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Delivering a honey-sweet message

Pollinator project in India

Classroom lessons to raise awareness of honey bees as crop pollinators and responsible agricultural practices only go so far but putting this into practice really helps show farmers how much everyone can benefit. CropLife India decided to take this one step further by wrapping it up in a “honey-sweet message”, challenging farmers in India’s Maharashtra province to reassess some of their old farming ways and showcasing what they achieved, in practice.


Pollinator project in India

AT A GLANCE

// In many cases, farmers growing insect-pollinated crops do not fully realize the benefits of insect pollination.

// A CropLife project in India studied and showcased the benefits of pollinators in the production of pomegranate and onion seeds.

// The pilot project provided subsidized honey bee hive rentals, while training farmers in Integrated Pest Management, the responsible use of crop protection products and beekeeping.


Agriculture in India

// Agriculture plays an important role in India’s economy with over 58 percent of the rural households depending on agriculture as their principal means of livelihood.

// India’s crops include food staples such as rice and wheat as well as pulses, potatoes, sugarcane, oilseeds, tea and coffee as well as non-food items such as cotton, rubber tree and jute.

// India’s output of fruits, vegetables and spices achieved an estimated 283.4 million tonnes in 2015 - 2016. It is the largest producer, consumer and exporter of spices and spice products in the world and produces more than 50 spices.

 

“We had an ambitious vision,” says the then Crop Life Stakeholder Relations Manager, Somang Yang. “We wanted farmers to hire beehives and to keep and nurture the honey bees during the period the crop was in flower and their pollination services were needed. Our plan also included showing them that by making their pesticide spraying campaigns more targeted, efficient and pollinator-friendly, they would reap better benefits. After all, pollination and crop protection have to go hand-in-hand if the farmers want their agricultural practices to be sustainable in the long term.” CropLife called the project “Madhu Sandesh”, which in the local Marathi dialect means “Honey-sweet message”. And this was the tempting assurance to the farmers: “Your investment will pay off; the pollinators will help to bring you a higher yield, translating into a higher income if you protect and care for them!”

“They started to see the bees as valuable farm companions, as part of their business,” says Sushil Desai, Stewardship Manager at Bayer India.

 
Map of India

CropLife India partnered with the state-run Krishi Vigya Kendra (Farm Science Center) in the Baramati district of Maharashtra to select 150 pomegranate farmers and 80 onion seed producers for the pilot project. Pomegranate and onion seed production are typical for Maharashtra, and both crops benefit from insect pollination. Participants to the pilot project were progressive farmers who were, however, not all aware of the positive impact of pollination on enhancing yield and quality. In the next step, CropLife rented 250 beehives through Krishi Vigya Kendra (KVK), and hired and trained staff to look after the apiary and the hives hired out to the farmers.

A breathtaking proposition ...

The KVK beekeeping team, together with Sushil Desai, Stewardship Manager at Bayer India, organized a kick-off meeting with the farmers and explained the concept. The farmers were to rent the beehives for a small fee during the crop’s flowering period when pollination services were needed; the beekeeping team would teach them how to take care of the honey bee colonies to remove any fears the farmers may have about handling the beehives in their fields and Sushil Desai would show them how to use crop protection products in a bee-responsible way. Under the project, the team would monitor pest threshold levels to help farmers use crop protection in a more targeted and smarter way. This would enable them to decrease the rounds of spraying they might otherwise have done, thus reducing their own product use costs and helping to prevent resistance, while protecting the pollinators and the environment.

“When they heard of the differences in agricultural practice that the project had in mind, many farmers felt that it all sounded rather like honey-sweet talk,” says Sushil Desai. “They were apprehensive that the scheme would not stand a reality check. Some even said: ‘This is not possible. It will never work.’ Many of them believed that the only way to increase the yield of their crops was by using more input but, in the end, they agreed to give it a try.”

Indian beekeeper nurturing his bees

The beekeeping team taught farmers how to take care of the rented honey bee colonies.

Indian beekeeper in front of Bayer sign

Under the project, the farmer support team, including Bayer’s Sushil Desai (above), monitored pest threshold levels to help farmers use crop protection in a more targeted and smarter way.

 
Infographic India

Beehives for rent: The numbers of participating farmers and acreage of pomegranate crop grown by them in the indicated regions of Pune District and the number of hives they rented to help improve crop yields and quality.

… and the results were staggering

CropLife first did a pre-intervention study to determine the agricultural practices and productivity of the farmers. Then, at the time of harvesting, they came back and carried out a post-intervention study to determine the impact of the measures that had been implemented. The figures spoke for themselves: In pomegranates, the yield increase was almost 35 percent. The most surprising result, however, was that the increases in income were even higher – they amounted to over 42 percent! And here are the reasons:

// Using crop protection in a more targeted, need-based, responsible way reduced farmers’ costs.

// Thanks to the bees and their pollination services, yields increased and the harvest brought a better price because the quality was improved – especially the color and shape of the pomegranates were more attractive and appetizing for consumers.

// The presence of the bees also synchronized fruit development; resulting in higher picking efficiency as farmers could harvest in one go.

The production of onion seeds suffered from drought coupled with high temperatures. Due to this, the figures for onion seed production were not quite as staggering but just as convincing: yield increases amounted to 17 percent and farmer income was up by almost 19 percent, on average. Onion seed farmer Vijay Vinayak Rao Jadhav was delighted with the result: “Our seeds boast excellent export quality and fetch a really good price. Our income has increased by 25 - 30 percent since the start of the project!”

Realizing the value of the pollination services, the farmers took extra care of the bees so that when temperatures dropped to 12 degrees at night they put an extra blanket over the hives to keep the honey bees warm. “They started to see the bees as valuable farm companions, as part of their business,” says Sushil Desai. “There were 250 hives – and they protected them all with great dedication.”

Turning Aridity into a Business Advantage

At first glance, the Indian State of Maharashtra might be a farmer’s nightmare: dry climate with long, hot summers, and no big rivers or lakes to provide water. But Maharashtrans are in fact thriving here: the arid climate is perfect for producing pomegranates and onion seeds.

// India grows most of the world’s pomegranates and Maharashtra is its leading producer. India’s main export regions for pomegranates are Europe, Middle East and Asia.

// Onion seeds from Maharashtra are in high demand as well. Its Baramati region can offer a quantity that is achieved nowhere else. The dry climate favors high-yield seed production offering high Return-on-Investment. In less dry areas, losses are seen through infection of seeds by fungal diseases.

 

The buzz continues

In the following season, more and more farmers were inquiring about beehive rentals. There was a wave of enthusiasm not only among the farmers but also among the trainer team: “The most rewarding moment for us was to see the faces of the growers when the traders came to their farm to assess the value of the fruit and quote a price,” says Sushi Desai.

Proposals have already been signed for the pilot project to be extended to other areas in India. The proof of concept is established and the farmers have started showing keen interest. Even at the local school, the children are made aware of the bees. In addition, a local women’s self-help group decided to start beekeeping as an entrepreneurial activity to sell honey.

“Madhu Sandesh” has created quite a buzz in Maharashtra because its impact goes beyond an increase in yield and price. “There is a new way of thinking underway,” says Sushil Desai. People want to be better informed about modern technologies. They are starting to sign up for other KVK programs to learn more about the science of state-of-the-art agriculture. They see new opportunities for the future of their communities.” And that is a truly honey-sweet message.

 

// With 1.25 billion people, India has the second largest population in the world. One out of seven people worldwide live in India, making it the biggest democracy on Earth.

// It has mega-cities such as Mumbai – home to more than 20 million people – but the country’s urban population is only a minority of 33 percent.

// The country is expected to rank among the world’s top three growth economies and among the top three manufacturing destinations by 2020.

// India is poised to become the third-largest economy of the world by 2030.

Indian women

Interview

Somang Yang and Ricky Ho

CropLife Asia took home an Asia Pacific Excellence Award for this project in 2017. Somang Yang (left), formerly with CropLife Asia, and Ricky Ho (right), Bayer AG, receiving the award.

“Many Indian farmers do not know about pollination, and even if they did, they would have no access to honey bees that could be rented.”

A Present of 250 Beehives
Interview with Somang Yang, previously Stakeholder Relations Manager at CropLife Asia


Ms. Yang, tell us how the idea for the pilot pollinator project began?

CropLife, the association of the international crop protection industry wanted to demonstrate that crop protection products and bees providing pollination services can and should co-exist, and to help farmers come to this holistic understanding in a tangible way. Many Indian farmers do not know about pollination, and even if they did, they would have no access to honey bees that could be rented.

How did you go about it?

We chose the Farm Science Center (KVK) in Maharashtra as our partner. We knew that they had tried to run honey bee projects in the past, but it had not gone well because there were not enough resources or dedicated experts, and it is hard for the honey bee (Apis mellifera) to thrive in that climate. We decided to help them with funds to restart the apiary and bring in both industry and external expertise so that the apiary could thrive. We also provided the expertise on bee-friendly integrated pest management (IPM) and responsible use practices so that we could train the farmers.

And you presented them with 250 beehives …

Yes, and we hired the staff to look after them and multiply them at a steady rate. Today, 300 honey bee colonies live at the KVK. When the crops flower, the farmers can hire them for a month at a subsidized rental fee.

What was the role of Bayer in the project?

Bayer was a very important partner because they had a stewardship expert based in Mumbai which is fairly close to the project. Sushil Desai also offered the advantage of being able to speak the local dialect, Marathi, so he did a lot of the farmer training and project monitoring.

How did you make sure the bees would return to KVK safe and sound?

The farmers received training in practical honey bee management and the KVK beekeepers visited them regularly to check the beehives and answer questions. Sushil Desai explained to them how to use crop protection properly, so as to get the benefit from the yield increase by keeping the bees healthy. Knowing about the role the bees play in pollination to give good quality and quantity of crops, the farmers were highly motivated to take good care of them.

Now that the pilot is completed, what are your plans?

In the first few years, starting in 2015, we invested in the beehives so that KVK could set-up and maintain the apiary. In the future there will be increasing demand and we will raise the rental fee closer to the market rate. KVK can then reinvest the rental income, hire more staff to care for additional honey bee colonies, upscale the project and run a high-tech apiary, so that in a couple of years, the project will be self-sufficient and self-funding.

 

Conclusion

// Pomegranate farmers who rented beehives saw their yield increase by 35 percent, while the training they received helped them to use pesticides in a more targeted and thus efficient way, resulting in higher profit margins. Better quality fruits fetched higher market prices, boosting farmers’ income. As a result, their net income increased by 42 percent.

// Onion seed producers who participated in the project saw their yields increase by 17 percent, and their overall income by more than 18 percent.




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Delivering a honey-sweet message Pollinator project in India
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