This article is a translation of the original interview
On May 20th, the United Nations celebrates World Bee Day, which aims to raise awareness about the importance of pollinators in the preservation of biodiversity and the world economy. It is estimated that 90% of wild flowering plants and 35% of crops in the world depend on pollination by insects and other animals to survive.
We wanted to share this day with the neurobiologist Javier Navas (Madrid, Spain, 1983) who, for several years, has been combining his scientific career in a hospital in Madrid with his passion for honeybees.
Navas, an expert in the structural and physiological bases that sustain high performance in mathematically gifted adolescents, felt so attracted to the social behavior of bees that he did not hesitate to leave his neuroscience research in the background in order to fully delve into the fascinating world of beekeeping.
Why is a neuroscientist interested in beekeeping and bees’ social behavior?
Good question. I think simply because I missed nature. I studied biology because I loved animals and the countryside, and while I was doing my PhD thesis in the lab, I felt that I was missing that part of interacting with nature that I liked so much.
One day, I discovered a course on the annual life cycle of bees. It was held one weekend a month. It didn’t interfere with my work in the lab, so I signed up.
I was very excited to learn how bees behave and how beekeepers anticipate their natural behavior to maximize their performance and honey production, because in the end beekeeping is still a type of farming.
I saw how fascinating the bee world was. Bees have very complex behavior, they are very advanced socially. Also, your office is the field itself, there is no better way to work than outdoors, with the sound of birds in the background. I fell in love. It was a crush, or, as beekeepers would say, “I got stung by the bee.” (laughs)
Weren’t you afraid of actually being stung?
At first yes, but then you realize that knowing how to handle them well means they don’t have a reason to sting you. Most of the bees that stay in the hive do not sting; they are there to clean and care of the brood. It is the ones that are going to forage that, if they feel threatened, can sting you. That’s why we use a smoker to calm them down, so they don’t sting. In any case, the venom glands in these bees are formed during the last five days of their life (they live about 20 days on average).
Tell us a little about the social behavior of bees. Is it true that they are mathematically gifted?
Bees are capable of generating mental maps to orient themselves on the ground and have a sophisticated dance language to transmit this information to the rest of the colony. It is not very well known how, but it is known that it seems to be related to the position of the sun and geomagnetism.
Bees have a very mathematical mind; they can calculate the position of the sun and the straight distance from the hive to a particular point and transmit that exact measurement to the rest of the colony.
Bees have a very mathematical mind; they can calculate the position of the sun and the straight distance from the hive to a particular point and transmit that exact measurement to the rest of the colony. What they communicate is that there is a good amount of nectar and a large expanse of flowers at that distance and in that direction. And they do all this in the dark, because light doesn’t reach inside the honeycombs, of course.
Bees are flower specific, they specialize in different varieties of flowers, and they also specialize in pollen or propolis. We could say that they function as specialized departments. Inside each hive there are bees that specialize in different things and they compete with each other. For example, one will come and inform the colony: “At 500 meters I have a lot of thyme nectar.” And another will say: “Well, I have rosemary and it’s only 200 meters away.” Both bees will begin to dance and the closer the flowers are to the hive, and the more nectar they have detected, the more abrupt the movement of the abdomen will be in their dance. The rest of the bees will go to them, evaluate the dance, and the one that has shown the most motivation will take the most bees with it. It is simply a matter of efficiency; the more flowers and nectar they find, the more motivated they will be in recruiting mates, and the more honey they will produce.
Sometimes sleepy bees can be seen on flowers at sunset and the next morning they are dead. Can bees be helped in any way?
If they become disoriented and do not reach the hive at night, they die. You can leave them in a box with cotton and a plate with a little honey until the next morning when they can return to the hive. However, it could also be that they went to die there.
Bees do not usually die in the hive, they are very clean. This is one of the reasons that make it more difficult to identify the factors that cause death in bees, because you cannot find them, they simply do not return to the hive. It’s hard to know what happens when they don’t die in the hive. If it is due to diseases or poisoning (by spraying crops with pesticides), there is a higher chance that you find them dead in the hive. Then it is easier to know the cause of their death.
Since you mention the death of bees. Is it known why so many have been dying in recent decades?
It has multifactorial causes, it is a bit of everything: pollution, the increase in infections, the loss of natural habitats free from human interference, intensive agriculture, etc.
The main function of beekeeping today is the pollination of crops. For example, it is estimated that strawberry and raspberry crops increase production by 300% thanks to this “army” of pollinators. What happens is that, by feeding only on one type of crop, the bees lack many nutrients and this affects the health of the hives. Imagine what would happen if you only ate potatoes over a long-term period.
Bees do not usually die in the hive, they are very clean. This is one of the reasons that make it more difficult to identify the factors that cause death in bees, because you cannot find them, they simply do not return to the hive. It’s hard to know what happens when they don’t die in the hive..
Western honeybees are also affected by the appearance of invasive species from Asia, such as the Asian hornet, which affects France and Spain, or the Varroa destructor, a parasitic mite that transmits viruses that weaken the health of bees and ends up causing the death of the colony. These mites have already spread to most bee productions globally and, unfortunately, have gained resistance to current treatments.
People often talk about the consequences that bee extinction would have for our current agricultural model. Is there a real risk to our food supply?
The truth is that the consequences are unknown. Einstein said that humanity depends on bees, but it is not so. Bees are a tiny part of all pollinators. The honeybee has been prioritized as livestock for its social capacity and honey production. But protecting the rest of the pollinators is just as important for the conservation of biodiversity.
The honeybee has been prioritized as livestock for its social capacity and honey production. But protecting the rest of the pollinators is just as important for the conservation of biodiversity.
For example, bees do not pollinate blueberries well; bumblebees do better because they are heavier, and the nectary is more exposed when the bumblebee lands on the flower. Therefore, we do not depend only on the honeybee, we must think about recovering the equilibrium of the rest of the pollinators. We should think about all the biodiversity that is being affected, not just bees.
On the Island of Tenerife, for example, when the flowering of the crops ends, the beekeepers take all the hives to Mount Teide. As a result, bees are displacing native pollinators through competition and their populations are declining.
If honeybees die, the populations of other pollinators will grow, but the mass production of vegetables and other key crops for our economy will disappear as we know it today.
Scientists have created packs of nutritional supplements to compensate for the nutritional deficits of the bees, antibiotics are also provided to the hives. Do you think this can alleviate colony collapse disorder?
According to what they say, by 2050 we are going to be pretty screwed, both in terms of temperature and pollution. The future is not something I can be optimistic about.
Before thinking about the conservation of bees, it would be necessary to go to the roots of the problem; pollution, mass consumption, overpopulation… bees are only one link in the chain.
We have to be aware of what we can do for the environment. Above all there are many economic interests that we cannot control, they do not depend on us. However, we can change the attitudes of those in our close circles. That is where we need to start; we must see what it is like working from the bottom up, we must plant a seed that will grow. The important thing is to change consumption and eating habits, and education and to be models for those who come after us.
What can we do to prevent the extinction of bees?
Give them a safe space and a better life. The option of urban beekeeping in cities seems to work very well. It has already been done in cities in Canada, France, and Germany.
Emission-free zones are created within the city and green areas are put up so that the bees have as natural a lifestyle as possible. Bees, in turn, stimulate the green areas and make the vegetation grow in a rapid way. This is how oxygen levels and air quality in the area are recovered. In addition, urban bees are also used as bioindicators of heavy metal contamination in bioremediation tasks.
In Paris people have already seen that there is a benefit for everyone. Even chefs use the honey made by the bees in the area in their restaurants (the product couldn’t be more local) and for them it is an added value in their gastronomic offerings.