We recently came across a report that domestic honeybee colonies along the hilly Kanniyakumari district of the most southern area of mainland India are revealing a strange and unidentified attack is underway that is devastating the honeybee industry, reducing the honeybee population and causing very low honey production.
Once the honeycomb is infected, it usually turns from golden yellow to black. The eggs and larvae die, and the adult bees in the colony abandon their home, which inflicts severe economic hardship on the honey producers. It is as yet unknown what is causing this affliction, but potential causes are pesticides, lack of appropriate floral habitat, parasites and pathogens. There is also a possibility that improper apiculture standards and practices are used by honey producers, which could magnify the problem.
The impact is twofold, since honey producers are economically harmed, and pollination suffers which can drastically reduce the agricultural yield of crops in the affected areas.
Honeybees live together in hives and are very social insects. They communicate with each other by a series of “dance moves” that carry specific information about such things as where they found great flowers. Their dance can divulge the distance, location, size and quality of a particular food source nearby. This way each forager bee helps her sisters with information when she finds a rich new feeding area.
Here is an unrelated 3:40-minute video by WildFilmsIndia that demonstrates some small local bee farmers and bee boxes:
The State Horticultural Department has been providing indigenous people and potential farmers with honeybee nests and bees, because beekeeping is critical to modern agriculture. This infection that causes black honeycomb could threaten beekeeping and cripple the production of a diversity of crops that depend on honeybee pollination in the wider area.
Almost one-hundred years ago in 1924, Dr. Spencer Hatch was a fraternal secretary from North America who headed the YMCA Rural Centers in Marthandam. He discovered bees in the villages and hills of South Travancore and brought beekeeping techniques from his home country to introduce to the poor villagers. This self-employment program assisted the very poor population in the area. The villagers responded well to it, and the trade bore fruit--or honey--for them.
Thus, the YMCA Rural Centers, Marthandam, were pioneers in the Apiary field in the country, and they continued beekeeping training from that time forward. Thousands of beekeepers were trained by them and are now spread throughout the entire Indian sub-continent. The current figures seem to be that around 10,000 people are beekeepers that rely on this trade for their livelihood and more than 25,000 people in Kanniyakumari can find jobs in this horticulture-oriented industry.
We don't know if scientific tests have been done on the black honeycomb yet to identify the source of the infection.
In contrast, some US beekeepers believe that honeycomb goes black after many bees have been raised in the cells, and that the discoloration can be attributed to substances like dirt and atmospheric dust as well as royal jelly, propolis, and even pollen. It is usually considered nothing to worry about, and eating dark honeycomb is said to carry health benefits.
Most likely the black honeycomb in India is a very different and deadlier matter, as the hives in India contain dead and dying eggs and larvae. Hopefully scientific testing on the honeycomb will reveal what is causing the problem, and if it is an infection, that it can be brought under control for the good of the honeybees and the local people.