These stingless bees make medicinal honey. Some call it a “miracle liquid”.

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“We use honey to feed and heal ourselves,” says Heriberto Vela Córdova, a beekeeper in San Francisco, Peru, who is part of the Kukama-Kukamiria indigenous community. “For food, we use it with coffee, bread. For medicine, we use it for bronchitis, pneumonia, burns, skin cuts, colds, arthritis.

magicians of the forest

For thousands of years, indigenous peoples of the New World tropics have collected honey from dozens of species of stingless bees, also known as meliponine bees. These social insects form colonies with a queen and numerous workers. As their name suggests, these insects cannot sting and are therefore less dangerous to keep than, say, European bees, which are not native to the New World. Many meliponine bees, however, can inflict painful stings with their mandibles.

Because there are many species of stingless bees, found in all tropical and subtropical regions of the world, keeping these animals, also known as meliponiculture, can be complex. In addition to the Maya, who developed sophisticated methods of raising stingless bees in the Yucatán Peninsula – practices that survive to this day – many indigenous peoples traditionally harvested honey from wild hives.

In Brazil, meliponiculture is widespread, increasingly sophisticated and popular, but in Peru the practice is beginning to develop and spread, says Breno Freitas, a researcher at the Universidade Federal do Ceará in Brazil.

Currently, stingless bees are kept and raised by at least a hundred families in half the states of the Peruvian Amazon, many of whom Delgado helped educate. It teaches people how to keep stingless bees in rectangular boxes that allow easy access to the bees’ sugary secretions, unlike honey bees. are not kept in regular combs but rather in globular compartments called honeypots. Beekeeping allows keepers to divide nests and establish a stable source of income, rather than relying on honey (and bees) from the forest, which harms these vital pollinators, Roubik says.

Stingless bees are often more picky than honey bees when it comes to the plants they pollinate. In areas where they are native — where they should be bred, Freitas says — they are more adept at pollinating native plants, making them important for ecosystem health. They are also beneficial for agriculture. A 2020 study co-authored by Delgado shows that when kept next to cultivated fields, stingless bees can help increase the yield of a native crop, camu camu, by nearly 50%. (See also: World’s Largest Bee, Once Presumed Extinct, Filmed Alive in the Wild.)

In the jungle

Delgado, Espinoza and photographer Ana Elisa Sotelo visited Córdova and his family in December 2021 to learn more about how he raises the 40 hives of bees on his property, which include six different native honey-producing species. . These include Tawny Meliponasometimes known as the toad’s mouth bee.

Looking into the hives, Sotelo recalls bees flying around their heads “with rapid wing beats, buzzing and resting harmlessly on our bodies.” The children of Córdova have collected medicinal plants to observe, including sangre de grado trees, extracts of which treat diarrhea, diabetes and infections; bees use the resin to build their hives. They also looked at the bright red achiote plant, used to make tincture and to treat constipation, and camu camu, a delicious-tasting fruit, says Espinoza, who is currently completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Michigan. . Bees pollinate all these plants.

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