Insects, particularly honeybees, play a critical role in agriculture.
Almost 80 per cent of the food we eat -- that is apart from cereals such as rice, wheat, millets -- almost all vegetables, fruits and flowers owe their propagation to these small insects.
Fruits such as mangoes, kiwis, apples, guavas, grapes, pears, pomegranates, watermelons, vegetables such as okra, brinjals, flowers like roses, jasmine, chrysanthemums … a great number of fruits and vegetables all owe their growth and development to bees.
Stingers and angels
When we say bees, it is only but natural that many immediately think in terms of an insect that stings. But in actuality there are two varieties of bees: one that is wild, lives in rocks, crevices and forests; and the other domesticated, grown in wooden boxes in fields and in home gardens for honey [incidentally, this is called beekeeping].
It is the wild bees that sometimes get in the way of people while walking or working in the fields and sting them.
The box reared ones rarely sting except when disturbed or not handled properly. They can be taken out and held in the palm without any fear of being stung.
Honeybees are also called the angels of agriculture or winged fairies because their work in pollinating plants.
Bees are special
Though today we have developed technologies to artificially pollinate some crops in the lab, there is no substitute for the wide-ranging and critical role played by the bees.
Your botany textbooks are sure to talk about pollination, perhaps typically with a diagram of a hibiscus flower where the pollen, the stamen, petals are graphically explained in detail and mention is also made of how pollen is carried by the wind, birds like the humming bird and insects like honeybees which visit a flower to suck the nectar and the pollen gets stuck to their bodies and gets dispersed far and wide.
In this process of pollination, the bees are very special because apart from pollinating they also turn the nectar into honey. Except honeybees, no living species in the world is known for making something so sweet like honey.
Flowers have nectar, a sugary water like substance inside them, and the bees suck this up. On their return to the hive the insects regurgitate the liquid into the hives. There are worker bees inside the hive which take on themselves the work of fanning the sugary liquid till the water evaporates, thickening the sugary substrata, eventually turning it into honey.
Under threat of near extinction
While this may sound grand and interesting to read, the job and life of the small insects are today under threat to the point of near extinction.
Modern methods of growing food, which stress spraying chemicals and pesticides over crops, have caused untold damage to the fragile ecosystem and to the life of these wonderful insects.
Though carrying quite a sting, bees are actually quite sensitive to the environment and do not like even the slightest disturbance. But in the obsession with development, we have not cared enough for them.
(M.J. Prabu is The Hindu’s Agriculture correspondent. He writes the popular Farmer’s Notebook. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org)