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Vera Lucia Imperatriz Fonseca: The vast world of bees

For 20 years, the biologist has defended the role of pollinators in conserving native forests and expanding agricultural production

For 20 years, the biologist has defended the role of pollinators in conserving native forests and expanding agricultural production

Léo Ramos Chaves

A specialist in the behavior and ecology of bees, São Paulo biologist Vera Lucia Imperatriz Fonseca joined the fight in defense of pollinators in 1998. Though her focus is on bees, she also fights for wasps, beetles, flies, bats, and birds: animals that transfer pollen from one plant to another—or even to the same plant—and thus help with fruit development. Fonseca is one of the coauthors of the São Paulo Declaration on Pollinators, which established the International Pollinator Initiative (IPI) and was part of a document at the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

After retiring from the Institute of Biosciences at the University of São Paulo (IB-USP) in 2003, Fonseca became a visiting professor at the USP Ribeirão Preto campus for two years; she then worked for two years at the USP Institute of Advanced Studies and for four at the Federal Rural University of the Semiarid (UFERSA), in Mossoró, Rio Grande do Norte, forming research groups and encouraging the keeping of stingless indigenous bees. In 2014, she became one of the coordinators of the Assessment on Pollinators, Pollination, and Food Production of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), which produced a document approved in 2016 at the Conference of the Parties (COP-13), of the Convention on Biological Diversity, held in Mexico. In 2014, she also moved to Belém, in the state of Pará, where she became coordinator of the biodiversity team in the then recently implemented Vale Institute of Technology – Sustainable Development (ITV-DS).

Vera Fonseca built the bee collection at the IB-USP Department of Ecology, which currently comprises about 50,000 individuals, expanded knowledge about native species, and promoted the keeping of stingless bees, such as the jandaíra (Melipona subnitida), as a source of extra income for small landowners in northeastern Brazil. At 73, she has been working on strategies for the recovery and conservation of biodiversity in areas affected by mining. In this interview, given during one of her visits to the city of São Paulo, where her four children and four grandchildren live, the biologist talks about her career and her commitment to the defense of pollinators. “We have to keep talking about this,” she suggests. “It will be useful for everyone.”

You’ve been part of the process of developing policies to protect pollinators in Brazil since 1998. What do you make of the last 20 years?
Debates about the use of bees as pollinators began in the 2000s, at the Bee Meeting in Ribeirão Preto, and led to the Brazilian Pollinators Initiative, approved in 2000. FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations] organized the action plan approved in 2002, with an agenda that was to be implemented by 2015. There has been great progress, but some problems have become more pronounced, such as the effect of pesticides on bees and the impact of climate change. In 2010, at the request of CNPq [National Council for Scientific and Technological Development], we gathered 85 researchers from 36 Brazilian institutions and wrote the book Polinizadores no Brasil [Pollinators in Brazil].

Participating in the Biodiversity Platform allows you to see how researchers’ work can be useful and which topics should drive research

What are pollinator protection policies like in Brazil?
It’s not a priority for the government, but there have been some initiatives, such as the inclusion of the topic of pollinators and food production in the Science and Technology Week at CGEE [Center for Management and Strategic Studies], in 2016. In 2017, Braulio Dias, a professor at the University of Brasília and the executive secretary of the CBD, Breno Freitas, from the Federal University of Ceará, Carmen Pires, from Embrapa, and myself reported to the Federal Senate the results of IPBES and CBD on the importance of pollination for sustainable food production in Brazil. There is a bill under discussion in the Senate regarding conservation protection and the sustainable use of pollinators. In 2019, Brazil launched the Relatório temático sobre polinização, polinizadores e produção de alimentos [Thematic report on pollination, pollinators, and food production]—a very important document. Pollinators improve our quality of life by producing fruit that is higher quality and has greater commercial value and a longer shelf life. If we want to increase agricultural productivity, we need to acknowledge the value of pollinators. Pollination adds US$12 billion a year to agriculture in Brazil, according to IPBES—which is equivalent to 30% of the total annual production of pollinator-dependent crops. Coffee crops, for example, can yield from 10% to 40% more with the use of pollinators. The breeding of native bees has been growing and becoming more consolidated in the country.

What is the relationship between ITV and Vale?
ITV was created by Vale in order to develop and organize knowledge for the sustainable use of natural resources. We have the autonomy to define and conduct research, but we also meet company demands—which is important, because the documents we produce help guide decisions in several industries. The financial support from Vale allows us to have access to modern equipment and new technologies, such as those that are molecular-based. We work closely with the Emílio Goeldi Museum of Pará, the Federal University of Pará, Embrapa, and other research centers in the region, as well as other partners, prioritizing the publication of articles, books, and open data.

How is your work going in Belém?
We are conducting a large study on biodiversity in Carajás and the possibilities for reducing environmental effects. When we started, in 2014, Ana Maria Giulietti, whom I asked to lead the botany group, said that the Carajás mining area should have at least 500 plant species in the cangas [rupestrian field areas that contain iron ore]. The first list previously published had 232 species. We have now reached 1,094 species published in the Flora das Cangas de Carajás (Carajás Cangas Flora), with dozens of probable endemic species from the Serra dos Carajás. In the Flona [Carajás National Forest] canga areas, we found only eight endemic species. Teresa Giannini from ITV, supported by Antonio Saraiva, coordinator of the USP Biodiversity and Computing Research Center (BIOCOMP), has studied the climatic scenarios of geographic distribution in the eastern Amazon for 210 species of solitary and social bees, 501 bird species, and 80 bat species found in the Carajás region. Her goal was to find out which of them could find appropriate habitats in the climate of the future. Some climate scenarios predict a six-degree rise in temperature and a drastic reduction in rainfall in that region by the year 2050. If this is correct, only 7 bee species, 242 bird species, and 36 bat species should find favorable conditions in the Carajás Flona 30 years from now. To reduce the loss of species, it is important to define areas with adequate future climate conditions for the survival of these animals, restore other degraded areas, and design forest corridors to facilitate the displacement of the species.

Did ITV take part in the restoration of the areas environmentally impacted by the rupture of the Vale dams in Mariana and Brumadinho?
Not directly. The ITV in Belém mainly studies the Itacaiunas river basin area, in Carajás, and the research subsidizes the preservation of natural resources, based on the hierarchy for the mitigation of environmental impacts (avoid, minimize, rectify, and compensate). The institute has another branch located in Ouro Preto, which is dedicated to improving mining processes. We participate indirectly in the restoration of impacted areas in Minas Gerais. ITV also offers a professional master’s degree. Some of the students are Vale employees who work in the affected areas and are able to apply the knowledge they acquire in their studies.

When did you first get involved with environmental issues?
Paulo Nogueira-Neto [1922–2019] was my professor and advisor from my undergraduate studies through to my PhD. He taught me the importance of formalized, well-represented institutions, such as ADEMASP [Environmental Defense Association of São Paulo], an NGO he chaired that was a part of environmental councils and contributed to the preservation efforts of important areas. In 1974, he was appointed Special Secretary for the Environment by the federal government, but his monthly visits to the University of São Paulo (USP) were always inspiring. He encouraged the university to participate in programs such as that focused on the creation of ecological stations. I directed the first scientific program at Juréia Ecological Station, in 1983, which showed me the importance of integrated multidisciplinary research. Another very interesting experience was being part of the management board of WWF Brazil, where I worked with experienced and active conservationists, and which had an extremely well-structured management model.

Isabelec / Wikimedia Commons Serra de Carajás, an area of intense iron-ore mining, with exclusive plant and animal speciesIsabelec / Wikimedia Commons

What was your work like in Mossoró?
It was an important time in my life. I went to work there at the invitation of Lionel Gonçalves, who had created a development center for beekeeping and meliponiculture, which were traditional activities in the region. As I experienced the Caatinga (semiarid scrublands), I became very impressed with how arid the region was; the animals were all dying in the extreme drought, and I felt like I was reading a Graciliano Ramos novel. But when it rains, it’s wonderful: there are flowers everywhere. The team was formed and strengthened by the leadership of newly hired Michael Hrncir and the postdoctoral researchers from UFERSA and USP who accompanied us. In addition to scientific papers in English, we produced Portuguese plain-language texts, including the book A abelha jandaíra no passado, no presente e no futuro (The past, present, and future of the jandaíra bee), which emphasizes the role of meliponiculturists [keepers of stingless bees]. My work there ended in 2014. In April, Anne Larigauderie [executive secretary of IPBES] asked me, along with Simon Potts, from England, to coordinate the IPBES Assessment Report on Pollinators, Pollination, and Food Production. The final report addresses current knowledge, research gaps, and recommendations for improving public policy. It was after the 2016 IPBES Plenary meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, that I understood the importance and complexity of submitting the work to countries participating in these United Nations initiatives.

At that time, 119 countries were members of IPBES. The diplomatic and scientific entourages from each of them analyzed what was proposed in the document line by line. Participating in these discussions and meetings means understanding the roles of every country in shaping global public policy, seeing how researchers’ work can be useful, and what topics should drive research. From the standpoint of scientific research, this kind of conduct brings global problems to the local level and vice versa.

How do you assess your scientific work?
I never got to spend any time abroad, as I had four small children and times were different. Therefore, I welcomed visitors such as Francis Dov Por, Joan Strassmann, David Queller, Hayo Velthuis, Francis Ratnieks, James Nieh, Tom Wenseleers, and others, who brought new knowledge, techniques, and opportunities for more comprehensive research. After years of breeding uruçu bees (Melipona scutellaris) in Nogueira-Neto’s experiments at Aretuzina farm in São Simão, São Paulo, molecular analyses revealed inbreeding and the response of the colonies to fight the diploid males that were a result of queens mating with brothers. We learned that, in these cases, the colonies always replaced their queen, and orphan colonies accepted fertilized queens from other nests. They were socially parasitic queens—parasitism in this case referred to the lack of kinship between the orphan colony and the newly fertilized queen they welcomed; kinship is a premise for a true insect society. We also saw that virgin queens could indeed come out of their nests alive and be fertilized, and only then go looking for orphaned nests, which they probably recognized through scent. It was a new possibility for dispersal of stingless bees. Inbreeding is important because it addresses the viability of beekeeping in small populations.

When did you become interested in bees?
I was in my third year as an undergraduate biology student when Nogueira-Neto gave a wonderful lecture on the biology of a small, fragile, and docile bee called mirim-preguiça (Friesella schrottkyi), whose nests were small enough to fit into a pencil case. It has that name [preguiça, or lazy] because it does not fly at temperatures below 20 oC and only goes out to collect food after 10 a.m. “I want to study this animal,” I said. I asked to be his intern and the first stingless bee hives were set up in the Botany orchid nursery, where I began my studies on bee behavior. It was by observing the external activity of bees and comparing them to the abiotic conditions that I began to understand how insect societies work. It is important for people to see that bees are not dangerous. When they visit a flower, they are looking for food—but, in return, their pollination leads to better fruit. There are many species with different habits—all of them important in the production of food for humans and animals. Around 1,850 bee species have been identified in Brazil—about 260 of which are species of stingless bees—and there are many still to be described. In the state of São Paulo alone, there are over 700 species of bees, most of them solitary. They should be welcomed in gardens, but many people still spray their plants with insecticide.

What are you currently doing?
I am gathering the knowledge gained from research over the years to create a biofactory for native social bees in Carajás. There are over 70 species of Meliponini [stingless] bees in that area; a treasure trove of biodiversity. We plan to work on breeding to provide suitable bees for the local population. Keeping stingless bees for honey production and for pollination in family farming can be a source of income and improve people’s lives. The biofactory will initially use the local species we have selected for large-scale multiplication in the region, beginning with nests rescued from authorized plant suppression efforts.