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Tropical trees for tropical bees

Beekeepers everywhere must involve themselves in the debate for the retention of tropical habitats. Previous editions of this Newsletter have described traditional beekeepers living and working in tropical forests and woodlands, and in this edition we have interesting new information about Vietnamese methods of obtaining honey from Apis dorsata. Tropical forest-dwellers are financially poor, without access to a strong lobby, and they deserve our support. Their traditional beekeeping and other activities are sustainable, but the trees on which these activities depend are being cleared for the short-term financial gain of others. The long-term consequences are disastrous for all.

Beekeepers often recommend that trees valuable for bees should be incorporated into planting schemes: at village level, and in small-scale planting schemes either native or introduced tree species can be appropriate. But just as bees that evolved locally are better suited to a particular environment than introduced bees, so it is with trees. It is original, native ecosystems which must be repaired. Not all reafforestation is environmentally beneficial and in many countries rural people are now rebelling against inappropriate planting schemes. For example, much of the Himalayan belt is being covered with massed planting of chir pine. It is true that this species will grow on difficult slopes but it is beneficial only for the pulp and resin industries. Chir pine is poor at water retention, and soil erosion continues. The ideal way to re-green such hill sides is to allow regeneration of the complete range of indigenous trees and shrubs which will provide valuable floral diversity for bees: often all that is needed is to protect the area from grazing as native species re-establish themselves. Although regeneration is a slower means of reafforestation than massed planting of fast growing species, it will in the long term yield a far richer diversity of resources. In some countries reafforestation schemes plant vast areas of (Australian) eucalyptus or acacia. True, these species are sometimes very useful for bees, but they are not native species and do not allow original sophisticated ecosystems to be re-established. Beekeepers must be careful to argue for the appropriate tropical trees for tropical bees.