About one-third of plant products including Robusta coffee, consumed by human beings are directly or indirectly dependent on bee pollination. The great value of bees as pollinators of coffee plants has been known for many years, but unfortunately, this knowledge is not widely applied in increasing production.
Yield issues are normally addressed by measures of soil fertility, agrochemicals, management of pests/diseases, and better field management practices. The scientific literature supporting the benefits of bee pollination for coffee is convincing. It may increase the yield of Robusta coffee up to 83% as per the data published by the Central Bee Research & Training Institute, Pune.
The majority of coffee species are diploid and self infertile and therefore have to be cross-pollinated by wind and insects for better yield whereas C.arabica is tetraploid, self-fertile and at times cleistogamous, so relies less on cross-pollination but it is observed that bee pollination, in general, enhances quantity and quality of yield. In many parts of the North Eastern Region, Robusta coffee variety is recommended due to climatic compulsions of low elevation and high temperature.
Managed pollinators, e.g. honeybees in the Coffee plantations in this region may be a change agent on increasing yield and produce honey as an additional income generating source for the upcoming tribal farmers. This is proved by one of the tribal coffee grower Sri W.D.Shira in Rongbilbangre village of West Garo Hills, Meghalaya through his practical experience without any scientific background knowledge as such.
History of Robusta coffee in India
Sri W. D.Shira, retired army personnel returned to his native village Rongbillbangre, which is about 16km from Tura town, with a vision of doing something which will be model for his poor villagers for development. He started plantation activity with Areca and Cashew nuts initially and later switched over to coffee plantation during 1997-98. Under the shade of Areca plantation, he planted both Arabica & Robusta varieties of coffee in 1.0 hectares of land.
The Coffee Board had also extended technical guidance and financial assistance to him. In due course of time, during 2003-04 he further extended this coffee area by adding another 1.5 hectares, planted with CXR variety, under the shade of various horticultural plants viz. Orange, Jackfruit, Pineapple, Citrus, Mango, Guava, etc. Presently he is holding 8.0 hectares of Robusta coffee area, of which 06.0hectare is in the bearing stage. Next to his plot 2.0-hectare area of coffee has been created by his wife which has a 1.0-hectare bearing area.
Last year, he attended a training program on beekeeping, arranged by one NGO, and acquired knowledge and started his apiary activity with ten bee boxes inside the coffee plantation. Mr Shira assembled the boxes by himself and Apisceranaindica, the bee species available locally was introduced. Observing the initial success, he is now planning to increase the number of bee boxes.
Wild bees or other pollinating insects were common in the coffee plantations raised by Mr Shira, due to the proximity to forest patches but there was a problem of uncertainty, resulting in delayed and less fruiting in earlier years and also leading to harvesting problems due to asynchronous ripening of berries thus affecting quality.
The present experience points out that the coffee plants in the beekeeping areas bloom together because of frequent visits of bees. The fruiting is more as bees are better pollinating agents. Unlike earlier years when unripe berries had to be discarded or used as inferior coffee, and required post-harvest sorting at extra labour cost, the planter is surprised to experience the harvesting of ripe berries at the same time.
The Robusta coffee planters in these areas never use any chemical fertilizer because of government restrictions as well as non-availability. As the soil of this plantation is in the earlier jhumarea, the fertility status is low, so the yield was comparatively less, but the present yield increased by about 50% which has surprised the grower. Inspired by the result, he intends to take up this effort of beekeeping inside coffee plantation vigorously so that the other coffee growers of the nearby areas can emulate him.
Thus beekeeping in coffee plantation improves yields in quantity and quality and may improve synchronicity and uniformity of fruit-set, reducing harvesting and sorting cost. This effort initiated by a small tribal farmer allows us to develop an integrated system of pollinator management by beekeeping to enhance coffee production in the NE Region through better, more synchronous pollination. This is also an effective step towards the production of organic Robusta coffee. This approach may indirectly influence in enhancing the production of other crops and honey.