As Himalayan bee species are disappearing due to receding biodiversity, this plan to propagate more bees to accrue extra income will have wider impact.
The air is brisk up at 2,900 metres, at Dhorpattan Tibetan Refugee Camp. There’s a thin layer of ice to shake off my tent in the morning—and this is in April, in the spring.
The remote camp is situated in northwestern Nepal, in a broad valley surrounded by peaks dusted in snow. Locals get around using pack-horses.
The camp was established in 1961 by the Swiss Red Cross for Tibetan refugees fleeing Chinese persecution. Today, it is inhabited by 40 families, who make a meagre living by breeding horses and raising livestock - and growing buckwheat and potatoes. And those crops are seeing reduced yields due to climate change factors.
Pioneering source of income
Enter an innovative social enterprise called Mountain Resiliency Project, which is pioneering a new source of much-needed income: bees.
“We use apis cerena cerena bees, which are hardy and native to this region. There is a rich tradition of indigenous beekeeping in Nepal: we use traditional log hives,” says Tsechu Dolma, a young Tibetan-American who founded the venture in 2014 to deal with poverty and food insecurity prevalent in remote high-altitude communities.
After the devastating May 2015 megaquake in Nepal, Mountain Resiliency shifted into top gear with rebuilding efforts. To bolster food security in vulnerable communities, Mountain Resiliency has built over 50 greenhouses across Nepal to grow diverse vegetables in these harsh environments, and has started up mushroom farming for a low-caste community.
Tsechu Dolma herself grew up in a Tibetan refugee settlement in Kathmandu, before moving to New York and graduating from Columbia University. She has garnered a number of prestigious awards and fellowships for her innovative projects. In fact, our group trekking into Dhorpattan comprises members of Wild Gift, an Idaho-based nonprofit dedicated to empowering social entrepreneurs working to solve the world’s most pressing environmental challenges. Tsechu is a Wild Gift Fellow.
Attached to the eaves of the humble houses at Dhorpattan are log hives, where busy bees come and go, heading out to flowers around the valley. Tsechu jokes about labelling this product ‘Tibetan refugee honey.’ The bee project kicked off with help from American donors, who supported the initial outlay of buying 25 hives at US$100 apiece. Boston-based social business Follow the Honey agreed to provide a market by purchasing honey.
It’s a win-win scenario. Economic win, ecological win. As Himalayan bee species are disappearing due to receding biodiversity, this plan to propagate more bees to accrue extra income will have wider impact.
Bees are important pollinators of high-altitude flowering species such as rhododendrons, juniper and magnolia. Other pollinators include flies, butterflies and moths, but the bees - both domesticated and wild - do the greatest share of the work, especially at high altitude.
They visit some 500 flowers a day, collecting pollen and nectar. The resulting honey flavours vary, depending on what the bees have been foraging on: mustard, buckwheat, rhododendron flowers, apple blossom, butternut squash, or lemon trees.
These are the highest-altitude bees in the world. But the survival issue is not so much the altitude - though that does impair winged flight - it’s surviving the freezing winters. These bees disappear for three or four months during that time - nobody knows where. But they return to their hives in the spring.
On a day-hike in Dhorpattan, we meet an elderly couple, Tsekang and Tsering, at an outlying village. Tsekang takes care of her log hives, sited in trees nearby. Tsering is a honey hunter: he goes out several times a year in the fall to collect honey from wild bees.
This species, Apis laboriosa, is the world’s largest honey-bee—and is only found in high Himalayan regions. This bee builds huge hives that weigh some 50 kilograms - hanging off precarious cliff faces.
Collectors like Tsering smoke them out and steal the whole hive - a dangerous endeavour. Wild bee honey is known to have medicinal properties - even psychotropic effects, which result from toxins in the flowers of massive rhododendron trees.
Decoding the behaviour of bees presents many mysteries. Around the world, the phenomenon of bee colony collapse is prevalent - thought to be connected with the spraying of herbicides for GM crops. Nepal is not immune from this ‘insectageddon’, though it is much less impacted.
No bees, no pollinated plants
Back in Kathmandu, I quiz bee ‘guru’ Professor Madhusudan Man Singh about the fate of bees in Nepal. He is co-ordinator of the EU-funded Smart Bees project. 'If bees disappear from the surface of the earth, humans will not survive - not more than four years,’ is the professor’s stark opener, repeating a quote attributed to Albert Einstein.
"No bees, no pollination - and the plant kingdom will slowly disappear. And there will be no more plants to get food from," he adds. But he is optimistic that bee species will continue to thrive in Nepal, although they face new threats.
There are half a dozen wild bee species across Nepal, says Professor Madhusan, living in jungle and mountain environments. Bees must fight off predators such as bears and pine martens (after the honey) and bee-eaters and hornets (after the bees themselves).
“Interestingly, both wild and domesticated bees use shimmering behaviour to repel hornet attacks - they shimmer simultaneously to make themselves appear to be a much larger insect.”
Imported bee species do not fare so well. “Attempts by NGOs to introduce Apis mellifera bees from Europe have largely failed," he says, "because they are not hardy like local species - and because they are susceptible to disease, which can spread quickly in traditional log hives."
Plan Bee in action
Much later, I get news from Tsechu Dolma. The hives at Dhorpattan have been harvested. She has photos of the first jars of honey. Each precious jar represents the work of thousands of bees, visiting millions of flowers--travelling thousands of airborne kilometres, and leaving no carbon footprint.
Plan Bee is working. Each hive can be harvested twice a year, producing between 30 and 40 kilograms of honey. This can generate over US$5,000 a year in income for the refugee camp - a major windfall in these parts. Most of the beekeepers are women: the money will go towards their children’s education, as well as buying more diverse seeds for farming.
Mountain Resiliency aims to implement Plan Bee in other camps in Nepal as well as introducing other income streams such as mushroom growing. Tsechu plans to set up a Mountain Resiliency Institute where young locals can learn agribusiness skills.
She already has set up a fellowship project for young women to start their own businesses.
Michael Buckley is an adventure travel writer, environmental investigator, author of Meltdown in Tibet: China's Reckless Destruction of Ecosystems from the Highlands of Tibet to the Deltas of Asia, and has made three short documentaries about environmental issues in Tibet. Find out more at: www.mountainresiliency.org