Situationer: Helping bees to help us

Published March 1, 2021
Bee population has been dwindling over the past decade due to a variety of reasons, ranging from bacterial diseases to pesticides. — File photo
Bee population has been dwindling over the past decade due to a variety of reasons, ranging from bacterial diseases to pesticides. — File photo

“IT is so amazing what bees do,” said Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Climate Change Malik Amin Aslam at the launch of the ‘Billion Tree Honey’ programme in Islamabad recently. “Bees have evolved to become the most efficient insects to pollinate plants and, in this task, they reign supreme,” the PM’s aide went on to say.

It all started in December last year when Mr Aslam’s ministry along with representatives of the Minis­try of Science and Tech­nology and Pir Mehr Ali Shah Univer­sity of Arid Agriculture, Rawal­pindi, pitched the idea of planting bee flora to Prime Minister Imran Khan. Realising the potential of bee farming and its significance, the prime minister gave his consent and a month later, a ceremony was held to officially launch the initiative under the ‘Prime Minister’s Ten Billion Tree Tsunami’ programme.

“The objective is to promote green economy through agriculture in Pakistan,” Mr Aslam said at the launching ceremony, which was a collaborative inter-ministerial effort.

Bee population has been dwindling over the past decade due to a variety of reasons, ranging from bacterial diseases to pesticides. But today it is climate change that has become the main factor behind the declining bee population. Climate change has affected the rains, flowers and even the time bees pollinate, reducing their sources of pollen and thus leading to their disappearance.

“This initiative could not have come at a better time,” said the PM’s aide.

Under the programme, more bee flora will be planted to ensure not just the survivability of plants and trees but also to see that the supply of pollen and nectar lasts as long as possible. “And, since honeybees play a crucial role in food security as they pollinate a third of the food that we eat, we need a thriving beekeeping industry for our food security,” he said.

According to experts in the Ministry of Climate Change, this will not only ensure that the only two honeybee species in Pakistan keep thriving, but will help them carry pollen like tiny balls of Velcro from one blossom to another. “Without bees, most plants would die,” one of the experts said.

But there is even more exciting news. The programme will also support 80 per cent of the population which inhabits rural areas. “The initiative especially supports poor families in rural areas through introducing the concept of sustainable beekeeping and providing them with education, financial support and technical cooperation in the field,” Mr Aslam said.

Although a notification for assigning tasks and responsibilities to relevant departments is yet to be approved, teams of zoologists, botanists, GIS staff and divisional forest officers from the Prime Minister’s Ten Billion Tree Tsunami programme are already at work.

They are in search of suitable sites in the scrub plains of the Salt Range, Jhelum, Mianwali and Khushab to plant bee flora — rubinia, kaho, phalai, olive and particularly berry trees.

“Without the seven or eight species of the right flora, bee farming will not yield the desired results and ensure survivability of bees,” said deputy director for biodiversity, Ministry of Climate Change, Rizwan Arshad.

According to the official, a proposal for a site in the Margalla Hills has already been shared with the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board. “This is being done for the people to come and see the many virtues of bee farming,” Mr Arshad added.

Bee boxes and gear

In the pilot phase of the initiative, the size of the bee colonies, or boxes, will be doubled compared to the conventional designs for honey storage space. One of the reasons why local farmers produce only 5kg to 7kg of honey per colony annually is the use of improper utensils. Under the project new techniques will be introduced to increase the output.

“Bee farmers in countries that use better equipment produce more than 20kg of honey per box annually whereas the technique followed here for honey extraction is obsolete. We want to encourage the use of stainless-steel pots and stainless-steel extraction machines to save honey from residues and impurities of non-food grade utensils. It is the little things that make the difference,” Mr Arshad, who is a specialist zoologist, explained.

Jobs and hobbyists

The initiative would also provide opportunities for young people to adopt modern beekeeping techniques after getting training from the National Vocational and Technical Training Commission and other relevant government institutions. With the National Bank of Pakistan, the official partner, bee farmers, including entrants, will be able to avail interest-free loans.

The Ministry of Climate Change has assured maximum support to potential beekeepers in availing honey-testing facilities of the Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and also proper buy-back arrangements.

Elaborating on the initiative, Rizwan Arshad said one of its aims was to provide an education system for beekeepers and increase awareness. “It will also extend some financial security to the new farmers, especially youngsters,” he added.

“We know that currently there is a shortage of commercial beekeepers and lack of formal training opportunities, which is why this programme has been launched,” he said, adding that it would help them build hives, extract honey and develop the skills needed to run their businesses.

Special Assistant Aslam maintained that Pakistan did not have a lot of young blood in the industry. “I am hoping that trained young people will become part of the next generation of commercial beekeepers,” he said.

“I think the big value in this programme is the contribution of bees to the rehabilitation of lost natural flora. It is fundamentally critical to the agriculture sector — a lot of vegetables and fruits would not be there if it were not for the bees,” the PM’s aide added.

Published in Dawn, March 1st, 2021

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