Indian rock bees, Apis dorsata, are slowly disappearing from the forests in Idukki in the face of human interference, tribal people say.
As their name suggests, rock bees create colonies below rock cliffs and trunks of huge trees, usually inaccessible to people. They are a dependable source of honey, which is in good demand.
Unlike other honeybees, Indian rock bees never settle down in an area polluted by air or sound. Studies say they are a wild species, similar to Apis laboriosa, and live in places away from human interference. They help in pollinating flowers on tall trees. When their natural habitat is disturbed, they move to tall trees or vacant buildings in human habitations.
The Idukki Wildlife Sanctuary and the Cardamom Hill Reserve areas had many honeycombs of these bees till recently. Skilled tribal youths used to collect honey without disturbing the bees or honeycombs. The honey is used in tribal medicines.
Kunhachan, a tribal honey-collector from Kozhimala in the sanctuary, says the number of bee colonies and the quantity of honey have dwindled. From holding nearly 40 colonies to below 15 now, a cliff at Thenpara in the Idukki forests shows the change. Each colony yields one-third of the honey they used to earlier.
Since they form colonies after keen scrutiny, rock bees rarely leave an area even after honey is collected. A tree can have a dozen honeycombs. The number of honeycombs is a scale to judge the level of human interference and pollution in a forest area, D.K. Raju, honeybee expert, says.
When encroachments become high, they move deep into the forest and finally give themselves up to man’s greed. At times, rock bees are seen settling for short periods below the ceiling of uninhabited or abandoned tall buildings in towns.
Hundreds of bees swarm in within hours and honeycombs grow in size, offering an enchanting sight. Since rock bees keep themselves away from people, their behaviour pattern is little understood and needs further studies.
It is a flurry of activities in the colonies from March to June, during the wild flowering season after the summer rain, Mr. Raju says.
Indian rock bees have a unique place among various varieties of honeybees. They are the only wild variety among the four species of bees found in the country. Apis cerana, Apis lorea and Melipona irridipennis (dammer bee) are the other three.
Rock bees provide honey from April to July and it can be harvested twice or thrice a year. It is not known if rock bees can be reared successfully, though efforts in this direction have been made, Mr. Raju says. Since rock bees are environmentally sensitive, their disappearance should worry forest-lovers.