Honey, we shrunk their habitat: A film explores how wild bees are coping in cities

‘Colonies in conflict’, directed by Rajani Mani, follows migratory giant Asian honey bees to reveal how human action is driving bee decline.
Honey, we shrunk their habitat: A film explores how wild bees are coping in cities
Honey, we shrunk their habitat: A film explores how wild bees are coping in cities
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When documentary filmmaker Rajani Mani moved into a high-rise apartment in Bengaluru in 2015, the massive beehives on the balconies and ledges of the top floors caught her eye. She was concerned, however, about the use of fire, smoke and pesticides to remove the hives which could endanger the bees. Her efforts to learn more about these winged insects and share information with neighbours gave her the impetus to film a feature-length documentary, ‘Colonies in conflict’, which explores the state of wild bees in India’s rapidly expanding urban ecosystems.  

“The bees are vanishing, while we don't know what is happening to them, what's even more shocking is how little is known about wild bee species in India — a country that has over 300 endemic species of bees,” says Rajani, co-founder of Elephant Corridor Films. The world has over 20,000 bee species. ‘Colonies in conflict’ follows the migratory giant Asian honey bees or the Apis dorsata, native to South Asia. The film is also Rajani’s personal journey, starting from her neighbourhood. She began filming in October 2019 but in March 2020, when the pandemic hit, Rajani hit the pause button to reflect on narratives she could employ in the film. She restarted work in December 2020 and filmed till the end of March 2021.

“October to March were always the ideal months to film Asian honey bees in the city. It’s the time when trees like Eucalyptus, Copper pod, Tabebuia, Jacaranda, and Pongamia are in full bloom and Bengaluru has plenty of them. Scientists call it the “nectar flow” season and the trees offer a feast to wild bees. We see a spike in colonies of Apis dorsata, also known as Rock Bees during this time,” says Rajani

Her film is thoroughly researched, incorporating insights from taxonomists and biologists and has Dr Axel Brockmann and Dr Shannon Olsson from The National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) as scientific advisers. “I have been clear that the information I give out would have to be scientifically accurate and that there would be no assumptions by me. The film is not to provoke or sensationalise, it is trying to draw your attention to the state of wild bees,” says Rajani

Rajani says as trees were felled to make space for high-rise apartments, wild bees also adapted. “Decades ago beehives were seen on large trees, today it is a common sight on the balconies of high-rise apartments in India. When habitats are lost, bees adapt, high-rise apartments give the same stable structure as trees. If they build a nest in a balcony it is because it is ideal for them, maybe it’s near a food or water source.”

Pollination and nutritional security

Rajani explains the ecological role of the A. dorsata. “The principal job of the species is not to provide honey but pollination. In India that is particularly important because we don’t have managed pollination like in the U.S. or many other countries where there is monocropping,” says Rajani.

We rarely notice how much we depend on wild pollinators for our food, critical for nutritional security. “A. dorsata are prolific pollinators, they are not specialist pollinators but are generalists, meaning they forage on all kinds of plants, whichever is in season. Research says that one in three bags of coffee is pollinated by bees, with the A. dorsata pollinating 98% of it. Bees also help in nutritional security, i.e. diversity of food. All gourd varieties require pollination and the A. dorsata does plenty of that. We also have carpenter bees that do buzz pollination of tomatoes. Carpenter bees are specialist bees, not generalists like A. dorsata.”

Filming a beehive

Effects of larger factors

The film also explores how intensive agriculture, pollution and Artificial Lights at Night (ALAN) are driving bee decline. “Two scientists, Shannon and Geetha, have come up with an Air Quality Index for insects. Their experiments on rock bees show shocking consequences of pollution on wild bees.”

The film also features Alisson, an American scientist, who documents night dances of rock bees. Most bees are diurnal and forage during daytime, rock bees are crepuscular, which means they can forage at night as well. “Humans barely consider nocturnal plants and their pollination, and while these bees are out foraging, the artificial lights at night (ALAN) contribute to their mortality. In the cities these foragers enter homes, bringing them into direct conflict with humans. We don't realise how our night lights are affecting nocturnal pollinators. These are not points of conversations we have. This is how anthropogenic activities are affecting bees,” says Rajani.

Parthib Basu, a Kolkata-based scientist, also weighs in on how intensive agriculture using pesticides is affecting the foraging behaviour and the physiology of wild bees.

 Rajani, however, says that all studies on A. dorsata are in early stages. “They are like a mystery,” she says.

Rajani Mani

The film’s objective

Rajani says she wants to raise awareness that biodiversity conservation need not be confined to wildlife reserves. “It can begin in every human settlement—particularly cities.”

She also hopes her film would draw the attention of people who make policies in the city and make it not so easy for people to remove beehives using pesticides or fire. “I am hoping that we can have training and special licences for people to remove beehives. Pest control companies must not promote beehive removal. It should be under the control of the local municipality.”

Safer and ethical ways to remove beehives

Rajani says there are natural and safer alternatives to removing beehives. “First the bees come on a recce, when you see 40 to 50 bees form a festoon in your balcony you can burn a pure herbal agarbatti/coil, the bees will not come as it is not an ideal place. They go away on their own. But if they do build a nest, repeat the same action, it should be a herbal agarbatti/mosquito coil below the hive so that it doesn’t get to the hive, and keep your balcony shut so what happens is the bees don’t like smoke but they won’t immediately vacate.  What happens is that due to the smoke, the Queen bee stops laying eggs, as the hive decides that they must move from this undesirable place. They then wait for the entire brood to emerge and then they vacate the nest. This takes about 15 days,” says Rajani.

The wonderful world of wild bees

It is not just rock bees Rajani is interested in, she wonders at all types of bees. “It is fascinating, complex and beautiful at the same time. Within my apartment balcony garden, I started noticing different kinds of bees that I had not seen before. It was not just honey bees but all wild bees, which fall into two categories of social and solitary. There are five social bees of the genus Apisdorsata, laboriosa, andreniformis, florea, and cerana,” says Rajani.

‘Colonies in conflict’ will premiere on May 22, World Bee Day, at 5 pm, at the Bangalore International Centre, Teri Complex, 2Nd Stage, 4Th Main, 2Nd Cross, Domlur, Near Domlur Club.

The film is also the Official Selection Nature Without Borders International Film Festival 2022 and Official Selection Wildlife Conservation Film Festival 2022. Both festivals are in the U.S.

For details visit www.elephantcorridorfilms.com or follow @coloniesinconflict on Instagram

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