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India’s bee problem: agtech flies to the rescue

As the country’s bee population dwindles, Indian agriculture stands to suffer. Hemendra Mathur, a partner at the Bharat Innovations Fund, proposes a solution to protect the species while making money.

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As the country’s bee population dwindles, Indian agriculture stands to suffer. Hemendra Mathur, a partner at the Bharat Innovations Fund, proposes a solution to protect the species while making money.

California’s almond industry has an Achilles’ heel. The sector – which accounts for about one million acres of orchards, producing up to 4.5 billion worth of almonds annually – couldn’t do without the millions of honey bees that cross-pollinate flowers in February to March every year, which ultimately leads to fruit and almond nuts.

India has a similar dependence on the species. In Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir, beehives are traditionally used to increase the productivity of apples. It is estimated that apple orchards with beehives typically give 20 percent to 30 percent more apples, which often turn out to be of better quality (in terms of size, shape, colour and nutritional value).

And it is not just apples. Bees also play a critical role for a majority of horticulture, oilseeds, fodder and pulses crops. These are the four most important segments for Indian agriculture: horticulture, with about 290 million tons produced every year, has played a key role not only in increasing the availability of fibres, vitamins and minerals but also in providing livelihoods to millions of small and marginal farmers.

Oilseeds are the prime source of plant fat and protein, yet their production has long been insufficient: India imports about 14 million tons of edible oil per annum, or about two-thirds of domestic consumption. Fodder crops, a critical source of energy and protein in animal feed, are crucial to the livestock sector, which contributes to about 15 percent of farmer income. Last but not least, pulses are the prime source of protein in our diet. Their role is magnified in India, a protein-deficient country with per capita consumption of 60 grams per day.

If we are to meet growing demand for proteins, fibres, minerals and vitamins, we cannot afford to lose bees. Yet their population has been declining, a phenomenon attributed to factors including the growing use of pesticides, pests, climate change and change in habitat, among others. How is India’s agriculture to deal with this emerging threat? Here are a few potential solutions.

Pollination as a service: Apple farmers in Himachal Pradesh have started to hire beehives during flowering time (March to May). The demand rises so much that many beehives come from adjacent states.

Rental rates for beehives vary from 500 rupees to 1,000 rupees for the pollination period (typically three months). The number of beehives maintained by a beekeeper generally range from 50 to 500. Thus, a beekeeper with about 100 beehives and average rental of 800 rupees per season can earn about 80,000 rupees and profit of upwards of 30,000 rupees (after accounting for maintenance expenses, mortality of beehives etc). This is in addition to the income they can earn from the sale of honey. ROIs in this business can be upwards of 20 percent. However, since flowering periods vary by crop – in terms of season as well as duration – pollination-as-a-service providers need to be mobile or to craft arrangements across regions to earn sustained income throughout the year.

Promoting bee-preneurship: Rural entrepreneurship can solve many problems in Indian agriculture. Many of these entrepreneurs can be motivated and trained to become bee-preneurs. With support from local agricultural universities, educating them on the type of bees, cropping patterns, design, transportation and maintenance of beehives can help make it happen. An insurance scheme for bee-boxes can also make such a business more attractive.

Integrating technology: Innovation can make bee-keeping simpler, smarter and more efficient. Scientifically designed bee-boxes, with sensors to monitor bee colonies, can be one such advance. This can be integrated with the network to transfer data from the boxes to the bee-preneurs and farmers, making monitoring less tedious and helping reduce bee mortality. GPS-enabled bee-boxes can also help track the location and movement of bee colonies. Use of high-resolution optical cameras in bee-boxes, for the purpose of R&D, is another possibility.

Albert Einstein once said: “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, man would have only four years to live.” His statement may have been a bit too strong: we would still be able to survive by eating non-bee-dependent crops such as rice, wheat and corn. Yet, the availability of fibers, essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals coming from oilseeds and horticultural crops would be severely constrained. Solving India’s bee problem should become a AAA priority.