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PUCRS researcher studies preservation of pollinating agents

Find out importance of bees and its impact on environment

02/06/2020 - 17h38
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Photo: Boba Jaglicic/Unplash

Albert Einstein, of the most famous physicists in the world and creator of the theory of general relativity, was one of the pillars of modern physics. According to him If the bees disappear from the face of the Earth, humanity will have only four more years of existence. Without bees there is no pollination, there is no reproduction of flora. Without flora, there are no animals. Without animals, there will be no human race ”. There is no real evidence that he actually said that, but we may start to wonder what is the real role of bees and the impact of their disappearance on the environment. Among the consequences are negative effects on the economy, agriculture and nature as it is known today.  

Half a billion dead bees in Brazil  

In the United States and Europe, reports of bee deaths and disappearances began to gain momentum strongly in the early 21st century. In Brazil, since 2005. However, in recent years, this problem has worried experts because of the alarming numbers. Between the end of 2018 and the beginning of 2019, half a billion bees died in some states. There were 400 million in Rio Grande do Sul, 7 million in São Paulo, 50 million in Santa Catarina and 45 million in Mato Grosso do Sul, according to estimates by Beekeeping Associations, Agriculture Offices and research carried out by universities, according to the survey released by Public Agency, an information agency 

“This moment we are living in is making us reflect on bigger issues of nature and biodiversity. How do men relate to the environment? When we start to have contact with the problems in nature, we begin to think about how species coexist”, Betina Blochtein says. She serves as a Professor of PUCRS’ School of Health and Life Sciences and researcher at PUCRS’ Graduate Program in Ecology and Biodiversity Evolution.  

Bees play a very important role in maintaining biodiversity. Pollinating agents make it possible for several flowering plants to generate fruit and seeds. “If we lower the number of species of bees, both the reproduction of plants and the landscape will change. Similar situations will lead to changes in the communities of organisms”, Blochtein says.  

Global and economic impact 

Bees are responsible for pollinating 80% of agricultural crops all over the globe. The production of wild fruits, apples, almonds and oranges, among many others, would become scarce. Consequently, their prices would go up if there were a drastic reduction in pollinating agents. Apple trees, for example, depend on bees to carry pollen from one flower to another, unlike other plants that spread their pollen with the wind, such as wheat.  

Generally, farmers invest heavily in soil correction, in seed quality, among other things, but do little about the need for pollination. This factor can increase productivity, based on appropriate actions to each culture. “The cost-benefit with bee pollination is positive, but different practices need to be in place. In this case, the conservation of biodiversity is clearly associated with productivity gains”, she emphasizes. Pollination geared towards agriculture, using hives, has also become more popular all across the world. An example in Rio Grande do Sul is the cultivation of canola, accounting for 70% of the grains produced in Brazil. This product is used in the production of cooking oil and, with canola flowers, the hives produce honey. These advantages are presented in the books Abelhas na Polinização da Canola – benefícios ambientais e econômicos and As abelhas e a agricultura, by EdiPUCRS 

Pesticide, the bad guy in the story  

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Photo: David Clode/Unplash

The use of pesticides is common in conventional agricultural practices in Brazil. Several studies have shown that these products are harmful not only to bees, but to humans as well. To reduce the exposure of bees to pesticides, Betina lists a number of actions to be taken:  

  • Avoid their use: in order to begin a change of paradigms, one of the things to be done is to assess the real need to use pesticides and avoid overusing them. Don’t use them just to keep a schedule. This also brings financial gains.  
  • Choosing less toxic products: There are pesticides with different degrees of toxicity to non-target organisms, such as bees. Alternatives that reduce the negative impact on pollinators should be adopted.  
  • Changing application patterns: most bees carry out outdoor activities during the day. Applying the products late in the afternoon or evening causes less exposure of insects to chemicals, for example.  
  • Forms of application: avoid pesticide drift. This is basically when you apply it in a given place, but gets dispersed by wind or rain, thus reaching areas outside crops and orchards.  
  • Do not mix products: another practice that should be avoided is mixing products in the spray tanks. This mixture can have unknown consequences because of chemical reactions and have a negative impact on biodiversity. Additionally, this can still be harmful as to the desired effects on the crop.  

According to the National Health Surveillance Agency (Anvisa), by consuming product bearing the farmer’s identification label, you contribute to their commitment to the quality of their products. As stated on its website “The purchase of organic food or from agro-ecological systems is also an option. It is recommended to purchase the ‘season’ (harvest) foods, which usually receive, on average, a lower load of pesticides ” 

A good startup   

It is possible to manage hives to increase the number of native bees in agricultural and urban areas. This idea brought about the startup Mais Abelhas, created by Betina Blochtein and biologist Charles Fernando dos Santos. The company produces stingless bee hives on a large scale. The production is easy to maintain and very low risk of stings. The company is headquartered at Tecnopuc, in Viamão.  

The challenge is the low production of queens to be able to multiply these colonies, a situation which is overcome with their production in the laboratory. The idea is not to produce honey, but to increase populations of native bees with colonies that do not pose risks. Whoever purchases a beehive receives an information package at the time of delivery.  

About the research  

Research on the production of queen bees, for example, is carried out at the Entomology Laboratory at PUCRS. The actions are embraced by Graduate Program in Ecology and Biodiversity Evolution.