For three years, Jaya Narah canvassed the mercifully untouched, but criminally under-researched eastern Himalayas with little more than a sweep net, airtight containers and Boroplus. The ointment offered some respite from bumblebee stings—which she insists weren’t that bad anyway. One, the pain subsides in a day or two. Two, bumblebees aren’t as aggressive as their honeybee cousins. Three, Narah had greater obstacles to contend with: unforgiving weather, landslides, transport bottlenecks.
Hers was a 614km quest to study bumblebee behaviour in India’s easternmost state, Arunachal Pradesh—from the evergreen forests of Pasighat to the frigid Sela Pass. What started as a project on how pollinators adapt to different altitudes has also become an inflection point. The 26-year-old, you see, discovered 13 bumblebee species for the first time in the state. Arunachal Pradesh was believed to have only eight; Narah’s project bumped this count to 21 between 2015 and 2018. And this, she believes, could be just the tip of a biodiverse iceberg.
A research scholar at Rajiv Gandhi University in Itanagar, the state capital, Narah hails from tiny Jonai, a village on the Assam-Arunachal border. She’s one of 46 researchers—22 supervisors and 24 fellows and scholars—participating in Study of Chemical Ecology, Northeast India Collaboration, or SCENIC. The five-year, Rs 27 crore ($3.8 million) project funded by the central government’s Department of Biotechnology is India’s first collaborative exercise in chemical ecology.
The objective is to advance research and capacity building in northeast India, a region that houses 70% of the country’s biodiversity hotspots, but remains scientifically uncharted. The ecosystems there, from endemic medicinal plants to unexplored mammal behaviour, have immense potential for biotechnology, agricultural science and wildlife conservation.
There’s ongoing research on crop-raiding elephants. On endangered bees and rice varieties found nowhere else in India. On how warming affects pollination patterns in the Himalayas. On fungi that could make crops heat and salt-tolerant. On entomophagy, or the practice of eating insects.
(Don’t let the last one feed your prejudice. One of SCENIC’s 24 projects has revealed that silkworms, an important nutritive food for tribal people in Arunachal Pradesh, are more protein-rich than their plant and animal counterparts. Namely, soyabean, meat and eggs.)
SCENIC is a partnership between three premier institutions in Bengaluru (National Centre for Biological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, University of Agricultural Sciences) and seven in northeast India. And at its heart lies the interdisciplinary science of chemical ecology.
Chemical ecology is the specific concept of how organisms use chemicals to interact. This middle ground between chemistry and biology acknowledges that what binds all life forms, from bacteria to whales, is communication. Not visual. Not verbal. Not aural. But something more fundamental: chemical communication.
And as some preliminary findings from northeast India show, the chemical underpinnings of the natural world are a rousing testament to the importance of preserving local ecosystems.