characterized by inaccessibility, fragility, marginality, diversity, niche and adaptation mechanisms (Jodha 1990). Apis cerana beekeeping system fits well with these characteristics and supports the livelihood of mountain people.

Several mountain areas are inaccessible, lack transport and communication infrastructure so in these circumstances migratory beekeeping with Apis mellifera becomes highly expensive, vulnerable and high-risk business. Stationary beekeeping system with Apis cerana is more suitable and fits well in mountain farming systems and processes.

Mountains are fragile and their productivity is hampered by uncertain rainfall, low fertility and lack of agriculture inputs. Cycle of negative changes keeps on hitting the mountains, which results a non-conducive situation for Apis mellifera beekeeping, as it requires more ideal conditions for economic returns. On the other hand Apis cerana keeps on going under these adverse conditions, even if every thing goes wrong colonies abscond and farmer does not lose any thing as bees reoccupy their hives when conditions allow them to do so.

Mountain farmers are used to live on margins so their livestock including honeybees (Apis cerana) also evolved itself to adjust in these circumstances. Apis cerana proved its credibility to survive, thrive and produce in highly marginal conditions. People living on margins do not have resources and information to keep themselves up to the time and emerging demands of livelihoods. It is very difficult for deprived mountain people to cater with the survival requirements of exotic Apis mellifera.

Borders between agro-climatic zones in mountain areas are fluid and depend upon changing weather phenomenon. These agro-climatic zones lack vastness but are rich in biodiversity. Diversity in Apis cerana populations in different nesting areas has been evolved from the time immemorial, which evolved to an enormous strength to catch up with the difficult mountain specific circumstances. It is reflected in its behavior while passing through the abrupt flash raindrops, which occur in mountain valleys without any notice when bees are on foraging spree. Its foraging behavior has also been evolved keeping in view the diversity of floral resources. Its capacity to fight, escape and adjust with the parasites and other enemies is also commendable. Bringing a honeybee species from far away distances and adopting it into a completely different environs is really an uphill task for poor mountain farmers.

The qualitative niche and comparative advantage of native honeybees under mountain specific condition can be explained in terms of honey quality, its organic background and acceptability.

Mountain communities have adapted themselves to the harsh mountain realities. Indigenous knowledge in this respect helps them to sustain the difficulties of mountain environment. Apis cerana beekeeping is an integral part of their indigenously evolved understanding about nature, diversity and practices. People evolved management skills with minimum labor and resources to maintain Asian hive bee culture since centuries.

Apis cerana cerana of Jumla, Nepal was introduced in low lying Kathmandu valley and this introduction was found successfully fruitful. Jumla bees adjusted the rhythm of their life in changed seasonal environmental and nectar flow regimes.

Apis cerana versus Apis mellifera Beekeeping in HKH Region

Apis cerana beekeeping system in mountain areas is based on zero investment and zero management principles, where farmers do not have sufficient money to start investment-based beekeeping. In the forest areas people are used to catch swarms every year and keep them in their locally designed log or wall hives. In this way they harvest small amount of honey twice a year. While beekeeping with Apis mellifera requires substantial amount of money to procure standardized equipment and bee colonies, which normally is beyond the reach of poor mountain farmers. In this connection it is important to note that beekeeping is a high-risk activity. However, Apis cerana provides an option to a farmer to start with zero investment, which neutralizes the associated risks.

As discussed earlier, beekeeping with Apis cerana does not require a lot of management like sugar feeding, disease control and migration. So it is easy for an isolated farming community to practice beekeeping with this bee species on the basis of their indigenous knowledge. While Apis mellifera beekeeping system needs all the above-mentioned management elements, which are high cost and require broader knowledge base and training. By encouraging beekeeping with Apis cerana very little development investment is required and by providing very little support to farmers objective of poverty reduction can be achieved without any risk of failure.

Landless and poor farmers in remote mountain areas like Jumla, Nepal spot and locate bee colonies in the forest areas and own, protect and exploit them. In this way they harvest small amount of honey without disturbing bee colonies and allowing them to produce swarms hence conserving biodiversity. This practice of hunting cerana honey besides conserving bee colonies helps very poor and marginalised people to make their part of livelihoods. In other words poverty stricken mountain land less farmers perform and act as custodians of biodiversity conservation.

Apis cerana has proved its efficiency in pollinating mountain crops and flora as compared to exotic Apis mellifera and serving as an engine of biodiversity conservation and productivity enhancement. This oriental hive bee species has adjusted its rhythm of pollination and nectar collection services in the mountains since centuries. This also proves its highest level of adaptability with the changing flowering and nectar production rhythms due to uncertain and changing climatic conditions in the mountain areas. It is further to note that insurance of pollination can only be achieved by keeping and promoting this bee species in the mountain areas. Moreover, early flowering crops of mountain areas (Almonds, Peaches, Plums etc) are pollinated more efficiently by this bee species due to its ability to work in cooler climates and longer working hours. The race of Apis mellifera, which is imported to this region, cannot ensure the objective of achieving pollination self-sufficiency, as it is vulnerable to the harsh mountain environments, diseases, adaptability and affordability by poor farming communities.

Mites, like Varroa jacobsonii have virtually crippled the beekeeping industry in Western Hemisphere while Apis cerana has developed the ability to survive with this mite.

Beekeeping experience and associated knowledge accumulated by the mountain societies through centuries is an asset. Leaving this information and experience aside can lead to the drastic implications in the context of beekeeping development. Training mountain communities in Apis mellifera management is a costly exercise in terms of space and time. This becomes much more expensive while considering the amount of investment and risks associated with the introduction of Apis mellifera.


Table 1: Comparative advantages of Apis cerana beekeeping over Apis mellifera in mountain areas.

Parameters Apis cerana (Native bee)Apis mellifera (Exotic bee)
Initial investmentVery lowHigh
Colony management costsNegligible High
Risk involvedLow High
Potential of stationary beekeepingHighly suitableNot suitable
Scale of beekeepingProfitable even when operated at a small scale. It is most suitable for poor beekeepers operating in remote mountain areasProfitable only when operated at commercial scale. It is most appropriate for commercial farmers from accessible areas
Pollination of early flowering mountain cropsMore efficientLess suitable, colony strengths low during early in the season
Indigenous knowledgeExitsNil
Susceptibility to mites and predatorsResistantSusceptible


Strategies to Conserve the Apis cerana Populations and Livelihoods of Himalayan Farmers

Bee-related institutions of HKH region need to build consensus on the issue of conservation-based beekeeping development. ICIMOD is playing very active and supportive role to disseminate and perfect the conceptual requirements related to this issue. It is a need of times that all the concerned organizations and institutions should have a very fruitful and output oriented programme on Apis cerana conservation and dissemination. ICIMOD can help in developing country and area specific programmes in this connection. Technical backstopping can be addressed in collaboration with the scientists, development workers and beekeepers of each country in the region.

Collective consensus development on the subject may be translated into the policy formulation. As all the regional countries have different sets of problems and opportunities so policy level issues may be addressed in country specific arrangements. Policy level changes require following approach:

  • Change in beekeeping training curriculum at college and university levels in the light of mountain specific Apis cerana beekeeping.
  • Re-orientation of beekeeping trainers, development workers, researchers and policy makers.
    Establishment of country specific centres of excellence for Apis cerana selection, management and breeding programmes to identify, multiply and disseminate more productive races of Apis cerana.
  • To augment and establish viable mountain specific extension programme on Apis cerana based beekeeping development.
  • On the recommendations of Asian Apicultural Association and on the basis on our own experience HKH region requires zonation arrangements for Apis cerana in inaccessible mountain areas which means banning the introduction and multiplication of Apis mellifera in such areas.
  • Re-visiting the definition of agricultural inputs and incorporating managed pollination through honeybees as an important input in agricultural husbandry.
  • Recognition of problems in marketing of bee products and promotion of Apis cerana mountain honey as an organic product.
  • Policy - level changes in breaking the barriers and facilitating cross broader and cross-continent trade of bee products.
  • Organizing grassroots beekeepers' groups/associations and their capacity building and networking.


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This paper was written by Joshi SR, Ahmad, F. and Gurung, MB of ICIMOD and was presented at the "6th Asian Apiculture Association International Conference" held from 24 February - 1 March 2002, Bangalore, India.