Barefoot Notes: Beeing in the Shivalik

A view of the outer Himalaya - the Shivalik, upwards from the city of Ramnagar in Nainital.

As fate would have it, I would wound around the same road across groves of jamun in the marshes and stands of sal in the lower hills, by the same shop I fondly remember meeting a lovely she-dog with light-brown eyes who immediately liked me in return, and up the mountain roads like I did seven years ago, mesmerised by the endlessness of the forests of the Himalayan foothills, across wide riverbanks of the Kosi – the same river that many have, in another age, journeyed afoot, from the trading Shauka families covering many miles across the Transhimalaya to the terai plains, to Harrer and Aufschnaiter, two mountaineers who escaped from the Dehradun Internment Camp when the World War II started, following the Kosi at first, all the way to Lhasa. It was sheer coincidence that I read Harrer’s account Seven Years in Tibet as I crossed Kosi every day. I was in the Shivalik Range of the North-western Outer Himalaya in Uttarakhand.

The Blushwort, Aeschynanthus parviflorus, blooming along the higher reaches of the Shivalik.

What a world, I thought to myself, the Himalaya are, as the vehicle climbed into misty forests, soothing my soul baked under the terai sun. In this embalmed darkness, tree-tops were lit up by other-worldly flowers of Aeschynanthus parviflorus, a blushwort, like lamps on wooden posts. It had been less than a decade for things to show significant changes, yet there were a few significant to the landscape. Unlike last time, I did not hear nor see a landslide, but every turn we took, the hills were pock-marked with landslides. Wherever the roads were widened, the landslides dislodged them. Wherever they were constructed anew, they were destroyed in the next spell of rain.  Even the greenest slopes seemed to have slipped off on certain mountains. As mobile phone networks reached the remotest valley in the Shivalik, the mountains are as well-connected as the plains one can scarcely discern from the crumbling monuments.

A tea break with a view.

Being back in the Shivalik Himalaya felt menacing but delightful. The charm of the Himalaya will forever reign supreme. The mountains rise gradually for a few meters and then abruptly for the next thousand. There is no power – no machine – to claim them save the mighty feet of the mountain ungulates and the local communities. It was here, along the slopes of the Shivalik, that I found myself one rainy week of the year sitting in the verandah overlooking the most marvellous view of the Shivalik, eating patoda and drinking tea. Our host had started a bee-product extraction and sale collective along with other women of the village. It was a practical and culturally-rooted livelihood alternative to farming, essential for the survival in the mountains. As we met more and more people, the charm of the mountains was apparent to me; nowhere was I so well-fed and well-watered with the most delicious of chai. I promise, it was not the weather, the magic was in the offering – while the stream water gave me a mild cold, the tea soothed my soul yet again; to feel twice as charmed, once by the Himalaya and again by its peoples is fortune.

Whenever my colleagues and I sat discussing the purpose of my visit, it was quite embarrassing (for me) and I believe it to be amusing to the community. While my companions worked on fodder development, processing of bee-products, training in food processing and tracking of man-eater tigers and here I was, being introduced as someone who had come to look at insects and flowers. In my defence, I must elaborate that I was here on a cursory visit to see what-all insects visited what-all flowers in the people-managed Van Panchayat lands – a management practice that was founded in the colonial days when the British tried to stifle peoples’ rights over lands and trees. These lands, now, served for fodder and fuelwood and other forest-based livelihoods so long as the Panchayat – the council – under the guidance of the state forest department, protected the existing flora and fauna of the region at-par with the adjoining management practices of the reserved forests.

There is also an important service these Van Panchayat lands provided – ecosystem services. Some have streams originating from it, some a refuge for wild varieties of vegetables and millets, and most provide a refuge and resources for insects and spiders and birds and mammals, including pollinators.

A path leading from grassland slopes to secondary forests with the sal forests in the distance.

Yet over the many decades – some given management rights in 1999 and 1962 of those that I visited – these lands have deteriorated. Wood-extraction, no-matter how stringent your protection, was practiced illegally, leading to a change in the ecosystem from forested to scrub, in some areas opening up into vast, sloping grasslands, the likes of which were often described by Corbett where man-eater tigers and leopards prowled and attacked women who cut fodder grass. In some places the abandoned paddy lots were converted into grasslands and in some the marshes grew grass and reed and horsetails alike – the latter a first for me from India. In worst instances, some hillsides have completely transformed by the bane of India’s woodlands – Common Lantana, Lantana camara – an invasive plant that’s omnipresent in the foothills.

Instances of tiger and leopard encounters are not unheard of. Nearly every house we visited had either seen a leopard or a tiger down in the sal valley, frolicking alone or with cubs. Nearly every village we visited knows of someone attacked or worse. Over the course of my time, I walked through the lush grasslands and meadows and dense thickets of lantana, remembering not what Corbett wrote but of the people who narrated stories not months old, while a few of my colleagues down in Corbett Tiger Reserve tracked a man-eater tiger that had already attacked several people. In fact, while I surveyed, two villages were deserted by the people in Pauri district from the fear of a man-eater leopard estimated to have attacked 30 people in the last six months. Not too long ago, in a lantana-infested Van Panchayat I walked, a leopard had ambushed a girl returning from school. More recently, a lady was attacked in the middle of the day. Both survived.

A shrine for the village deity, comprising pots, chellum, and a bell, in the middle of a sacred grove.

Down in the thickets, I scoured the flowering varieties for insects. I was surprised to find the most abundant flowering plants to be invasives – Bidens pilosa and Lantana camara were dazzling under the harsh sun, with a scattered-few native plants in bloom. Naturally, I thought the insects would visit the native ones – having evolved alongside for longer than the invasives by several million generations. In Riya, we entered a sacred grove of sal forest, by the feet of the place of worship of the village deity, Thakur Dev, the God of all villages of northern India that protects farms and people from any harm, including that from large carnivores. Here I secretly wished to see bumblebees.

Clockwise from top-left: Small Carpenter Bee Ceratina sp., Nomad bee Nomada sp., Asian Honeybee Apis cerana, and Sweat Bee Lasioglossum sp., all of them from the Van Panchayat areas.

Whenever clouds gave way to the sun, the insects would be out and about. I was delighted to photograph five species of Apid bees on flowers of the eight – four of them solitary and one, the Asian Honeybee Apis cerana, a social and the commonest of all. These bees visited any and all flowers, native and invasive alike, making the best of the small window of sunshine that lasted from morning till afternoon after which it cooled down and rained. That would have us scamper for cover, too. Rain and the slippery infrequently-trodden forest footpaths are no place to be stuck in, least amidst clouds that can strike a tree. We were always greeted with chai whenever we paused. If there was a way to remember the Shivalik, the combination of mountains, clouds, bees, and tea, would be perfect. In spite of the cool air of the mountains, it was largely very humid, and the steep climbs would send us sweltering and panting, with sweat in my eyes making me nearly impatient to wait for insects to settle down so that I could ‘capture’ them.

Naturally, I did not stop at bees, there were many flower-visitors – the second-most frequent were hornets, the commonest three species found in the foothills – Asian Giant Hornet Vespa mandarina, Greater Banded Hornet V. tropica, and Black-bellied Hornet V. basalis. These, curiously, visited most native species, seemingly avoiding almost all the invasive flowering ones. I found this rather curious, what made them, among the most gregarious of foraging wasps, prefer local species less in numbers than the most abundantly flowering invasive ones? It’s a question I don’t have an answer to, and I thought of it only in hindsight after I returned and filed my report. Obviously, why bees are more opportunistic and hornets less-so is a question that can be answered with more observations, for what I discuss here could very well be an artifact of my own biased observation; but if this were to be the case, it is because of their feeding habits: it is because hornets themselves feed on nectar and pollen and feed their larvae with other insects such as bees, wasps, and dragonflies, whereas bees themselves feed on nectar and pollen as well as feed the same to their larvae in the form of honey. Thus, the bees have to be more industrious and opportunistic, since they have to procure twice as much nectar and pollen than hornets. Or, it could simply be because invasive plants cannot bear the weight of these giant wasps, making them stick to the more-robust native plants such as shrubs and vines.

The credible deception of Paranthrene chrysochloris (top), mimicking the black-and-yellow potter wasp Phimenes flavopictus (bottom; wasp photo not from Uttarakhand).

The came butterflies and moths – most of them, again, on native flowers. One of the startling discoveries for me was Paranthrene. While we were observing the Gouania leptostachya vine in blossom visited by many insects, I espied what I considered a black-and-yellow potter wasp resting on a leaf, which turned out to be a pretty convincing mimic of one – a flower-visiting moth. While I barely managed to photograph it perched high in the canopy, I considered it a nice feather in my hat. Flies, too, were mostly observed on native flowers.

Sorrel Sapphire and a forester moth, Artona hainana, visiting flowers of the native herb Cynoglossum.

This begs the question, if most species indeed prefer native flora, maybe bees do so too, but, for the bees, to cater to the demand – their own numbers and their larvae – they are compelled to visit invasive flowers – a rather abundant resource in their degraded habitats. Who knows what’s happening to pollinators? Someone needs to, for in a world facing manmade global warming, invasive species are expected to spread far and wide, especially altitudinally, threatening the fragile alpine ecosystems. The focus, today, has mostly been on their impact on native flora, not invertebrates, especially pollinators.

Two very restless Asian Giant Hornets lapping up the sap secreted by banana inflorescence.

I sneak-peeked at cultivated plants too as we passed from one village to another, it was mostly chillies, tomatoes, garlic and ginger, squash and plantain. I expected blue-banded and some Megachile bees here, but found none except for a few Giant Asian Hornets drinking sap from banana inflorescence. My eyes were fixated on a large vine of squash spread over several yards on a steep slope down a beautiful house with wooden frames for doors and windows – houses such as these were nearly a century old, I was told. This large-leaved, golden-flowered vine was empty in the morning, possibly because it grew in a well-wooded hillside. A road passed down the slope it grew, opposite it was a small canteen where we often broke fast or lunched.

Having a queasy stomach that reacts to gluten, I was delighted that the traditional ‘snack’ here consisted of black chickpea prepared in a watery curry – a few cut onions and a squeeze of lemon is all that is required, if you like some toppings – instead of parathas. Eating it with sweat milk-bread locally called bun – curiously, my stomach is fine with fermented gluten – reminds me of missal-pav, a local snack of Maharashtra made from sprouts. Topping it off with chai was how we started or ended our survey.

One such late afternoon, with the squash flowers from across the canteen now wilted, I found a gold-and-black object on the surface of its leaf. It turned out to be a Blood-tipped Bumblebee, dead – the ‘blood’ in its name indicating the orange-red furry-end of its abdomen. It was soft and squishy and dabbled with squash pollen, and appeared to have died recently. Perhaps it was caught by a spider but dropped after being poisoned. Perhaps it was a victim of pesticide spray. The only bumblebee I saw was a dead one, unfortunately. I cupped it in my hands, felt its soft fur, and placed it again on the leaf for its distant cousins, the ants, to lead a procession to her grave.

A very dead Blood-tipped Bumblebee dabbled in squash pollen.

If the valleys are occupied by elephants, can ants be far behind? In reality, there is no connection between the two, but I like to think that there is: wherever there are elephants to be found, ant diversity is higher than where elephants are not found. It might be the case of correlation than causation, but have you looked at elephant dung as a resource? Ants love it as much as dung flies and dung beetles. I was fully aware of elephants frequenting the lower valleys, having seen long trails of tentacle-wire fences along roads separating elephant forests from human habitations, but it was ants that held my attention. Having visited the Himalayan ecosystem many times, it was only on this trip that I had the patience and focus on insects, including ants.

Clockwise from top-left: The very cool Camponotus mutilarius, the giant Pseudoneoponera bispinosa, the lantana-visiting Myrmicaria brunnea, and the mealybug-attending Polyrhachis lacteipennis.

There were six of these that I could document, each doing their own thing: Camponotus mutilarius, the most common among the mountain ants, was always found exploring leaf surfaces in well-wooded areas. Pseudoneoponera bispinosa was found doing the same on the forest floor. Polyrhachis lacteipennis were always busy tending to mealybugs under leaf surfaces, Myrmicaria brunnea sipping from ber and lantana flowers. And the Himalayan seed-harvesters, Trichomyrmex cf. glaber carrying grass seeds down a stony-path to its nest, and Messor himalayanus doing the same up a muddy path on a hill infested by invasive plants. Most of them were new to me, and identified courtesy of experts on iNaturalist, where all the images are available.

Also cool seed-harvesters, Trichomyrmex glaber carrying grass seed (top) and Messor himalayanus carrying what looks like a lantana seed.

The Messors caught my attention, making me return to my hypothesis of resource preferences vis-à-vis resource availability. This Himalayan harvester ant was carrying something curiously long in its mandibles. As I followed the trail that went a few yards up the path festooned with lantana and Bidens pilosa, I found almost every member carrying the same thing in its mandibles.

Scratching my head, I thought back to my previous days when, after having walked a few miles, we would sit down and get rid of the sticky seeds of Bidens pilosa getting stuck to our pants. It has two distinct, finely-haired, backward-pointing spines which face outwards from a stalk. Anyone walking past it if they rub against this cluster, the seeds are lodged onto that passer-by – whether man or animal, thus dispersing far-and-wide. I took many with me to my room, collecting them in a corner. A week after I returned to the coastal city a thousand miles away, I found a small seed of Bidens pilosa while folding clothes after a round of washing. As for lantana, it is generally consumed and pooped-out, growing from the pellets of birds and mammals alike. Down in the thicket smelling strongly of the pungent lantana all around, these ants were harvesting these seeds and carrying them back to their nest.

M. himalayanus carrying Bidens pilosa seeds - the only resource other than lantana for acres at a stretch - back to their nest.

Ants are well-known dispersers of seeds of grasses, herbs, and vines. Many plants have also evolved a small fleshy part called elaiosome, a nutritious structure that allures an ant which carries it farther afield – these elaiosomes are eaten up and the seed left to germinate. The strategy of Bidens pilosa is to stick to passer-bys who carry the seeds far afield, but here is an ant that’s doing it for the plant: while some will drop it in places where a new invasive sapling will grow, some will be carried into the nest where it will be peeled and its nutritious kernel consumed. Similarly, lantana berries are small and scarcely nutritious, but some of these ants were harvesting these, too. The only resource which seems to be available to this colony surrounded by acres of invasive species. Quite like the Asian Honeybee, they had to utilise it.

The Shivalik hills dominated by Lantana camara, an invasive species, with a rain-fed stream gurgling down from the upper reaches. The M. himalayanus ant was found on the hill to the right.

Considering this resource competition, it would seem invasive species are faring better than the native ones, at least in some regions, making management of these highly gregarious species imperative but difficult. Imagine if a whole swathe of the hillside is freed of these invasives, the ants would starve, the bees would visit farther afield to gather pollen. Restoration, therefore, should respect the integration of invasives in the ecosystem, and work gradually around the resourceful invasives by identifying pockets for restoration instead of mass-removal. When a girl was attacked on a lantana-infested footpath, a few yards on both the sides of the path were cleared for better vision. Opening up of such spaces is vital not only for safety of people but for regeneration of native floral species – an end-goal that should be prioritized in all hilly landscapes where challenges of removing invasive species are especially manifold due to the terrain.

How does this tie-in with the community folks who very kindly served me limitless amounts of tea? Among the many flower-visitors and seed-harvesters is one that is culturally linked with the mountain-dwellers of Shivalik. Almost every outer stonewall of the house has an inward-facing window that appear as a small cabinet. It is completely sealed from the outside, save for a small, finger-sized hole left open and a small stone-roof built on top of it. This cabinet is roughly a foot by foot in size, and is shut off with wooden planks from the inside. Every year, a small band of bees scouts such cabinets, and starts nesting in them. These are the Asian Honeybee, known to nest in tree-cavities, stone-cavities, and wood-cavities, where they build several small conical combs.

The nest entrances for Asian Honeybee, Apis cerana, from the outer wall of stone-walled and concrete-plastered walls. The 'nest' is built inside a small cabinet that is covered with planks. This traditional bee-keeping has been in practice in the mountains for generations.

Twice a year, once post-spring and once pre-winter, the planks are opened and honey extracted. This is purified and sold off in local markets. This traditional bee-keeping practice is an ancient one, passed-down from generation to generation even as houses today are plastered with concrete. Here is a place among the mountains where people and honeybees have been living as neighbours for centuries! What a world the Himalaya encompass, I thought back to myself (again).

The friendly neighbourhood Asian Honeybee, collecting pollen and nectar from Bidens pilosa.

What these bees, among other pollinators, consume, makes for an interesting study. Most of these in this near-ending season of monsoon, it turns out, consume a mix of invasive and native pollen, but to understand how the composition of honey changes throughout the year will require multi-season observations and sampling of honey, and herein lies the answer to the question on how to restore these damaged ecosystems: what do we plant in the understory? Answering what the pollinators consume should be able to answer a large proportion of what to plant among non-woody species. Field-based observations, corroborated by mellisopalynological analysis (= study of pollen grains from honey samples), should be able to better represent the floral composition of native and invasive species of the region, a start to a long-term goal of restoring the Himalayan ecosystem.

How long it takes will only be decided by how much we invest, but a start such as this is encouraging, the credit goes to the community folks and my colleagues working round-the-clock on this activity. Threats, just like those for native flora, also exist for native bees. Apiculture is fast picking pace in the terai plains. Households we briefly interacted with showed interest in apiculture with Apis mellifera, the Western Honeybee. Unlike the Asian Honeybee that produces little quants of honey, the Western is a gregarious and industrious pollen-collector, being able to produce many more kilograms from a single colony. As in any business, quantity matters, that is well-known in the region. The Western bee is in many places ‘invasive’, outcompeting native bees for nutritional resources. A large-scale apiculture farm might just drive the Asian out of its neighbour’s homes, leading not only to a fall in the abundance of the friendly neighbourhood bees, but also threaten the age-old bee-keeping practice.

Bees being busy in one of their houses, with a roof providing shade from the direct sunlight one hot monsoon day.

Some locals realise the importance of conserving this culture. Some even construct mesh around the opening of the nest to prevent the bee-marauding hornets from entering and destroying the bee colonies. Surely, this practice is not merely for the money, it has deep and strong emotional attachment to it. From kids to elders, I found all of them happy to have bee neighbours. Whenever a local would accompany me on my search of flower-visiting insects, they would enthusiastically point me to every insect I missed on the way. One fodder-collector boy led me to see my first, I am quite embarrassed to say, Spotted Locust Aularches miliaris, a dazzlingly beautiful but extremely common grasshopper of the Indian countryside, among many other critters.

The Asian Honeybee shares a strong bond with the local communities of the Shivalik, may it be that it remains so. There is a need to make communities realise that the quick-rewards of the apicultured honey are not only ecologically damaging but also poor in quality, while at the same time the quality of the honey obtained from the Asian Honeybee is fully realised for its economic value – not only is it traditional, it is sustainable and an excellent example of co-existence and of sharing ecosystem services. Since this is a traditional practice, I also suggested applying to the UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage, where “traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts” are recognized.

The Bohrakot Trek: Mohan, my colleague, showing me where we trekked from as clouds roll in - indicated by black arrow pointing to the tiny speck that was a car stuck in the morning landslide.

As a naturalist, I went looking for bees in the wild and found far more than I expected. Looking out at the clouds rolling into the valley across the steep slopes of the distant hills, holding a glass of chai, I said to the bees:

I see trees of green, red roses, too,

I see them bloom, for me and you

And I think to myself

What a wonderful world.