As I sit in my office room and look out the window, the mango tree looks full of promises. The yellowish flowers or Mukul as we call them in Bangla have grown with so much of exuberance that the leaves are barely visible. A sweet smell wafts in with the northerly wind.
Ah, the mangoes will surely appear soon. Those delicious fruits.
But only they will not. The tree will remain infertile and barren, and the flowers will wilt away and pour down dead for sure. That's because not a single bee came to the tree to pollinate the flowers. Without the bees, there is no hope for fruition.
And where have the bees gone?
Bees, the most important insect on earth, are dead because of indiscriminate fogging of insecticides by the city corporation to kill mosquitoes. Mosquitoes are numerous today, only the bees are gone.
But so is their fate globally. Sadly as the Greenpeace says, we have a bee to thank for every one in three bites of food we eat.
Only in May last year, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) issued a warning saying the global decline in bee populations poses a serious threat to a wide variety of plants critical to human well-being and livelihoods, and countries should do more to safeguard our key allies in the fight against hunger and malnutrition.
Bees and other pollinators are declining in abundance in many parts of the world largely due to intensive farming practices, mono-cropping, excessive use of agricultural chemicals and higher temperatures associated with climate change, affecting not only crop yields but also nutrition.
"If this trend continues, nutritious crops such as fruits, nuts, and many vegetables will be substituted increasingly by staple crops like rice, corn, and potatoes, eventually resulting in an imbalanced diet," FAO has warned.
The Earthwatch Institute in the last meeting of Royal Geographical Society of London declared bees as the most important living beings on earth. It would be shocking to know that bees have been enlisted as endangered species.
Almost 90 percent bee population and other pollinators have disappeared in the last few years, say recent studies.
The matter has gone to such an extent that artificial bees are being made to pollinate crops.
Many factors are responsible for the decline. These are narrower list of crops, deforestation, and increasing use of pesticides.
Furthermore, climate change also has a negative impact. Factors such as higher temperature, drought, floods, other extreme climate events and changes of flowering time hinder pollination.
About 40 percent of honeybee colonies in the US died between October 2018 and April 2019, found researchers of Maryland University.
One-third of 353 wild bee and hoverfly species became extinct between 1980 and 2013, finds another study by the UK.
The significant decline in bee population is quite a bad omen.
It reminds the quote of Albert Einstein, "If the bees disappear, humans would have 4 years to live."
What exactly makes bees so important? The answer is long.
Seventy percent of the world's agriculture depends on these tiny insects. Without their pollination, these plants would not be able to reproduce and the world would run out of food in a short time.
Additionally, a study by the Apiculture Entrepreneurship Center of the Universidad Mayor and the Apiculture Corporation of Chile, supported by the Foundation for Agrarian Innovation, found that bees are the only living beings who do not carry any type of pathogen that makes them more unique than the average insects!
Many animal rights activists are raising awareness about conserving the bees. They call for prohibiting the use of pesticide immediately.
Celebrities also joined the movement.
Morgan Freeman, a bee saver, has recently transformed his 124-acre land in Mississippi into a bee sanctuary.
Beekeeping industry shows promise
Ariful Islam Mithu
The location is completely secluded. A large number of 20-foot tall Akashmoni (Acacia auriculiformis) trees grow on the half-acre of land, casting their shadows on around 200 boxes – each containing 20,000 bees. Some of the bees buzz in front of the boxes while others enter the hives to feed on the sugar syrup inside. Other bees hover around at the nearby lake, in search of food—nectar and pollen from fully-bloomed water lilies.
Two designated workers are busy around-the-clock; putting sugar syrup in the boxes, cleaning the used boxes and guarding against the bees' predators – insects and frogs. This is the way commercial bee colonies are run in the Marta village of Joydevpur in Gazipur district. In the off-season, these bees are nurtured.
Beekeeper Monirul Islam eagerly awaits winter's arrival each year. When flowers bloom in this season, the bees start gathering honey – it is the season of business.
In winter, the honeybees collect honey from fields across the country. However, in the off-season, they have to be in such conditions to survive on artificial food like sugar syrup. From the first week of April to the second week of November, they continuously feed on sugar syrup and artificial pollen. The inadequate nectar they find in the fields has to suffice during this time.
Not only those from Gazipur, but bee farmers across the country wait for the winter to collect honey. Farmers – from Savar, Manikganj, Tangail, Sherpur, and Jamalpur – wait for mustard to be cultivated each year.
After collecting honey from the mustard fields, they will start preparing their bee colonies for litchi orchards in: Ishwardi, Pabna, Dinajpur, Magura, Rajshahi, and Natore.
In picking season, nearly 2,000 bee farmers across the country set up more than 40 thousand boxes to collect honey. They cultivate with the European honeybee Apis mellifera. This breed can produce ten times more honey than an indigenous bee. The mellifera species can fly two kilometres from their colonies and feed on whatever amount of pollen they can find in the field. One colony, or a box, of bees needs at least 10kg of pollen in the off-season.
The rainy season is the toughest time for honeybees as they cannot move around. Most of the time they have to stay inside the colonies. The keepers provide them food until winter comes.
Beekeepers are honey farmers who have received training to cultivate bees for commercial purposes.
According to the Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation (BSCIC), since it started training programmes on beekeeping in 1977, the organisation has trained a total of 17,000 people. Initial training involved using the indigenous species Apis Cerana, till 2005, but now the organisation has trained 6,000 beekeepers on using Apis mellifera.
There are approximately 25,000 beekeepers in Bangladesh. Of them, around 7,000 produce honey commercially, said the BSCIC general manager.
How much does it cost?
Beekeeper ASM Hasibud-Daula said in the off-season he has to spend around Tk2,500 for a box of bees. This includes at least 40kg of sugar at a cost of Tk2,000, Tk300 for artificial pollen, and Tk200 for medicine. During the peak season, they have to spend Tk2,000 more per box to transport them from one district to another. That means one box costs Tk4,500 a year.
"It costs around Tk120 to produce one kilogramme of honey," said Hasibud-Daula. In one season, one box produces around 50kg of honey.
The beekeepers do not need to pay to set up the boxes in fields, they just need to buy the boxes and maintain them in the off-seasons.
Beekeeping for better agricultural yields
Initially, farmers did not allow commercial beekeepers to set up their bee hives on their land – fearing a loss to production. However, the situation has improved as agricultural officials are raising awareness among farmers about pollination – the transfer of pollen from a male part of a plant to a female part of a plant – and how it increases crop production. Farmers are now allowing beekeepers onto their fields.
"When we used to go somewhere to set up a hive, farmers often prevented us from setting up the colonies saying their crops would die if we installed bee boxes near their fields. Sometimes they even wanted to beat us up," said Hasibud-Daula from Gazipur.
Beekeeping is vital for pollinating plants and conserving the natural environment. As the country is endowed with diverse ecological zones and different flora, it has huge potential for this practice.
"Bee pollination in any field increases agricultural production by 30 percent," said professor Sakhawat. He added that using its full potential, Bangladesh could produce around 25 thousand tonnes of honey every year.
Healthy bees for healthy honey
The beekeepers need to clean the bee boxes every month to fend off disease and mites – the prime enemy of honeybees. Formic acid is used to keep the mites away; its smell makes the mites unconscious and kills them. Hornets, ants and some frogs also kill honeybees.
"If we did not love these insects, we could not run our business," said Hasibud-Daula. "We understand the bees' every movement. When they feel hungry, they begin to fly in front of their colony and sting," he said. That is how they know when to feed them.
Commercial bees and market output
According to bee farmers, nearly 4,000 to 5,000 tonnes of honey are produced in Bangladesh by Apis mellifera honeybees. There are around 60 thousand commercial bee box colonies.
BSCIC general manager, Khandakar Aminuzzaman, informed The Business Standard that bee farmers in Bangladesh collect 10 thousand tonnes of honey each year.
Moniruzzaman Kazi produced seven tonnes of honey last season. He could sell one and a half tonnes on the market for Tk200 to Tk400 per kilogramme. He still has five and a half tonnes of unsold honey in his stock. Monirul Islam Ripon produced eight tonnes last season and has already sold six tonnes.
"The buyers do not pay a fair price and we are growing frustrated," said beekeeper Kazi. He said that many beekeepers leave the business after failing to sell their harvested honey. Thus, the honey ends up being stockpiled.
Mohammed Sakhawat Hossain, professor, Department of Entomology at Sher-e-Bangla Agricultural University, said, "I think that in most cases the beekeepers do not wait for the honey to fully mature." In such cases, the percentage of moisture in the honey is higher than expected, making the product thinner than a properly harvested honey. Businessmen who collect honey to sell to locals or export say that they are not receiving quality honey, thus they are paying a lower price for it.
As farmers count their losses, local brands like AP Honey, Litchi Honey, Tropica Honey – and foreign brands like Al Shafi Honey, Royal Jelly and Dabur – are making a profit on the local market.
Munjur Murshed Khan, managing director of Allwells Marketing Limited, sells his own brand – Tropica Honey – in Bangladesh plus exports it to the USA, Japan, and India. He said that the total demand for honey in Bangladesh is around five thousand tonnes. He also says that the local farmers ask for a high price despite maintaining poor hygiene and standards for the honey.
Last year Bangladesh did not export much honey as honey prices fell on the international market with increased honey production in: Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam. "As these countries achieved a bumper production of honey, they sold it at a cheap rate on the international market, leading to a drop in prices," said Munjur Murshed Khan.
Bees of Bangladesh
Mohammed Sakhawat Hossain, professor of the Department of Entomology at the Sher-e-Bangla Agricultural University, recently conducted a study on commercial bees. He said that the country boasts around 50 thousand indigenous bee colonies in the country now. A total number of 100 crores of indigenous bees exist in the country.
While the bee population around the world is declining alarmingly – threatening the future of agriculture – Bangladesh has no official data about its indigenous bee population.
The stakeholders to honey production have seen no major drop in annual production over the last decade and therefore conclude that the local bee population has not changed noticeably.
From his extensive research on commercial beekeeping in Bangladesh, professor Hossain thinks that the number of indigenous bees is in balance now.
Five species of honey-producing bees are found in different parts of Bangladesh. Of them, four are indigenous: Apis cerana, Apis dorsata, Apis florea and Trigona bees. Apis mellifera is an exotic species of bee.
The country's first commercially cultivated bee was the Apis cerena, an indigenous bee found across the country. Experimental commercial beekeeping first started in Sylhet in the 1950s with this species. However, the project failed due to a lack of skilled manpower and technology.
In 1977, BSCIC again started beekeeping in a modern and scientific way and achieved success with the Apis cerana. However, the beekeeping industry was severely impacted by the sacbrood virus that caused about 80 percent of Apis cerena colonies to collapse. At present, eight to ten thousand Apis cerana colonies exist in the country.
The largest mangrove forest, the Sundarbans, abounds in Apis dorsata. This species is also scattered around the country throughout about 12-15 thousand colonies.
Professor Mohammed Sakhawat Hossain said that the forest department distributes around 350 pass slips to mowals (honey collectors) to collect honey from the forest. Groups of five people, at most, may enter the forest with a single slip. On average, one hunter collects 100kg of honey in a single season. About 2,100 mowals collect 200 tonnes of honey in a season.
A significant amount of Apis dorsata bees died when tropical cyclone Sidr struck the Sundarbans in 2007. Now, around ten thousand colonies of dorsata are found there.
There are nearly 20 to 22 thousand Apis florea bee colonies in Bangladesh. Small bees of this species live across the country but more populations of this species are found in the Gopalganj, Faridpur and Madaripur areas. This feral species builds hives in small trees and houses.
Trigona bees, smaller than those of the florea species, mostly live in the tea gardens of the hilly areas of Sylhet and Chattogram. There are only four to five thousand colonies in these areas.
'Honey trade turning golden in Bangladesh'
Ummay Marzan Jui
Pavel Hossain, the proprietor of Moti Modhu Company, is looking after his family business of selling pure honey for the last 20 years.
The company has upheld their name, fame and quality with pride for 60 years.
Moti Modhu is a well-known brand and available in almost every mart, shop and super-shop across the capital. Customers also visit Pavel's farms to collect and pre-order honey, owing to its immense reputation.
Pavel knows all there is to know about the honey trade. Since he was a child, he learned from his grandfather Moti Mia, who started the business in the 1960s.
"People find the honey trade a difficult job at the beginning, but when a person learns about this process, it become easier," said Pavel, adding, "When I was a child, I was also afraid of bee stings.
"But later I learned that bees do not attack until you become a threat to them."
Speaking with The Business Standard, Pavel shared a story detailing his rising business' methods, costs, and profits.
The honey season lasts for six months – from November to April. Pavel earns around Tk1 crore per season from selling honey, with profit margins going as high as 40 percent.
During the honey season, he visits his farms scattered across the country for collecting honey. He maintains Apis mellifera, which is widely known as the Western Honeybee.
Pavel's farm in Munshiganj is used for collecting mustard honey. And from Faridpur, he collects honey of black cumin and coriander flowers. Gazipur farm is used for litchi flowers' honey.
Those sub-seasons last for 2 months each.
Nevertheless, the process of maintaining and nurturing bees, and collecting, processing and packaging honey is not as easy as it sounds.
To grow honeybees, he has to prepare boxes and nurture bees in them. During the season, he rents land to set down those boxes. His rents areas mostly beside harvest lands and garths, so that bees can get easy access to flowers for gathering honey.
"For collecting mustard honey, this sub-season I have rented 6 acres of land where I can set down 100 boxes. Overall, at least 2,160kgs of mustard honey is going to be this year's collection and its market value will be around TK10 lakh," Pavel said.
As cultivating mustard honey costs the lowest, his calculations show that around 97.5% of the total income of this sub-season goes to profits.
Pavel explained, "No one does anything without profits, and I am not an exception. As the business offers good profits, more and more people are getting interested. The honey trade is expanding every day."
For spreading this business, he inspires people as much as he can. He also sells bee boxes to those interested in the business for Tk6,000 and this price includes the training session.
Some customers buy boxes for business and others buy for hobby.
Yet, in this business, taking care of bees with artificial food, sugar and nurturing them in a proper way is essential. It keeps bees healthy during the off-season and helps them in producing quality honey during the season.
Pavel said, "It is a matter of regret that our high quality honey is being sold to multinational companies. Those brands are then processing, packaging and selling the honey in the markets. Like middlemen, they are taking away our profits.
"These companies are getting all the credits, but we are doing the real work. But, our efforts are not visible to the people."
"Sundarbans' honey is a delicacy to our people, and it is more sought after than the branded honey. It has been a successful trade-name for years. But, the image of Sundarbans' honey is being tarnished by a section of dishonest businessmen, as they are using the name to defraud consumers and make hefty profits," Pavel added.
He continued, "Bees collect honey from black cumin, coriander, mustard, litchi and other flowers, and such types of honey are the real deal. These are variations, and collecting those is purely natural process."
The government conferred to Pavel the Best Honey Seller Award in 2011, in recognition of his hard work and the quality of Moti Modhu.
Pavel continued to work hard to take his business to the next level through expansion.
"Since I started, I have worked very hard. The fruits of my labour is visible today. With my efforts, I am going to create milestones for those new to the business," Pavel said with a firm voice.