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Honey in Peril

Kashmir's apiculture industry is at the receiving end. Entomologists say 90 per cent of the bee hives have succumbed to deadly Varroa mite. Peerzada Arshad Hamid reports.

Srinagar, Kashmir
Mar 31, 2006:

Mukhtar Ahmad Bhat, 52, loved the humming of honey bees in his farmland. As Bhat walks into his farmland today, he feels like entering a graveyard. The buzz has died down.

Bhat, a honey bee keeper, lost all his 200 bee colonies to Varroa mite infestation. The hives that dotted his farmland once housing the honey bees are huddled in a dark room today.

Out of 40,000 honey bee colonies registered with the Agriculture Department in Kashmir, 36000 have perished. Officials say the Varroa mite attack has lend the biggest ever blow to apiculture in the state.

The remaining four thousand hives have also been declared infected by the Agriculture Department of Jammu and Kashmir. With the disease showing no signs of cessation, the government is yet to gear up its machinery for control measures.

Hives huddled
Ghulam Ahmad Ganie looks at the the huddled Bee hives in his backyard.
The massive destruction by Varroa mite has caused 75 per cent loss to the annual honey production and 90 percent loss to the number of bee colonies.

Although the disease was detected in April 2005, the department of Agriculture is still to come up with a specific remedy. Presently the department prescribes Formic Acid and Sulphur, which bee keepers say has little effect.

"Last year when we found dead bees in hives, we went to the concerned department. The officials took samples and suggested Formic acid as the only remedy. But it proved ineffective," says Ghulam Rasool Bhat of Anantnag. Bhat lost all his 175 bee colonies to Varroa mite attack.

Bhat has been in this trade for the past 25 years and has never suffered such a huge loss earlier. Officials admit that Formic Acid and Sulphur are effective only in early stages of infection and ineffective for the large scale infection.

The beekeepers allege that agriculture department did not respond to the disease early resulting in large scale destruction. Now they demand assistance for revival of the industry.

"The department could not control this disease. Now at least tell them to revive this industry," urges Ghulam Ahmad Gannie, Chairman Bee Keeper Federation in Anantnag.

On their part experts in Agriculture department are still to trace the origin of this disease. "So far we have not been able to find the origin of the diseases. How Varroa infected the bee hives here and what are the reasons? It is still a mystery". says Mehraj-u-din Bhat, Assistant Entomologist, Agriculture department in Srinagar.

Ghulam Ahmad Ganie displays a honey bee comb with bees. Entomologists say 90 per cent of the bee population in Kashmir has perished and the remaining are infected.
Although we are working on this and we hope to come up with an appropriate medicine. So far fumigation of formic acid and sulphur to the remaining infected colonies is the only option available with us" says Bhat.

Field officials of the department say that the disease was brought to valley by beekeepers, from outside the state as most of the bee keepers migrate their hives to adjoining states like Punjab during winter.

"It is a trend among the bee keepers here to migrate hives to Punjab during winters to increase the honey production. We suspect the disease has been brought from there." says Fayaz Ahmad Qadri, Apiculture Development Assistant, with the Agriculture Department in Anantnag.

The Varroa mite infection has attacked both the strains of honey bees found in Kashmir , the indigenous Apis cerana indica (wall and log colonies) and the Apis mellifera (Modern bee colonies).

Varroa mites are external parasites that feed on bodily fluids of adult, pupal and larval bees. Varroa mites can be seen with the naked eye as a small red or brown spot on the bee's thorax. Varroa is a carrier for a virus that is particularly damaging to the bees.

The Apis mellifera strain originally belonging to Europe was introduced in Kashmir in 1986 when Thac Sac Brood disease had destroyed the indigenous Apis cerana.

So far the mellifera strain was going fine and no complaints were received. But now we are looking for the options to introduce some new strain, says Bhat. Bhat adds that so far only these two strains have been able to survive in Kashmir.
( Pictures by Bilal Khan)

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