Burning Issues

Butterflies & Bees

Butterflies & Bees
-Usha Nair

 'Butterflies, bees, our winged happy friends; Oh ,to dance in the air and  float on the breeze'-Terri Guillemets   
On 1st October of this year, BBC reported that Hawaiian bees are listed first on the U.S. Endangered Species list.  Skipping  to the other side of the globe, another report that caught my eye stated that in India, flowering plants and their pollinators are declining in the Himalayan region, one of the 34 official Global Biodiversity hotspots. The apple orchards of Kullu Valley, a major agriculture centre in this hotspot, is impacted by climate change and consequent decline in plant biodiversity, resulting in reduced numbers of bees and butterflies.  

Many of us can vouch for the fact that fifty years ago, bees &  butterflies, other insects and animals, just naturally did their jobs. Plants were pollinated and the fields would yield crops, vegetables and fruit. Today, our fields are much larger and the use of pesticides has adversely affected pollinators.  Decline in the health and population of pollinators pose what could be a significant threat to the integrity of biodiversity, to global food webs, financial stability of agricultural regions, and to human health.  According to Wikipedia, at least 80% of our world's crop species require pollination to set seed.  An estimated one out of every three bites of food comes to us through the work of pollinators. 

The entire ecosystem depends upon pollination.  Pollination is the process of pollen being transferred from the male part of a flower called an anther, to the female part of a flower called a stigma. Pollination is essential to the survival of plants because it is part of their reproductive process.  It is equally important for people, because without pollination we would not have vegetables and fruits to eat.   Animals, birds, and insects that carry the pollen between flowers are called pollinators.  Insect pollinators include bees, (honey bees, solitary species, bumblebees);pollen wasps ; ants; a variety of flies including bee flies, hoverflies, butterflies and moths; and flower beetles.  

The most well known pollinators are bees. They have specialized structures on their bodies that collect pollen and through flight they carry the pollen to the next plant. Most bees gather nectar, a concentrated energy source, and pollen, which is high protein food, to nurture their young, and transfer some among the flowers as they are working. The bee collects the pollen by rubbing against the anthers. The pollen collects on the hind legs, in a structure referred to as a "pollen basket".  As the bee flies from flower to flower, some of the pollen grains are transferred onto the stigma of other flowers. 

The second most productive pollinators are butterflies. Butterflies typically visit brightly- coloured (red, yellow, orange) flowers in clusters, which provide ample nectar during the day when they are open and provide landing platforms.  Although butterflies visit flowers often, they are not as effective pollinators as bees.

 According to Regina Cutter Edwards , for farmers to get good crop yields in current times, they must 'manage' pollination.  It is not uncommon for growers to ship in large numbers of bee hives during blooming season to get their fields pollinated.  Although managed bee hives are increasing worldwide,  these cannot compensate for the loss of wild pollinators in many locations.  Pollinators provide a key ecosystem service vital to the maintenance of both wild and agricultural plant communities.  In 1999, the Convention on Biological Diversity issued the São Paulo Declaration on Pollinators, recognizing the critical role that these species play. Today pollinators are considered to be in a state of decline and some are in danger of extinction. In May 2015, the U.S. Obama Administration released the 'National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators'. The goal is "tackling and reducing the impact of multiple stressors on pollinator health, including pests and pathogens, reduced habitat, lack of nutritional resources, and exposure to pesticides." 

Plants fall into 'pollination syndromes'  Different types of pollinators are attracted by different types of plants depending upon the overall flower size, the depth and width of the corolla, the colour, scent amount of nectar, composition of nectar, etc.  When these characteristics are experimentally modified (altering colour, size, orientation), pollinator visitation are affected/ decline. 

The role of pollinators is largely unknown in the urban world. My mind flashed back to the sight of hundreds of bees lying dead on the pathways of a residential complex, as panic-stricken residents smoked out beehives in order to get rid of attacking bees.  Little thought was ever given to the purpose of these bees-they were pests and needed to be removed!!  The thought begged another question-how many of the current generation of children, growing up in metro/urban cities have ever seen or run after butterflies?  Butterflies are nowhere to be seen in any urban settlement, as manicured lawns and  'engineered' non-fragrant flowers no longer provide a habitat for the breeding of these flitting, multi-coloured, exquisite pollinators, which have inspired poets, artists and others over countless generations and have been the delight of bewitched children all over the world. "Where have those flowers and butterflies all gone?"  lamented the famous American poet, Robert Frost.  His words continue to blow in the wind!! It is evident that serious focused efforts need to be taken world-wide, to nurture and restore the pollinator population to a sustainable  level that will support global bio-diversity  and food security.

(Usha Nair is a nature lover who can be contacted at ushaenvironment@gmail.com)
             Photographs -Susan Sharma     

Citizen Science

Reception by Trees and Bees

Reception by Trees and Bees
-K.Amina Bibi

I am recently transferred to a new place, and my responsibility is Farm Management. I was hesitant to accept the change, to work in an isolated place. New type of work and new people…with heavy heart I went to the new place. The way to the new place was a stretch of greenery, fresh smell of herbs and gave a feel of entering a serine place. Two giants were receiving me with their unique inflorescence, Nagalinga Poo (in Tamil). I have heard it is seen only in Lord Shiva temples. The trees gave me a Red Carpet Welcome. It was a Good Beginning for me. From then on every day I noticed a new flower hanging from top, to receive me daily. 

I was greatly encouraged by this and started exploring  this tree. Here are the facts I thought I should share – Its botanical name is Couroupita guianensis is part of the family Lecythidaceae. It grows up to 25 m (82 ft) in height. The “Cannonball Tree” is so called because of its brown cannon-ball-like fruits. The majority of these trees outside their natural environment have been planted as a botanical curiosity, as they grow very large, distinctive flowers.  Its flowers are orange, scarlet and pink in color, and form large bunches measuring up to 3m in length. They produce large spherical and woody fruits ranging from 15 to 24 cm in diameter, containing up to 200 or 300 seeds a piece.

The tree possesses antibiotic, antifungal, antiseptic and analgesic qualities. The trees are used to cure colds, stomach aches and even Malaria. Juice made from the leaves is used to cure skin diseases. The inside of the fruit can disinfect wounds and young leaves ease toothache. The fruit emits an unpleasant odor and can be used as an insect repellent just by rubbing it to the skin or clothes.

The flowers are found on thick tangled extrusions that grow on the trunk of the tree; these are found just below the foliage branches which are actually like personally welcoming me daily.  I spend few initial minutes of my day with these flowers.  Often I see bees actively doing their duty of pollination.  The flowers have no nectar but they do have pollen and as such pollination is done mainly by bees.  The pollen comes in two varieties as well, one which is fertile and another which has no obvious reproductive benefit.  The fertile pollen is produced on stamens which rub against the back of bees and is so carried on to another tree.  The infertile pollen is bee food. 

Heard from the staff the sound of the fruit falling and its smell when rotten is unpleasant.  But still the wonders of the natural world are endless and inspiring, and this wonderful tree is indeed a wonder.

(Text and photographs by Amina Bibi.  K. Amina Bibi is a Post Graduate in Agriculture with specialization in Plant Breeding and Genetics. She is currently working as Agriculture Officer in Karaikal, Department of Agriculture, Government of Puducherry) 


Let the bees buzz

Let the bees buzz

Saving plants from pests too efficiently could make it difficult for the plants themselves, says S.Ananthanarayanan.

The natural world is so interconnected that how things may impact the environment often comes as a surprise. Drs Richard J. Gill, Oscar Ramos-Rodriguez & Nigel E. Raine of the School of Biological Science, University of Cambridge, report in the journal, Nature, their findings of the effects of pesticides on the health of the agents of pollination.

Agriculture depends on having the correct strain of plant or tree, the right conditions of soil, rainfall or water supply, temperature and so on. But for all the inputs, what it vital is that the pollen be transferred from flower to flower, for the production of seeds and the reproduction of plants. The pollen consists of part genetic information of the plant, which combines with a corresponding other half to result in cells that again divide to produce more cells with half genetic information. The pollen is the part that moves to bring about the combining of genetic parts, usually between plant and plant, and it consists of grains that have a hardy cover to protect their sensitive payload.

Although plants can reproduce by fertilization of the female part-cells by the pollen grains, which are the male part, from the same plant or flower, it is by cross-pollination, or by pollen of other plants, that there is genetic diversity, healthy offspring and resilient and stable plant population in an area.  And this process of transfer of pollen from one plant to another has never involved any human effort, in contrast of other phases of the growth of vegetation which have been channeled and have been the most important human activity through history. The job of distribution of pollen has been done without cost or effort, in some plants by the agencies of wind or water and by a variety of insects in the case of most plants. 

A most important class of pollinators are bees, which plants have evolved to attract with the incentive of nectar. There are flies and other insects, of course, but the category of bees is the leading pollinator of most fruit trees and vegetable plants. But because bees and insects do their good work silently and without effort of the human cultivators, and they find their food from the plants themselves, they have not merited as much attention as other factors which act against the plant population. With the spread of agriculture and specialized strains of plants, insects and organisms, including other plants, that attack plants or negatively affect their growth, have also grown and a large part of the farmers’ effort is to safeguard the plants and the crop from damage by pests.

To this end has arisen the industry of pesticides. These are chemical or biological preparations that are sprayed or otherwise distributed over plants and orchards to prevent, destroy, repel or lessen different kinds of pests. With growing human populations and growing agriculture, the use of pesticides has burgeoned and the world now uses more than 3 million tones. Over decades, many pesticides were found to persist in the crop, in water and in the soil with adverse effects on consumers and the environment. The use of these have  been banned, modified, etc, to contain the damage but there is always a compromise on how much damage to the crop and consumers to permit and how effectively to  control pests.

Important among pesticides in use are the categories of synthetic compounds called neonicotinoids and pyrethroids. Neonicotinoids affect the nerve system of insects and have become very popular as they have less toxicity than insecticides used earlier and they are known to be less harmful to mammals, compared to insects. Pyrethroids are often used as insect repellents and are common in use both with plants and with domestic pets.  

Bee populations
But another effect of pesticides, which has now captured interest,s is their effect, not on the plants or human consumers, but on the insect population that is involved in pollination.  For years there have been reports of falling bee populations and breakdown of bee colonies, to the disquiet, both of beekeepers and of farmers. Bees contribute 80% of the work of pollination by insects and any sustained reduction in their numbers can spell disaster for the food economy, apart from the vegetation of the world. Just how different pesticides affect the population and foraging of insects, bees in particular, has become a subject of research and more than 100 papers and reports have been published on this topic so far in this year itself. 

The group in Cambridge note that although  chemical pesticides have been associated with changes in bee behaviour  and reductions in colony queen bee production, the key link between changes in individual behaviour and the consequent impact at the colony level has not been shown. As bees work collectively in colonies, it is possible that the effect of field level pesticides at the individual bee level could be buffered at the colony level to bring about cumulative effects. Another possibility is that exposure to different pesticides, as occurs in present day conditions, could have different effects on bees than when encountered separately, as in laboratories. 

Dr Gill and associates investigated the effects of two pesticides, one a neonicotinoid and the other a pyrethroid, on the development and growth of bumblebee colonies and on the foraging activity of individual bees, by tagging the bees with microchips. They placed feeders of sugar syrup that had been spiked with the first pesticide and/or filter paper treated with the other, in the path of bumble¬bees leaving their nest boxes. It is significant that the bees could freely bypass the filter paper and the feeder and forage in the surrounding landscape for pollen and nectar. 

The result of the trials were that exposure to the neurotoxin resulted in fewer adult workers emerging from pupae. While this was similar to the results of other studies, Gill et al also found that these workers tended to forage over wider areas and many did not return to the hive. Bees that were exposed to the other pesticide showed greater mortality in the nest. And when exposed to both the insecticides, the effects appeared to add to the reduction in numbers. An important aspect of the study is the emphasis of effect both on individual bees as well as on the colony. While a lethal dose of toxic pesticide would just eliminate the worker bee, a sub-lethal dose would be carried back to the hive. Further study, of course, is needed to understand how the size of the hive, as honey hives have much greater numbers than bumble-bee hives, affects acute and chronic mortality.

The other aspect of interest in the study is the effect of combining insecticides. There are regulatory norms now in place, which control the use of individual pesticides in an area. But the use of pesticides in combination may enhance the toxicity of any one or more than one. The study of Gill and Co is a first step in detailed study of this area that is necessary, to ensure that pest control does not result in birth control in the sector being protected!
[the writer can be contacted at simplescience@gmail.com]

(Photographs Susan Sharma and Ashwin Baindur)


Events in October 2016


TIME : 6:00 AM

India's toughest 25K. The ultimate trail, spectacular views and an experience you will be super proud of at the finish line. Regn at Rs 2300+ till Sep 30th when regns close. Rs 3000 spot regn pre race day at expo on 15th Oct 9am -2 pm at Himalayan River Runners Base Camp at Shivpuri.

Details at 

Singalila Sandakphu Wild Trail-Organized by IT Nature Club

Dec 24 to Dec 31

Tour Cost : Rs.38,000 /- per person on twin sharing basis ( For Indian Citizens )

Singalila National Park is located on the Singalila Ridge at an altitude of around 7000 feet above sea level, in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal. The park was declared a Wildlife Sanctuary in 1986.It was declared as a national park in the year 1992. Standing tall at 12,400 ft it is the highest peak in West Bengal.Four of the five highest peaks of the world, Everest, Kanchendzonga, Lhotse and Makalu can be seen from its summit.

Details at 

Wildlife Week - BNHS CEC-Delhi with Forest Department 

Wildlife Week is celebrated all over the country in the month of October with the view to preserve the fauna means the animal life of the India. Wild Life Week 2016 would be celebrated from Sunday (2nd of October) to the Saturday (8th of October). BNHS CEC-Delhi with Forest Department celebrating Wildlife Week at Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary.  s year CEC Delhi will organize loads of interesting activities and competitions to celebrate Wildlife week like quiz competitions, face painting, slogan writing, clay modeling, origami, poster making etc. on related subjects on wildlife with students of various age groups.

Details at 

Wildlife Week Celebration Thekkady, 02 to 08 October 2016

Details at 

Wildlife Week Celebration -New Delhi

The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change is organizing programs in the Delhi Zoo.  

Details at

News and Views

News and Views


Seven bee species are being added to the U.S. endangered species list effective October 30, 2016, citing habitat loss.  
In the last year, beekeepers lost 44% of their colonies, largely due to unregulated neonic pesticides.

IWC Volunteer programs as foot soldiers of the forest are on in Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary.   A batch of four is in the forest currently, from 8th to 15th October.  If you wish to be considered for the coming batches, please apply online at


This month's ezine is devoted to the honey bees.   S. Anathanarayanan and Usha Nair write about the studies being done and the need to take up the issue of bees decline seriously.  In India we still have wild bees in many places.  Let us treasure them.  

Amina Bibi writes about how observing a tree daily makes her day in the office.  

Susan's article mentions the pollinators for common vegetables in India.  Please also watch the following video 

Honey Bees-Endangered

The Hive is an installation and experience in Kew Garden, London.  
Illuminated by almost 1000 LED lights, The Hive represents a vast honey beehive.   It is linked to one of Kew's hives.  The lights flicker in time to vibrations caused when the bees communicate with each other.  This installation is visited by hundreds every day.

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