K A Ponnanna, originally from Kodagu in Coorg, Karnataka, grew up in the midst of a peaceful coexistence with wild rabbits, lion tailed macaques, deer, bees, wasps and several other insects and animals.
He says these creatures were his pets. “The relationship between humans and wildlife was unique, as we raised and cared for wildlife and depended on them for our livelihood,” he recalls.
Talk with The best India, Ponnanna (70) says that as he grew older his work took him to places such as Nashik, Hyderabad, Deolali, Dharangadhara and Jammu, where he served as a technician in the field of communications equipment at the ‘School of Artillery, an Indian Army training facility.
Ponnanna retired in 1993 and was appointed a security officer at the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru. However, within days, his job profile took a whole new turn.
The security guard became a field assistant and bee curator until his retirement in 2012. Interestingly, despite the change in role, he continued his designation as a security guard and received a salary for the same profile. . He spent all of his time in the Department of the Center for Ecological Science (CES) assisting and mentoring students for their research.
Here is his story.
A few days after taking up his post as a security guard, Raghvendra Gadagkar, then an associate professor at IISc, struck up a conversation with Ponnanna. “He had helped save a few beehives on campus and I had heard of his enthusiasm and fearless demeanor. I noticed he was interested in honey bees. Our conversation helped me understand how he grew up caring for bees and wasps in his home village, ”says Raghavendra.
He adds that given Ponnanna’s experience, he asked her to volunteer for the research. “The job involves spotting honey bees and handling the hive safely, collecting samples and sometimes even bees. It is a delicate process. And Ponnanna has proven to be brilliant in every aspect, ”he says.
He adds that he was impressed with Ponnanna’s skills and passion for bees, and asked the security service to transfer Ponnana to the lab with the existing designation and salary.
“It is difficult to make such arrangements in a government institution. However, the administration was flexible and recognized Ponnanna’s value, ”says Raghvendra.
A friend, mentor and philosopher
Ponnanna says he was thrilled and really appreciated every change in his profile.
“I had never attended any classes or received formal training in bee handling. I had never worn clothes, gloves, or held any equipment to handle bees. Also, I didn’t know the departments and their locations, ”he says, adding modestly:“ In my village everyone looked after bees and wildlife, and it wasn’t unique to me.
Ponnanna slowly became familiar with things as he worked in the lab, helping students and researchers. “I can now tell the difference between types of bees, poisonous and non-poisonous insects, reptiles and other wildlife. I used the knowledge to help students with their research and accompany them on field trips to handle bees and wasps, ”he adds.
The students accompanied him in batches and took help collecting samples for their academic needs.
Sujata Deshpande, Assistant Professor in the Department of Zoology at St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, was one of the doctoral students who received help from Ponnanna.
“I was studying between 1999 and 2005, and he looked more like a father figure and a mentor. He was always on time and never hesitated to work late if needed. As students we had to roam a lot and look for bees. But Ponnanna knew the most likely places we would find these bees, which made our jobs easier. He handled bees as if they were his children – with the utmost care and protection, ”she says.
Sujata says hurting even one bee made her suffer. “The bee boxes on campus would be safe and protected under his supervision. The risks of infection and disease among the insects were also low because of the care he took, ”she adds.
The academician says the field assistant’s traditional knowledge of bees has helped students understand insects and added value to their research.
Sujata says that over the years, Ponnanna’s role has evolved even further as a restaurateur. “Bengaluru’s bees have suffered habitat loss in urban areas, and he has often received calls to rescue them. He was rushing to the spot before anyone could destroy the hives, ”she adds.
Echoing his thoughts, Raghvendra said, “He saved hundreds of beehives from destruction by burning or spraying pesticides and provided them with a safe place inside the IISc campus. Many people wanted to get rid of the beehives around their residences, but he carefully removed them and reinstalled them without harming the bees. “
He says Ponnanna has also become a friend, a philosopher, and a guide for students.
“Have compassion for animals”
Raghvendra retired in 2012 and joined the institution as Honorary Professor and Scientific Chair in the Department of Science and Technology (DST). Ponnanna retired around the same time and was reassigned as a consultant where he could continue to help students.
In addition to helping researchers, Ponnanna also saves snakes, other insects, and animals.
Sharing her take on bee conservation, Ponnanna says habitat and beehive destruction contributes to honey adulteration. “The use of pesticides on farms affects the bee population, and insects often suffer from infections due to poor care. All of these factors affect the population and the production of honey. To compensate, companies adulterate honey and sell it only because of its sweetness, but not for the medicinal properties of natural honey, ”he says.
He adds that there must be a change in which animals, insects and other elements of biodiversity in nature are dealt with.
Ponnanna says students should take a more hands-on approach and be prepared to get their hands dirty in the research. “In addition to performing laboratory experiments, students need to know how to handle what they are studying in the field. Only passion and sensitivity towards subjects can help achieve this, ”he adds.
Citing an example, he said, “It is not difficult to catch an elephant when humans have successfully landed on the moon. But you can’t hold the animal by the neck and suffocate it. We must show compassion to birds, insects, animals and other species. We need to understand their anger, behavior, and other characteristics to make sure they are not hurt. “
Edited by Divya Sethu