Beekeeping with indigenous honeybee, Apis cerana has been proved to be an important livelihood option for poor mountain people who depend on integrated farming activities for their livelihoods by providing honey, beeswax, pollination services, selling bees, and creation of self-employment opportunities. Mountain communities throughout the HKH region keep Apis cerana in different types of hives such as log hives, wall hives, mud hives, box hives, pot hives, and benefit from their products (honey and beeswax) pollination services.
However, the introduction and promotion of Apis mellifera by GOs, NGOs and private sector organizations has led to a decline in Apis cerana beekeeping, particularly in plain areas and valleys that have road connectivity. Nepal, which had been the strongest gene pool of Apis cerana until 1990, has already imported and promoted Apis mellifera. Currently Apis mellifera beekeeping is flourishing in 17 terai districts replacing Apis cerana. Studies carried out by ICIMOD have shown that at present, Apis cerana is kept (managed) only in remote mountain areas. Some of these areas include southern parts of Bhutan, hills and mountain districts in Nepal, Northern provinces of India, Yunnan and Sichuan in China, and in hills and mountain areas of Pakistan.
The indigenous honeybee, Apis cerana, has distinct advantages over Apis mellifera, particularly for the mountain communities, mountain crops and mountain flora in the HKH region. There are several reasons as to why promote Apis cerana in mountain areas. These include the following:
- Apis cerana beekeeping is highly suitable for mountain poor – as it requires simple, less expensive technology which poor mountain farmers can easily afford, while Apis mellifera requires expensive technology which poor mountain people cannot afford.
- Being an indigenous species Apis cerana is better adapted to the local mountain environment, and indigenous pests and predators. It is suitable for small scale stationary beekeeping practiced by mountain people in HKH region. Apis mellifera, to be profitable, needs to be migrated to warmer, low hill areas during winter. If not migrated, it needs special care to manage the colonies and feed them large amount of sugar which many mountain farmers cannot afford. In fact, Apis mellifera is more suitable for migratory, commercial beekeeping, and is profitable in areas having access and road connectivity. However, in remote mountain areas of the HKH region Apis mellifera is not a profitable option in such areas.
- Apis cerana is resistant to common mites such as Varroa and Tropilaelaps and does not require medicines and drugs to treat the colonies for diseases and parasites. But Apis mellifera is highly susceptible to mites, and requires expensive chemicals to control them. The residues of these chemicals also contaminate honey.
- Apis cerana is well adapted to the crops and flora of the mountain areas. This bee visits and pollinates flowers of a large diversity of mountain crops and wild plants for long duration every day – from early in the morning till late in the evening. Further, since this species is suitable for stationary beekeeping and is not migrated during winter; consequently, Apis cerana continues to provide pollination services to crops that bloom in winter as well as early spring – a distinct advantage over Apis mellifera.
- Apis cerana is well adapted to mountain climatic conditions. These bees are better able to cope/ adapt to weather/ climate variability compared to Apis mellifera, hence the chances of the poor/ landless/ marginal communities adapting to change is higher if Apis cerana is promoted instead of Apis mellifera.
- Honey produced by Apis cerana is a high value niche product that is free of any residues of antibiotic and pesticides, and can be sold at higher price. However, as explained earlier Apis mellifera requires chemical treatment of its colonies against bee diseases and parasites, the residues of which are likely to contaminate honey. Therefore, honey produced by Apis mellifera is a global commodity that has to compete with low price honeys from different areas and nations.
- Beeswax is another bee product, particularly of Apis cerana bees managed using traditional fixed comb hives. Beeswax can be sold at equal or even higher price than honey. It can be sold as pure beeswax or by producing different value added products such as candles, skin creams, medicinal salves etc. which can bring additional income for the poor mountain farmers.
- Apis cerana beekeeping is, thus, a source of livelihoods for a large number of mountain households in the HKH region. There are hundreds of thousands of small scale beekeepers engaged with Apis cerana beekeeping. Conserving and promoting beekeeping with this bee would mean improving livelihoods of thousands of small farmer/ beekeeping families.