The bee, the link between the animal, vegetable and human kingdoms : interview with Didier Van Cauwelaert

From the bees, "we have learned social life, indoor architecture, agriculture, exchanging news, the flexibility of work, democracy, solidarity." Fascinated by their intelligence and their society, the writer Didier Van Cauwelaert has written the fine texts of the magnificently illustrated book Les abeilles et la vie (Bees and Life), winner of the 2014 Environment Book Prize awarded each year by Veolia. The author shares with us his passion for bees, which appeared on Earth long before man, 140 million years ago.

How did you develop this fascination with bees, what is their place in your writing career?

My close friend Professor Rémy Chauvin, the great bee specialist, taught me a great deal: their language, their ways of communicating, the formation of their society... we look at bees differently after discovering what they're capable of.

As a novelist, I discover in the reality of life, in the evolution of animals, stories that defy the imagination. A bee remembers an itinerary, marks the sun's position for guidance, transmits the news of an area for foraging to its sisters... Hence it draws on its sense of observation, its memory, its body clock, group solidarity... It's an extraordinary story to relate, something we only discovered quite recently: when the ethologist Karl von Frisch published his first work on bees in the 1930s, no one believed him. The proof of the reality of their language came from the robot built in 1992, a story that's related in the book. This copper bee reproduced the dance of the explorer bees who informed their fellows of the direction and distance to a foraging area. And the bees followed the robot, which spoke their language. The more man learns about bees, the more extraordinary he finds them, yet at the same time, he is the cause of their disappearance...

Your book teaches us to know them, understand them, love them, in short, respect them. How can we show people that bees are indispensable?

Bee protection is an easy message to pass on, especially with the young. And when we focus on bees, we realize the dangers that they run, our responsibility in their disappearance, and in finding the means to counter it. In the last 50 years, they have suffered more aggression than in the previous 50 million. The effects of their total disappearance, due to pesticides, in some parts of China, are staggering: men climb trees to pollenize the flowers with cotton swabs. The yield is pathetic compared to that of the bees.

The combination of seven factors is what causes the colonies to collapse: pesticides, intensive farming, GMOs, electromagnetic waves, the Asian hornet, imported parasites (Varroa or Java lice), climate change. The bees could adapt if just two or three of these causes were eliminated. They adjust slowly but surely. Here's a glimmer of hope: bees now fare better in the city than in the countryside. In an urban environment, they don't suffer from pesticides which attack their nervous system, nor from monoculture which impoverishes the biodiversity of the flowers, nor from mutant genes of GMO rapeseed which colonize their intestines. The hives installed on the roofs of the town hall of Saint-Denis, in the Paris suburbs, produce top grade honey. Saint-Denis is home to Europe's largest beehive, and the bees there are five times more productive than in the countryside, because they benefit from the biodiversity of the surrounding gardens.

What has the book gained from the prize awarded by the Veolia Foundation?

The book has sold very well, the prize energized its distribution in the town hall libraries, it helped increase its dissemination and the awareness of the subject. It also owes its success to the marvelous photographs by Jean-Claude Teyssier, which encouraged me to collaborate in the project.

We now have sufficient evidence of the harmfulness of agricultural production systems, but it's an endless struggle against the industrial lobbies. We have to keep up our guard. We also have to trust in the bees' capacity for innovation, if they aren't unduly disturbed.

Didier Van Cauwelaert

Novelist, playwright and scenarist