Jorge Tello: Scientific secrets from the Colombian bee hive


Evolution has been benevolent to bees, but humans seem determined to destroy them. Professor Jorge Tello of Universidad Nacional believes bees are vital revenue generators for Colombian farmers, as bee-pollinated food adds volume, and is healthier.

Jorge Tello, Professor of Zoology and Veterinary Sciences at Universidad Nacional, is referred to in the academic community as “Dr.Bee,” not only because of his genetic research of a species vital to global food security, but also, his pioneering methods to have bees detect landmines in remote regions of the country. As nature’s unchallenged pollinators and insect that outlived dinosaurs, for Tello, understanding – and caring – for our bees requires political will to ban neonicotinoid pesticides and greater conservation initiatives from citizens.

The City Paper met up with “Dr.Bee” in a setting close to the University, accompanied by the buzz of an urban hive and warehouse filled with bags of bee-pollinated coffee. With thousands of bee species threatened by climate change, toxic chemicals and radio-magnetic signals, Tello’s message – and warning – to Colombians is also a call to urgency, and one, increasingly timely, as this furry species, also plays a vital role on the frontline of disease control.

The City Paper (TCP): How did you get involved with bees. Was it a question
of growing up in a rural setting such as Espinal, Tolima?

Jorge Tello (JT): I’ve been involved with bees for 40 years after I first joined Universidad Nacional, and I can assure you: “It wasn’t love at first sight.” Love at first sight always ends, but bees are a contagious study and will probably take me at the end. I’ve been a professor for 35 years, and bees were the subject of my Master’s and Doctorate in Genetics at the faculty of Medicine, University of Sao Paulo (Brazil). In the department of Tolima, where I was born, bees can’t survive given the aerial spraying of extensive rice and cotton plantations. On one plantation, there can be 20 cycles of aerial fumigation to produce a harvest using pesticides that cover all the “ides.” Tolima is an unnatural niche for bees.

TCP: How does Colombia’s bee diversity rank regionally?

JT: Colombia is seven-times smaller than Brazil which has 300 native bee species. Colombia has more than 1,000 documented. Every day, talking with experts in the field, we find more species, and this isn’t unique to the field of research. What is strange are the rates at which we are losing species we haven’t even discovered. That is disheartening. We will never know they existed given deforestation of natural habitats.

TCP: When we talk about slash-and-burn deforestation, bees don’t generally enter in the larger picture of natural devastation. What’s the relationship?

JT: Bees and trees are highly dependent on each other. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship that guarantees the survival of forests at large. When a tree is cut down, the lifeline of the bee is severed and extinguished forever. In scientific terms, this “mutualism” involves the plants on which larger species, such as monkeys and birds depend, also for their survival. Our bees are our great ally in protecting the survival of rainforests, especially the Amazon, and food source upon which so many communities depends. Bee cultivation is also a more lucrative economic alternative to communities in the Amazon than agriculturally intensive farming, mining and cattle ranching. The cost of beekeeping is minimal for communities, but returns on productivity, from making honey and pollen, are far greater than those generated by ranching or prospecting.

TCP: The Colombian Government is under pressure to resume aerial fumigation of coca crops with glyphosate (Round Up). This appears to be a direct contradiction to promoting the fact that as a country we are the second-most biodiverse on the planet. Is there any logic behind aerial fumigation?

JT: Aerial fumigation is bad business for farmers. The costs of renting a cropduster compounded with expensive chemicals hit the wallet. Then, there are variables, such as constantly changing climatic conditions that disperse these micro-particles in directions that impact other farmers kilometers away from an intended target. I have witnessed bee mortality 10 kilometers from where there was aerial spraying. Many of these chemicals may not produce immediate mortality of species within the radius, but the long-term effects are more often than not, deadly. We witness this across Brazil with transgenic crop harvesting. Transgenic crops become resistant to glyphosate as it kills everything except the soya, corn, and yuca. If we look at the millions of tonnes that are sprayed in Brazil to cultivate 35 million hectares of transgenic soya, we end up consuming more glyphosate and dangerous toxins.

TCP: How does aerial spraying impact bee populations?

JT: Insects that consume plants sprayed with glyphosate and other chemicals die as a result of intestinal blockage. To put it bluntly: In parts of the world with enough endemic foods to guarantee the survival of species, we are seeing bees die of hunger. If this happens to the intestinal tract of a small insect, what happens to humans? The long-term effects of spraying are directly associated with tumors. There is a lot of highly-qualified research in this area. Cause and effect are never immediate.

TCP: Colombia is witnessing land clearance within its National Parks to make way for cattle ranching and illegal activities. How does this impact food security?

JT: Traditional methods such as slash-and-burn lead to “geographic isolation” with forests reduced to the equivalent of islands. Animals don’t tend to move from one forest to next and as a result, gene pools become localized with in-breeding. The loss of environmental corridors erodes at the genetic health of species, and long-term exposes them to more disease. This is where bees play an important role. As bees move pollen great distances and generate genetic variability in forests, they improve the health of other endemic species. The government must have policies in place that benefit our genetic corridors. The bee is the ultimate preserver of forests.

TCP: When you refer to distances, how does one record these?

JT: There are ways of studying distances bees travel as they return to a hive. In Atacama, Chile, bees have been recorded crossing 8 km of desert. In Colombian forests, the Apis – known also as the Western honey bee – can travel up to 2 km. Many native species tend to travel shorter distances: 500 meters. What we are seeing are bees becoming disoriented with their navigation systems given pollutants and confusing electromagnetic signals. The bee leaves the hive and forgets how to return. These massive bee die-offs are becoming increasingly common.

TCP: Are pesticides the leading cause of bee mortality?

JT: One of many. Brazil is the world’s biggest consumer of pesticides classed as seriously hazardous to health and the environment, yet they continue to promote this as part of “agro- friendly business practices.” Colombia cannot follow down this road. The collapse in bee populations indicates there is something wrong in the environment, and sadly, becoming more common.

TCP: Does moving bees great distances by truck serve a purpose if they remain exposed to similar threats?

JT: The answer is one of cost versus effectivity. If bees have to pollinate in orange groves in Florida, then be trucked to Massachusetts for almonds and on to California for avocados, and back again, crossing 8,000 km in one season can cause tremendous stress on bees. The issue also questions the effectiveness in pollinating mono-cultivations, where the bee’s ability to cross-pollinate is limited. Bees need to forage on genetic diversity, so by moving them great distances to feed, we are actually contributing to their ill-health.

TCP: With environmental hazards and climate change all stacked against bees, what is the chance of their survival?

JT: Bees out-lived dinosaurs and have survived for 130 million years. Humans are recent newcomers to the planet, around for 200,000 years, and yet we have been destroying bees in the last 200 years. The change must begin in schools of agronomy where students understand the importance of eco-agriculture. In Colombia, most of our farmers are self-taught and lack formal education. Water and soil management is empirical, and what we witness in many rural communities is an improvised approach in the use of hazardous chemicals. Agricultural illiteracy is a major problem, as many farmers believe that applying toxic pesticides improves productivity.

I have seen how chemicals are mixed in the same bucket that later is used for lemonade. We cannot poison what we eat. At the National University’s experimental farm Marengo, we have witnessed how seven years after soil was exposed to Fipronil, bees continued to die because the seeds coated with pesticides were never exposed to light and continued to contaminate the soil.

TCP: Is the solution a ban on all toxic chemicals?

JT: We cannot demonize insecticides. What we need is tougher regulation when it comes to what is being sold, and by whom. Agro-chemicals in the hands of farmers who do not know how to prepare them can be deadly. The agricultural community should all be in this together, working with the Ministry of Agriculture, for more stringent product licensing and controls. We have very powerful evidence to end improvisation. It’s like owning a machete: an essential tool, but in the wrong hands, it can kill a person.

TCP: Is biodiversity at odds with the advance of agro-industry?

JT: The problem of Colombia being a biodiverse country is that it goes hand-in-hand with having a mentality of underdevelopment. Saying “we are biodiverse!” becomes synonymous with saying “we are underdeveloped!” Colombia is especially biodiverse when it comes to its bees, and this should be used to encourage more investment in apiaries from rural settings to cities.

Environmental protection does not equate to animal size, and Colombia has the potential to export its bees to nations at risk with food security. We have the potential to raise more than a million bees and move them across different thermal ranges and topography.

The challenge is to turn traditional farmers into api-cultivators because for many “bees are another problem to deal with.” However, when they see how their per-hectare yields improve, bees are good for business.

TCP: Is this where your bee-pollinated coffee comes in?

JT: Yes. Coffee beans can grow up to 12% in size with bee pollination. More robust beans translate into more volume and more income for small-time farmers. Bees give the final bouquet to coffee. Many coffee growers aren’t receptive to bees given the size of their plantations. By owning bees, farmers have to walk additional distances, often up and down steep slopes. At the end of the day, for many, it’s an additional task that requires further stamina. But hopefully, when they see the importance of bee-dependent crops, traditional farming will begin a transformation.

TCP: Now we know who “Dr.Bee” is as a person, now explain what is “Dr.Bee”?

JT: Dr.Bee is a research laboratory of innovation and on-the-ground practices to help apiarists and students. As Bees identify food sources through frequencies – known as the ‘Dance of the Bees’ we need to bring back nature in the way we produce food. Mr.Bee is not about a person, but how we share knowledge.


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