Why Asia should worry more about its honeybees than its tigers
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Why Asia should worry more about its honeybees than its tigers

AS far as species conservation is concerned, insects are far less likely to garner public sympathy as large, beautiful animals like tigers, pandas or orangutans. Yet in terms of their practical value to the Earth and humanity in particular, you’d be hard put to find a more important species than the humble honeybee.

Pollinators, it turns out, are far more valuable in terms of biodiversity, economics and ecology than the rare, exotic animals we feel so much compassion for.

From a 2014 article in the Guardian on the so-called “Age of Extinction” we are currently living in:

It’s the loss of the common species that will impact on people. Not so much the rarer creatures, because by the very nature of their rarity we’re not reliant on them in such an obvious way.

—Dr Nick Isaac, macroecologist, NERC Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, UK

Global bee populations threatened by colony collapse disorder

The decline of the Western or European honeybee in the United States and Europe, due to a phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder (CCD) has, in recent years, resulted in steep economic losses in the agricultural sector. CCD — variably attributed to causes including pesticides known as neonicotinoids, parasitic Varroa and Acarapis mites as well as fungicides and pathogens — has received less attention in Asia, though their have been reported colony losses on the continent, especially in China.

Some 75 percent of crops survive via animal pollination, most commonly by bees, but also by other creatures, including hoverflies, butterflies, birds, bats and even mosquitos. Without animal-pollinated crops, mostly fruits and vegetables, the human diet would be far more centered on wind-pollinated foods, which are chiefly grains.

Colony collapse disorder only directly affects Western honeybees, which have been commercially bred for agricultural purposes, chiefly in Europe and America. However, Asian bees also face threats, some of which are associated with the commercial cultivation — and importation — of their Western cousins.

India

Four out of the five principal honeybee species live in India, reflecting a relatively healthy biodiversity. However, an estimated 75 percent of honey produced in India comes from the wild Apis dorsata, the largest of the honeybee species.

Yet India’s Apis dorsata numbers have dropped by 20 percent in just 10 years. Experts blame environmental pressures like deforestation and forest fires, as well as the importation of Western honeybees and their accompanying pests, which end up infecting wild hives.

China

Excessive pesticide use has all but wiped out wild bee populations that used to pollinate apple and pear orchards in southwest China, necessitating labor-intensive pollination by hand, using paintbrushes, a practice only viable for more profitable crops.

Cambodia

We can now add Cambodia to the list of countries with honeybee-loss concerns. Two Southeast Asian species of honeybees are on the decline in Cambodia, according to a United States-based honeybee expert who recently visited the country.

The loss of honeybees in Cambodia also means the loss of a culture and industry of beekeeping, which some non-governmental organizations are trying to save.

Because the bees are dying out, that culture is slowly dying, as well.

—Damian Magista, Bee Local

The decline of these species, the Apis florea and “giant” Apis dorsata, is of concern not chiefly because they are pollinators, but because 1) they are unique and endemic species to the region and 2) they provide important sources of food — in the form of honey and combs — and wax, which is widely used for making candles, especially for use in temples and areas lacking electricity.

While all species have a right to survival, and each plays its role in a given ecosystem, we must not ignore the plight of the less glamorous animals like the honeybee. Our own survival as a species may depend on it.