The relationship of bees and farming practices has always had a complementary character with benefits for everyone involved. While bees get the necessary nectar and pollen to feed, and produce honey and other derivatives (for species that form large colonies), agriculture benefits from pollination, that increases its productivity and ensures better quality fruit and hence, higher market value.
The development of agriculture, with the consequent expansion of farmed areas and reduced areas of native forest, the growth of monocultures, among other modern farming techniques, and the incorrect use of pesticides eventually caused disruptions in this relationship, which is the basis of our food chain.
The warning sign was triggered with the decline of bee populations, especially in the Northern Hemisphere. The most visible face of this uncertain scenario is the CCD (acronym for Colony Collapse Disorder), a phenomenon that, because it has not yet been explained, eventually raised questions and hasty conclusions, especially when one considers that there is no official record of CCD in Brazil and there are substantial differences between the Brazilian scenario and the situation in the United States and Europe.
But after all, what are the possibilities of coexistence of modern agriculture with the practices of apiculture and meliponiculture?
Brazilian apiarian scenario
The predominance of Africanized bees in our apiculture is one of the major differences of the Brazilian scenario. Known for their high productivity and by their resistance against diseases and parasites, they also suffer with the introduction of new pathogens, including fungi, bacteria and viruses, as well as accidents with insecticides, mostly caused by negligence or malpractice.
Despite these adversities, the Africanized bees have an immense potential for pollination, which ends up by colliding with cultural issues. For lack of tradition and knowledge, their hives are little required for pollination. In general, only apple and melon farmers tend to rent hives. In the United States, for instance, the rental of hives is an important service that operates significant figures.
This pollination potential tentatively explored is confirmed by some studies that require greater disclosure to change the farmers’ mindset. Furthermore, the academic sector feels the need of more investment in research for the diagnosis and control of diseases that affect bees. For this, the establishment of regional laboratories with modern equipment and qualified personnel would also serve for the development of more productive strains of bees resistant and adapted to regional specificities.
The creation of a migratory type of apiculture, based on a blooming calendar and efficient transportation that minimizes losses and stress of bees, can be a key step in the expansion of the field productivity with the production of honey and derivatives.
Despite our scarce knowledge of stingless bees’ potential for pollination, they also play an important role in this area due to the large diversity of species in the Brazilian fauna. This diversity results in different floral preferences, which contribute decisively to the maintenance of biodiversity and can be a key factor in environmental offset projects that aim to recover native forests.
Stingless bees are also great to pollinate crops of economic importance at regional and national levels (e.g., coffee, tomatoes, eggplant, mango, coconut, strawberry, guava, cupuaçu, acai, and camu-camu). In addition, different types of honey they produce have increasing potential for the market as a premium product of great value, although still not adequately regulated by the Ministry of Agriculture.
Bees and pesticides
A series of incidents involving the high mortality rate of bees and application of pesticides explained the need for more conclusive studies on the issue, often treated dogmatically and devoid of scientific base.
There is on the one hand the undeniable contribution of these products to the productivity leap of Brazilian agribusiness, which has become the mainstay of almost a third of the country’s wealth. On the other hand, there are beekeepers concerned about successive accidents that have caused significant losses to the sector.
To understand the real effect of insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and acaricides on pollinating bees some steps are necessary, such as the standardization of methodologies, as there are many differences between studies conducted in academia, in government agencies and pesticide companies. The challenge is to establish studies that can actually simulate field conditions.
Besides the incentive towards scientific production, greater supervision is needed on the sales of agrochemicals to prevent the use of pirated or unauthorized products in Brazil. Ensuring adequate training for their correct use is another measure that needs to be strengthened.
Due to some accidents caused by application errors, agricultural aviation started being seen in a more critical manner, with the mobilization of activists who call for its ban. It turns out that, contrary to the arguments of its detractors, the use of agricultural aviation allows for the use of fewer chemicals when compared to other forms of application.
To achieve the necessary precision, the industry needs to seek new safety certifications, both for aircraft and for pilots. Now, farmers need to respect the proper limits of their crops, without exceeding the determined area, thus maintaining the necessary distance for the vegetation strips that should not have any application traces.
Another need for synergistic and productive coexistence of bees with agriculture is an effective communication between the parties. The analysis of some occurrences often shows that farmers are unaware of the presence of beekeeping practices in the vicinity of their properties. With proper knowledge, beekeepers can know ahead of time when there will be an application of pesticides and may manage the situation to prevent their bees to come into contact with the substances.