Bees and Butterflies in a Biodiversity Hotspot

By Christina Selby

Through Earthwatch, I was able to make a small but meaningful contribution and experience a slice of one of the world’s most ecologically important places.

The greater Himalaya region is home to the charismatic but endangered snow leopards, red pandas, blue sheep, more than 1,500 species of plants, and the native honeybees that pollinate them. This diversity of life, combined with the fact that only 30% of the native habitat remains, makes the Western Himalayas one of the world’s Biodiversity Hotspots.

A view of the Himalayas through an apple orchard.

A view of the Himalayas through an apple orchard.

Pollination is a key driver in the maintenance of biodiversity and ecosystem health. While flies, butterflies, bats, moths, beetles and other bugs pollinate, bees are the key players, especially in agricultural ecosystems. They pollinate over 400 different types of crops, nearly one-third of the food we eat. Yet, their populations are declining across the globe due to habitat loss, climate change, disease, and pesticide use.

So this spring, when I came upon Earthwatch’s Bees and Butterflies in the Indian Himalayas expedition, I jumped at the chance to see the Himalayan Hotspot and learn more about the plight of bees.

It is early April and six other Earthwatch volunteers and I are awaiting instructions in an apple orchard in the Kullu Valley, known as the fruit basket of India. Dr. Kumar and Dr. Aman, the lead scientists on this research project, hand out survey sheets. They show us how to record observations of seven types of pollinators to assess their diversity and density. Over time the data will be compiled to document changes in pollinator populations as the climate warms.

I find an apple tree with open blossoms and quietly wait. The snow-crested Himalaya Mountains tower over the Beas River Valley. A bee with four black stripes across its ivory abdomen flies in. It’s an Apis cerana, or wild Indian honeybee. Later when the day warms, bees with bright orange abdomens and three black stripes, the European Honeybees or Apis mellifera, join in.

Christina Selby surveys pollinators in an orchard.

Christina Selby surveys pollinators in an orchard.

I mark tallies on my sheet each time a pollinator visits a blossom, gathering data on their activities and numbers. Native bees do the lion’s share of pollinating in both the orchards and the native forests. They are adapted to the local climate and don’t mind the overcast mornings or cool breezes that keep European Honeybees in their hives for shelter.

Late in the morning, I hand my data sheet into Dr. Aman. “These are similar to the results we’ve been getting,” he says.

I’m relieved that my citizen science skills are up to the task.

The afternoon of our third field day, we gather for lunch. About 20 men and women from the village greet us with gifts of flowers, garlands, and smudge a tilak on our foreheads. We sit in a circle and the Earthwatch staff translates as we pepper each other with questions in an interactive exchange to gather information on the “ecosystem services” that support farming.

Earthwatch volunteers speak with villagers about how the decline in pollinators has affected local farming.

Earthwatch volunteers speak with villagers about how the decline in pollinators has affected local farming.

According to the local farmers, about five years ago, their apple trees started producing fewer apples. Farmers down the valley had cut down their orchards, disappointed by very low yields. They attributed it to climate warming at lower elevations. Concerned for their livelihoods, these farmers enlisted the help of the scientists at GB Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development. With the scientists’ help, they learned that the main cause in the upper valley was a pollination deficit.

The bee populations declined in numbers due to loss of habitat, food sources, and pesticide use, so there weren’t enough bees to pollinate all the apple trees.

Farmers started paying beekeepers to bring managed hives of European Honeybees to their orchards for the 20 or so days that the trees blossom to fill the gap. But it is a temporary fix in the orchards. Apis mellifera is a non-native species and thought to be a threat to local biodiversity.

The scientists recognized that a healthy ecosystem should be able to support a robust native bee population to provide the “ecosystem service” of pollination for free. Their work became figuring out what agricultural and forest management practices would restore native pollinators and in turn the livelihoods of the local famers.

Working in six different orchards and two natural forests throughout the week, we helped to collect data on the peak bloom period times for the region to tell the shift in phenology due to climate change, assess pollinator populations and diversity as well as record the preferred bee forage, and assess plant diversity to determine the health of nearby forests that provide habitat for native bees.

Earthwatch volunteers in Nashala Village with Dr. Samat, Director of GB Pant Institute, counting traditional bee hives.

Earthwatch volunteers in Nashala Village with Dr. Samat, Director of GB Pant Institute, counting traditional bee hives.

On our last day in the field, we work in an orchard at lower elevation in the valley. Here agricultural practices informed by the study are already being implemented. A variety of crops including garlic, onions, and cauliflower, dot the orchard to provide food and shelter for a number of natural pollinators and diversify the income stream of the farmer. Native wildflowers are planted under the trees adding forage for bees. Pesticide use is limited and not applied when the apples are in bloom. With the financial support of a previous Earthwatch group, the farmer constructed special bee hives to raise Indian honeybees helping to revive this traditional practice.

I finish my last pollinator count and hand in my clipboard to Dr. Aman. He thanks our group for our hard work over the week.

The data we gathered, he says, would have taken him over a month to collect. The bloom season would have been over well before he’d been able to collect the data himself.

Sitting down in the tall grass, I reflect on the busy and satisfying week. While the challenge of saving biodiversity on the planet is great, caring people all over the world are working on the solutions.