Thousands of living bees imprisoned in their hives under volcanic ash for 50 days were rescued by authorities on La Palma in the Canary Islands after volcano Cumbre Vieja erupted in late September.
Cumbre Vieja, or “Old Peak” in Spanish, is located on the Canary Island of La Palma. On September 19, 2021, a huge explosion sent billowing smoke into the air. Red hot lava gushed out of two gaping vents and flowed down the steep slope toward the sea.
The Canaries are mostly barren volcanic islands formed millions of years ago, but La Palma’s flat land is able to support banana production, the primary source of income for the islanders. A total of 20 separate dwellings were destroyed in this incident. Volcanic ash blackened the mature banana’s skins and blanketed several of the island’s beehives, burying them completely.
According to authorities, a bee rescue operation was launched on Nov. 6, with officers from El Paso’s Local Police, and the Military Emergency Unit, who descended into a sea of ash in an attempt to save the hives. Five of the six hives found were still in good condition. In an interview with EFE, Elas González, head of the Asociación de Defensa Sanitaria (ADS) Beekeepers of Las Palma, explained what was going on under the ash.
The bees had sealed themselves in by producing propolis, a sticky compound with which they filled any breaches in their defenses. They were able to subsist on their food reserves since the owner had not yet gathered the honey from the summer harvest.
How did the bees survive a volcanic burial?
Experts say bees’ brains appear to be neuroplastic, meaning they can learn and adapt, which enables them to swiftly master new skills. Additionally, bees can recall up to six-mile routes and they can also visualize and navigate a map, calculate the quickest route, and plan their trips accordingly. Bees communicate with a sophisticated system of dance and body language. They can also see in the dark.
Honeybees are autonomous, and use a decision-making process called ‘Honeybee Democracy.’ They are all alert and go on inspection tours looking for things to do to help their communities. According to a study, a bee can think abstractly, judge, and plan ahead. It can also count and comprehend time. A bee may be able to transmit culture. According to research, if a bee is taught to draw a thread for a reward, another bee may pick up on the skill by simply seeing the first bee do it.
In addition to being intelligent and adaptable, these bees were extremely fortunate. In low-lying volcanic areas, mists of Carbon dioxide gas can collect posing a deadly risk to humans and animals. The report Volcanic Impacts on Honey Bees and Guidelines for Beekeepers said that volcanic ash interferes with the waxy components of the honey bee exoskeleton, causing dehydration. The exoskeleton is like a suit of plate armor. If the plates get ash particles caught between them, it can lacerate their sensitive membranes and impede the workers’ ability to fly.
Post-ashfall fatalities are also possible as bees do not seem to avoid ash-contaminated food; they may eat foods that harm their digestive systems. Moreover, ash suffocation may kill blossoms, depriving bees of food supplies.
Elias González said that the bees’ closeness to the volcano was a benefit. It is believed that the bees may have survived because the heavier, coarser ash falling closer to the volcano allowed for air ventilation. The sixth hive was feared to have perished due to it already having been in poor condition before the eruption.
A hive of bees may hold between 30,000 and 40,000 bees during peak season, and between 20,000 and 25,000 bees when there are fewer flowers to pollinate.