A beekeeper collects a honeycomb from a hive placed in a mustard field in Satgaon of Munshiganj. This photo was taken recently. —Sony Ramany
Frequent and untimely winter rains this year have left bees, a key pollinator, in unprecedented conflict as they have died by the thousands fighting over food, beekeepers and government agricultural extension officials have said.
Affected beekeepers said they had never faced such a bee food crisis in more than a decade since they started keeping bees for honey collection.
While the untimely winter rains physically harmed crop plants, ultimately leading to reduced flowering, they also hampered pollination because bees do not emerge from their colonies on dark, rainy days, entomologists and agronomists explained.
These factors together led to the current food crisis, they said, in an early indication of a substantial drop in winter crop production this year.
Beekeepers are certain that their honey collection will drop by 90% while farmers estimate that the production of winter crops such as mustard, coriander and black cumin will drop by at least 40%.
Migratory beekeepers depend heavily on the production of mustard, coriander and black cumin. These crops flowered much less than usual, giving rise to deadly fights in commercial bee colonies.
“Bees killed each other by the thousands before some of us could even realize what was really going on,” said Kazi Monir Hossain, treasurer of the Bee Keepers Foundation, a fairly large beekeeping association in the country.
Monir estimated that the food crisis conflict alone cost 1.4 million bee lives in the field where they brought their wooden bee boxes to collect honey in Mirzapur, Tangail.
“The bees are so aggressive this year that you can’t even get close to them, let alone check the honey harvest,” he said.
Monir and two other beekeepers typically use mustard fields within a 3 km radius to harvest honey in winter. But this year, four more beekeepers have joined them, putting bees in fierce competition for fields amid the scarcity of flowers.
Monir returned to his home in Gazipur, taking to feeding the bees with sugar, abandoning his plan to move into the fields.
“The problem with sugar is that it’s damn expensive and we can supply the bees with far less than we need,” he said, alluding to an impending drop in his bee population. bees.
Professor of Entomology at Sher-e-Bangla Agricultural University, Mohammed Shakhawat Hossain also reported that bees were suffering from food crisis in Manikganj and Sirajganj.
Wild bees are likely to face starvation, perhaps the worst in decades, he said, without any official effort to help them in this situation.
“Bee conflicts can be deadly and destroy colonies overnight,” Shakhawat told New Age.
Migratory beekeepers take a certain route each year moving between crop fields depending on their flowering time.
In winter, beekeepers target mustard fields that are leased in exchange for a fixed fee. Central Bangladesh is particularly busy in winter with beekeeping activities.
Sown in mid to late November, whole swathes of central Bangladesh turn yellow in December. But a New Age trip to the mustard fields of Tangail revealed the color was greatly lacking as the mustard plants lay sideways and looked rather green.
“A beekeeper in Nayapara of Mirzapur lost bees worth 25 boxes of bees out of a total of 300 boxes of bees,” said Nuruzzaman Khan, Assistant NCO Agriculture, Mirzapur.
Honey production, he said, has also fallen to just one tonne this year from eight tonnes last year in Bhatgram, a village in Mirzapur.
After the mustard harvest, beekeepers were supposed to move to coriander and cumin fields in districts such as Faridpur, Madaripur, Gopalganj and Shariatpur.
But the beekeepers could not move this year because the rain delayed their cultivation, which delayed the flowering.
“Untimely winter rains severely disrupted the natural timing of flowering,” said Shakhawat Hossain.
During the first days of this winter in December, record rains left crop fields flooded deep in water and stormy winds whipped crop plants largely to the side.
Many fields had to be re-sown while others saw their plants, accustomed to growing in sunny, dry weather, growing weakly, barely flowering amid light rain or scattered drizzle.
Crops re-sown after enduring inclement weather have flowered late and less, especially in areas such as Faridpur and Madaripur.
Before these crops could ripen, another round of record winter rains came in the first week of February, accompanied by winds of up to 30 km/h.
“The rain washes away the pollen,” said Parvez Anwar, a professor of agronomy at Bangladesh Agricultural University, linking it to lower yields.
“It has become undeniable that the weather is changing,” he said.
“Nowadays, winter sets in late, brings rain and retreats earlier than we’re used to,” Parvez said, adding that it could only be linked to the impacts of climate change.
The February rain shocked beekeepers even more because it came just when the lychees were about to bloom.
“Rain at this time could send the wrong message to litchis that their breeding season is over,” Parvez said.
“Trees may start growing leaves instead of flowering,” he added.
Reports from beekeepers are actually disturbing as they have seen new leaves sprouting on many lychees in Dinajpur, Thakurgaon, Gazipur, Sonargaon, Ishwardi, Jashore and Magura.
After staying around the coriander and black cumin fields in January and February, migrating beekeepers converge on the lychee orchards in March.
In summer, they bring their bees to the mango orchards.
“The bee population could be severely decimated this year,” feared beekeepers Kazi Monir Hossain.
Farmers have warned that the plummeting bee population could be bad news for humans, as bees are responsible for around 70% of crop pollination, essential for plant reproduction.
In the long term, a drop in the bee population could snowball into a food crisis.