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In Peru, a Mission to Save the Stingless Bee

A close-up view of the outside of a bees’ nest with a small hole in which two bees can be seen peering out.
Credit...Ana Elisa Sotelo for National Geographic
By and Rosa Chávez Yacila
Jan. 30, 2024
Melipona eburnea, a species of bee, is native to the Amazon. Unlike the more familiar but invasive honey bees from Africa and Europe that have spread through the Americas, these bees don’t sting.Credit...Ana Elisa Sotelo for National Geographic
Native to the tropics, these pollinators are taking a lead role in one of the latest efforts to conserve the Amazon rainforest.
Melipona eburnea, a species of bee, is native to the Amazon. Unlike the more familiar but invasive honey bees from Africa and Europe that have spread through the Americas, these bees don’t sting.
As a child, Heriberto Vela, an Indigenous resident of Loreto, Peru, watched his father pull nests of wild stingless bees from trees in the Amazon forest. Together, the two then extracted honey from the nests to help cure colds and other ailments.
Stingless bees are native to the Amazon, unlike the more familiar but invasive honey bees from Africa and Europe that have spread through the Americas. The most obvious difference, perhaps, is that stingless bees don’t sting. Their honey, which is runny enough to be drunk like a liquid and is said to have a citrusy aftertaste, is used by many Indigenous Peruvians as a natural medicine.
Mr. Vela’s father didn’t know how to salvage the bees — they would fly away, or even die. “We would take the nests out and leave them lying on the ground in the forest,” Mr. Vela said. “Those bees were lost.”
Today, Mr. Vela’s methods are more sophisticated. His family keeps 76 nests of stingless bees in square wooden boxes perched on sticks and scattered around his home. Each artificial nest has multiple drawers, but Mr. Vela only harvests honey from one, which he calls the mielera, or honey pot, leaving the rest for the bees. “They need it to live,” he explained. “If I take it away from them, they may flee.”
The Amazon is home to hundreds of species of stingless bee, but as deforestation converts the tropical landscape into farms and ranches, these and other native pollinators are in danger of disappearing. Pesticides, climate change and competition with the honey bee, which is better adapted to agricultural areas than the stingless bee, introduces more strain.
Mr. Vela’s family is among the few who keep stingless bees and live off the income they provide. César Delgado, an entomologist at the who helped Mr. Vela refine his practice, wants to widen the appeal. “Beekeeping is a very good way for the forest and communities to adapt to climate change,” he said.
Building an economy around stingless bees, which pollinate much of the Amazon’s native flora, is a creative way to fight deforestation, said Rosa Vásquez Espinoza, a chemical biologist and founder of . But for the effort to work, Dr. Vásquez Espinoza stressed, it must incorporate the knowledge and ways of life of the Indigenous peoples who call the rainforest home. It must be “a process that is self-sustaining, and aligned with the culture of the communities,” she said.
Heriberto Vela, Rosa Vásquez Espinoza and César Delgado peer into an open wooden beehive full of bees. Mr. Vela holds one wooden layer from the top and Mr. Delgado holds a knife.
From left, Heriberto Vela, Rosa Vásquez Espinoza and César Delgado with an open beehive.Credit...Ana Elisa Sotelo for National Geographic
Thatched-roof buildings at the base of a jungly hill.
The principal gathering place for meetings in the Ashaninka community of Marontoari in Cuzco.Credit...Brenda Rivas Tacury
The Amazon is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. But widespread deforestation as well as the animals and plants that live there, and it amid .
“We are losing species that have never even been documented,” said Adrian Forsyth, a tropical ecologist who founded the and is not involved in the beekeeping effort. “It’s not just that we’re burning the book of life,” he added. “It’s that we haven’t even read the first few pages.”
A sustainable conservation program requires funding, government backing, and the integration of local knowledge and practices, Dr. Forsyth said. There also needs to be some incentive beyond basic conservation.
“People don’t value biodiversity for its own sake,” said Dr. Forsyth, adding that to get the message through, conservationists need to highlight how the goal relates to the general public. “Without pollination, you don’t get good crop yields. Without honey, you don’t have a good cup of tea.”
According to Dr. Vásquez Espinoza, stingless-bee honey grew in popularity during the Covid-19 pandemic among Indigenous residents in Peru. It became a favored ingredient in alternative treatments for upper respiratory infections at a time when the country . Selling the honey also provided economic relief for families in remote areas who could not take advantage of government support because they did not have bank accounts.
Dr. Delgado and Dr. Vásquez Espinoza hope to use these incentives to promote the practice of keeping stingless bees in artificial nests. They are also working with Indigenous communities to develop more sustainable methods of collecting stingless-bee honey in the wild.
A close-up view of hands around a small bowl with amber colored honeycomb and honey in it.
Ashaninka community members and Peruvian scientists examined stingless-bee honey in a traditional container.Credit...Brenda Rivas Tacury
Benjamin Tiviito Coshanti, in a traditional hat and with red face paint, holds a bowl to his face to take a drink in a straw and wood building.
Benjamin Tiviito Coshanti, an Ashaninka elder in Marontoari, drinking a traditional medicine.Credit...Brenda Rivas Tacury
Richar Antonio, a park ranger in the Ashaninka Communal Reserve who travels to spread the idea of stingless beekeeping, has found that people are eager to learn. “The only difficulty is the lack of materials,” he said. Limited resources for the practice reflect a broader concern: Current laws in Peru only recognize the honey bee as a species of national interest.
That means that stingless beekeepers and harvesters of wild honey lack many options for funding that could help them grow their business. Moreover, product assessments are based on the humidity and sugar levels of the golden goo made by stinging bees, so stingless-bee honey isn’t considered honey under the law — a barrier that prevents sellers from backing their products with food safety or quality labels.
“I know it is honey,” Dr. Delgado said. “There are people who come from other places and buy it because they know it is honey. But it’s just that, legally, it’s not.”
The lack of legal recognition also limits what protections are afforded to stingless bees and the growing market. Kety del Castillo, an Indigenous beekeeper trained through a in San Martín, Peru, recently lost 10 artificial nests because of the use of pesticides near her home.
“Unfortunately, we have neighbors who are not interested in keeping bees,” said Ms. del Castillo, who moved the remaining nests closer to home after the loss. “But I’m starting over,” she said, adding that she and her husband had found a remote site in the forest where they hoped the pesticides would not reach the bees.
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A close-up view of stingless bees on a person’s finger.
The Amazon is home to hundreds of species of stingless bee, but as deforestation converts the tropical landscape into farms and ranches, these and other native pollinators are in danger of disappearing.Credit...Ana Elisa Sotelo for National Geographic
Dr. Delgado, Dr. Vásquez Espinoza and Mr. Vela sit at a long wooden table with honey, plants, tubes and wooden beehive sections in a wood-walled room.
From left, Dr. Delgado, Dr. Vásquez Espinoza and Mr. Vela in Mr. Vela’s home.Credit...Ana Elisa Sotelo for National Geographic
Dr. Delgado and Dr. Vásquez Espinoza are also working to expand what is known about stingless bees in academic literature. In September, the two published a in the journal Food & Humanity on the chemical characteristics of honey from two species of stingless bees. The findings, while preliminary, suggest that the product contains anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and other health-promoting properties. The scientists also reported traces of environmental pollutants in the honey, likely a result of the bees pollinating within pesticide-doused lands.
The honey’s benefits might come from the resin of Amazonian trees that the stingless bees are pollinating, according to Claus Rasmussen, an entomologist at Aarhus University in Denmark who was not involved in the work. “Those resins are what different trees use for protection when they have a wound,” he said. While the trees are limited to only what they can produce, the bees have their pick of the forest — meaning a variety of beneficial properties can imbue their honey.
In addition, Dr. Delgado and Dr. Vásquez Espinoza are partnering with Mr. Antonio to map the locations and types of stingless bees found in the rainforest, data that will eventually be compared with deforestation rates to predict how much the populations could decline in coming years. The two scientists are also what they call “ethnoknowledge” — the traditional knowledge of stingless bees honed over generations by Indigenous Amazonians. This includes which bees make the best honey for treating certain ailments. (A species that nests in the soil, for example, is said to be optimal for eye infections.)
For Dr. Delgado, this is one case in which academia is still catching up with Indigenous knowledge. “Science can get confused, but Indigenous people don’t,” he said.
A pair of hands reach into a beehive full of bees.
A hive of Melipona eburnea stingless bees in Marontoari. Credit...Brenda Rivas Tacury
A child peers closely into the small, crusty exit of a wooden beehive.
Waiting for the bees to exit the hive. Proposed legislation in Peru would legalize protection of stingless bees and promote awareness of them as an important part of the region’s ecosystem. Credit...Brenda Rivas Tacury
They plan to publish the outcome of these efforts in academic journals and include Indigenous contributors as co-authors. “Perhaps they cannot speak in English or talk about the scientific method,” Dr. Vásquez Espinoza said. “But they are providing a lot of other information to access, to guide and to collect samples from.”
Last year, she and Dr. Delgado partnered with the to Peru’s Congress for the national recognition of stingless bees. The proposal aims to legalize protection of the bees and promote awareness of the insects as an important part of the region’s ecosystem. Reforming the laws would also increase funding options for beekeepers to purchase supplies and transportation to local markets.
Whether the bill will become law is unclear, but already Dr. Vásquez Espinoza has seen local changes, she said. The price for stingless-bee honey has increased — once $3 for a half-liter, the same amount now goes for up to $20 — as more sellers recognize the value of their product. Honey harvesters are also planting more sangre de grado, or dragon’s blood, a tree that many species of stingless bee nest in, and camu camu, a favored plant for the pollinators to feast on. (Both plants are native to the Amazon and believed to confer health benefits.)
As stingless beekeeping spreads, entire families are taking a more active role. “We are all involved,” said Mechita Vásquez, an Indigenous beekeeper in San Martín. “Women, men, even children — they really like it.” She has noticed a particular enthusiasm for the practice among mothers, who usually stay at home to tend to their children. To Dr. Vásquez Espinoza, this reflects a bigger shift toward the empowerment of women in remote Indigenous communities.
And though many Peruvians remain unaware of the country’s native pollinators, at least one school is making sure the next generation will. Betty Torres, an environmental engineer who teaches at a school in northeastern Peru called Nuestra Señora de Loreto, makes a point of integrating stingless bees into her mathematics curriculum. Her students compute how fast and how far the bees can fly, and work out how much wood is needed to build an artificial nest.
Ms. Torres even takes her class home to see the nests she keeps — she owns 12 now — and to teach them about breeding. “My goal is for the kids to learn how to keep, so that they can then do it as a family,” she said. “With one nest, they can start.”
A close-up view of a bee with green eyes and alert antennae standing at attention on a mud hive.
A stingless Melipona eburnea soldier bee at its hive entrance in Nauta, Peru.Credit...Luis Garcia Solsol
is a science reporting fellow for The Times. She recently earned her Ph.D. in particle physics from the University of Chicago.
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