A scientist in search of the enigmatic colonies of stingless bees

Report by: 
Port Blair
4 Mar 2018

Dr. Shashidhar Viraktamath, Emeritus Scientist, Department of Entomology, University of Agricultural Sciences, Bengaluru, the 64 year old scientist considered as an authority of Indian honey bees and stingless bees was born in Dharwad, Karnataka where he finished his school and went on to complete his Post Graduation and Doctorate on Management of Wax Moths from Karnatak University, Dharwad. He was the fourth son in a large family of 5 more brothers and 2 sisters born to a Tehsildar father and homemaker mother. His personal world constitutes of wife Suma, son Sumanth and grandson Aarav.

A studious boy, he was always fascinated by insects since his childhood, watching their behaviour with curiosity and wonder.  In 1977, he joined UAS Bengaluru as a Research Assistant working on Leafhoppers, but destiny had something else in store for him. Mr. Muttappa, a retired officer and bee-keeper at the university, introduced him to the world of bees. Rest they say is history. He directed his studies towards honey bees, pollination, bee attractants and diversity from 1980 onwards. His diligence and insatiable hunger to learn more and more about bees, their colonies, behaviour, social life, reproduction etc. took him places (literally) around the country funded by Government of India, ICAR, Department of Biotechnology, State Government and more. Later he went to Dharwad UAS as a Professor of Entomology. As he dived deeper into the wondrous world of honey bees, he started focusing on stingless honey bees which brings him to our islands frequently as there is tremendous scope here to tap its potential.

EOI met him at the CIARI guest house on his return from North and Middle Andaman. He had just woken after his deep slumber in the afternoon after a tiring trip. We seated ourselves on the sofa in the room with a ‘buzzing’ air conditioner.

EOI: Good afternoon Sir. What brings you to our islands so often?

Dr. Viraktamath: Good afternoon. These islands have a huge potential in the field I am working on, especially the stingless bees. The honey produced by these bees has high medicinal properties as we know of its use in Ayurveda since time immemorial, making the honey five times more costly than other varieties.

EOI: Did you discover the stingless bees in the islands?

Dr. Viraktamath: Oh, yes! I am just back from North Andaman and on the way I found many hives of their kind. Some people are selling their honey too, albeit in an unorganised way. But most taking the honey from the bee colonies and are destroying the hives completely, not letting them another chance to produce honey again.

EOI: What did you learn from people there?

Dr. Viraktamath: Look, the hives of stingless honey bees is perennial, unlike the stinging variety, who just abandon one hive and go elsewhere to build another, the reasons being many but mostly genetic. I saw a stingless bee hive in a huge banyan tree, which according to locals is more than two decade old. See, they do not sting, do not run away, produce honey with medicinal properties and can also be sold at higher costs.

EOI: Do you plan to educate farmers towards stingless honey bee keeping in Andaman?

Dr. Viraktamath: Mine is not an Andaman specific project. It is a pan India tour, criss- crossing forests and possible habitats of this breed. Scientific and organised farming is being carried out in North East, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu etc., and there has to be endeavours by the administration here to take local farmers on study tours to such identified farms, which I am sure will create a new avenue for an entrepreneurship, bringing in revenues not only for the farmer but to the Government.

EOI: Are you suggesting that stingless bee-keeping is easier?

Dr. Viraktamath: Absolutely. In our scientific lingo it is called Meliponiculture. As they do not sting, even children can handle them without any need of high skills. They need very less caring and looking after unlike their stinging counterparts.

EOI: How to identify them?

Dr. Viraktamath: These classes of bees are never found hanging from trees and similar places, but in cavities of tree trunks, even in crevices and slits of structures. The opening to their hives is like the wide part of funnel.

EOI: Tell us something unique that you have learnt in Andaman?

Dr. Viraktamath: (He breaks into a large smile for ear to ear) You know, the Onge tribe has a very special method to collect honey. They chew a type of plant, masticate and spray its contents on a hive of stinging-bees. The bees fall down tranquilised, and Onges blissfully collect the honey. We so called civilized with all the information at are fingertips, use crude methods like fire, sticks etc. to terrorise and collect honey. The Onges know, the bees will not die and rise and make more honey for them. We never learn from the proverbial Chicken and the gold egg story told to us a hundred times. Therefore, new studies are being carried out on rural and tribal intelligence.

EOI: Why did Albert Einstein say, “If the bee disappeared off the face of the Earth, man would only have four years left to live.”?

Dr. Viraktamath: So prophetic were his words. Bees are master pollinators on this earth. If they disappear, the plants, flowers and fruits will disappear, so will our race.

EOI: What are your words for protecting bees on this earth?

Dr. Viraktamath: Let us be place-specific. Each one of us has to play a role. I appeal from the bottom of my heart to the Administration here, the NGOs, Departments of Horticulture and Agriculture to take maximum measures to protect bees of this beautiful green blanket that drapes Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Each one of us should strive hard to “Save Bees to save ourselves”

EOI: Thank you for enlightening us on the importance of the Humble Bee in our lives.

(With the fear of sting gone, a constant humming sound in my mind was making me impatient to spread the words of Dr. Viraktamath (and Einstein’s) to all our readers.)