24 February 2017, Kolikkarai: On Wednesday, Shiny Rehel conducted a workshop on pollination and the pollination services afforded by bees and other insects. The workshop was conducted in Kolikkarai village where 10 honey hunters from the Irula community in both Kolikkarai and Kolithorai villages participated. Kolikkarai and Kolithorai are two small villages situated within a private coffee estate in Mamaram. While the villagers also practice seasonal honey and non-timber forest produce (NTFP) gathering, most of them are not aware of the link between bees and a good harvest of fruit and vegetables.
Shiny started out with explaining the basic structure of a flower and, using a hibiscus flower, showed them the structure and function of each part. The participants were able to use a field microscope to have a magnified view of the anthers and stigma as well as the nectary. Once Shiny explained the link between pollen and the development of fruits and seeds, the honey hunters realized the importance of the role that pollinators play in their daily lives. Studies have revealed that 80% of food crops are pollinated by insects, largely honey bees, and should bees go extinct, the human species would probably survive for just a few years longer.
The honey hunters have an instinctive appreciation of bees and their relation to flowers, largely formed by observation over the years. As the generation of traditional honey hunters grow older and less able to handle the strain of hanging from a thin vine ladder suspended 200 ft above the ground, the younger generation are starting to take on the mantle of conserving tradition. Aari K is one of the oldest honey hunters in the village and now his son, Anandh, goes for honey hunting in his stead. With pollinators across the world on the decline due to loss of habitat and food sources, monoculture, poisoning by chemical pesticides, etc, it becomes crucial that more and more people are sensitised to the effect of these changes as it applies to the environment and, more closely, to them.
Tribal communities have traditionally practiced mixed cropping which provides foraging space to different kinds of pollinators. The benefits of this practice were highlighted and emphasis was given on continuing this practice which directly benefits the people. Shiny also discussed examples of the effects of pollinator decline as has been seen in China where apple crops have to be pollinated by hand using a brush. A similar situation was seen in Himachal Pradesh, India where apples had to be pollinated by hand for a number of reasons, including lack of pollinators.
By the end of the session, the participants were able to understand the importance of plant diversity in maintaining a healthy pollinator population. It is only as late as two decades ago that people have had their attention drawn to the environmental support services provided by pollinators. An international study showed that the approximately $2.8 billion almond industry would not exist without pollinators.
As more and more people become aware and vocal about the negative impact of biocides, the tussle between persons concerned about the environment and fertilizer/pesticide companies can only spread wider. But regardless of the economics, there is a very real danger looming ahead. Quoting 1Rachel Carson in Silent Spring, in the opening chapter, “A Fable for Tomorrow”: “No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves.”
1Carson, R. 1962. Silent Spring. Houghton Mifflin, New York.