The Buzz in the Trees is Abejas Nativas
TreeCasa’s B Project Revives Ancient Beecraft to Restore Biodiversity
San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua — In efforts to protect biodiversity in the region, TreeCasa joins a local movement to revive the ancient art of meliponiculture,
or keeping stingless bees.
Stingless honey bees are a large group of about 550 species that comprise the tribe Meliponini. These can be found in most tropical and subtropical regions in the world. The majority of Nicaragua’s native bees (abejas nativas) are of the stingless variety. True to their name, these smaller and calmer apidae don’t sting in defense (but they will bite when their hive is threatened). These natives hold a special place both in the local ecosystem and cultural imagination.
Long before colonizers introduced European honey bees (Apis mellifera) to the Americas in the 19th Century, native Meliponines have been foraging these lands, where the ecosystems of montane rainforests collide with dry tropical forests and coastal savannas in a riot of wild and cultivated plants. Breeding and management
of stingless bees has been practiced in the Yucatán Peninsula since the time of the Maya civilization.
The earliest known evidence of meliponiculture in the Americas is a traditional log hive (jabone) discovered in the post-Classical Maya site of Nakum from around 300 BC. The Maya recorded their beecraft in the hieroglyphs carved into the stone walls of temple ruins throughout the Yucatán Peninsula, and in the Madrid Codex — one of only three surviving Maya manuscripts (the rest were burned during the Spanish Inquisition which destroyed records of thousands of years of Maya culture, knowledge, and religion).
The bee’s cultural and religious significance is well documented in the codex written over 1,100 years ago. A surprising proportion of the text details proper beekeeping practices and depicts the Maya bee god, Ah Mucen Kab. Among many of these illustrated pages are male and female deities harvesting honey and conducting various sacred rituals associated with beekeeping. Their favorite of all the bees was the revered Melipona beecheii, called “Xunan Kab” in the Maya language, which literally means “Royal Lady.”
The ancients considered the bees to be a divine connection to the gods. Honey embodied the pure concentrated power of the sun and vibrations of the cosmos — woven as much from the stars in the sky as the herbs in the fields. Consider how bees collect life-producing particles from plants and transform earth’s miracles into liquid gold. The “elixir of the gods,” as it were, bestows both manna and medicine.
Bee products—honey, wax, pollen, cerumen (akin to propolis)—were used in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica for religious ceremonies, medicinal purposes, and energetic food. Honey was used as a sweetener (in food as well as political tributes and marriage contracts), and to make the hallucinogenic honey mead called balché.
Ancestors transferred the knowledge of how to properly honor and keep these winged alchemists from one generation to the next, and they passed hives passed down in their wills as intergenerational inheritance.
The local beekeeping practice can be traced back over 3000 years, but In the mid-1980s many meliponists turned to the more productive European bees for their livelihoods. (In modern times, beekeepers have turned almost exclusively to the
Apis mellifera, the most commercialized species on earth.) When the genetically more swarm-prone and defensive Apis mellifera scutelatta were introduced to Central America around 1986, these so-called “Africanized” European bees outcompeted M. beecheii for nesting sites in the wild. Meliponiculture saw massive decline in the 80s and 90s, and with that loss, entire lifetimes of ecosystem knowledge.
Abejas de Nicaragua
We’re bringing Meliponini back, for good reason.
While their size and colonies are smaller, stingless bees are prolific pollinators. Their compact size means they can maneuver efficiently, spreading pollen around smaller flowers very effectively. In Nicaragua, stingless bees support a wide variety of native, endemic plants and pollinate a long list of valuable crops, including coconut, coffee, avocado, squash, chayote, annatto, guava, tomatoes, and passionfruit.
Stingless bees in the genus Trigona (such as Scaptotrigona subobscuripennis) pollinate the flowers of chayote, for example.
Melipona beecheii, the beloved “Royal Lady” known by the common name of abeja jicote, pollinates the achiote tree (whose seeds are used to make annatto, the red spice paste that flavors rice, masa and meats in heritage cuisine).
Tetragonisca angustula are about 4mm in size and particularly good at cross-pollinating the tiny flowers of high value crops like avocados and coconut.
Rogel Villanueva Gutiérrez, a biologist and hive-keeper specializing in the interactions between bees and tropical forests, observed that: “M. Beecheii, like its main competitors, European and Africanized honey bees, forages on understory and weedy plants. But unlike European and Africanized bees, it also pollinates native trees in the higher canopies.” This makes them a vital part of the rainforest ecosystem.
Innovations to Traditional Meliponiculture
In recent years, grassroots community projects, like Meliponas de Nicaragua, and nonprofit conservation orgs like Paso Pacifico, created programs to help restore meliponini populations and traditional meliponiculture. Working with farmers, they teach people how to keep stingless bees with new innovations, and educate the community on the important role native bees play in the health and welfare of the region. Along with restoring bees and biodiversity, these groups are revitalizing traditional knowledge and forging new connections with their ancestral past. Thanks to their efforts, meliponiculture has experienced a modest reblooming of interest.
Massive deforestation, climate crisis, and changes in agricultural practices (use of pesticides, monocropping) threaten bee populations worldwide. Stingless bees are particularly vulnerable. Wild stingless bees usually nest in the cavities of trees and hollow branches. Traditionally, entire trees or branch logs were removed from forests to acquire the hives within, which were plugged with wooden stoppers on either side. Now stingless beekeepers promote the transfer of hives from logs and branches to specially-designed wooden boxes, which allows for honey to be harvested in a manner that is less disruptive and more sanitary. The switch to wooden boxes makes it possible to easily divide colonies and increase the number
of hives without removing more native trees and branches from forests.
Gaps in traditional knowledge may have led to poor harvesting practices, but modern innovations prove helpful. Marcos Calero, Paso Pacifico’s Native Bee Project Coordinator, incorporates the innovative use of a syringe to extract honey from hives. Stingless bees don’t store honey in an even plane of wax-capped combs, the way Apis mellifera do. They store honey in uneven egg-shaped pots on the periphery of the hive (they reserve combs for brooding new bees). The traditional method of honey harvest involves removing one of the wooden stoppers from the hollow log hive, tilting the hive, piercing the honey pots with a pointy stick, and letting the honey drip down along the bottom of the hollow log and into a container. The piercing often breaks pollen into the drip, changing the taste of the honey. Brood combs often get pierced in the process, killing larval bees. As honey drips through the bottom of the tilted log hive, it sometimes collects wax, dirt, pollen, and bee feces, affecting honey quality. The syringe method produces a much purer and clearer honey.
Stingless bees don’t produce vast amounts of honey. A hive of stingless bees (around 1000-3000 depending on species) will yield maybe 2-3 liters of honey a year. This is meager, compared to a European bee hive (of around 20,000 bees) that can produce about 70 liters a year. But what the Meliponines lack in production volume, they make up for in abundant medical properties. The antioxidant, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory agents of stingless bee honey were well-known to the ancients. The native plants these bees gather from are high in medical alkaloids, giving the honey a number of curative properties ranging from easing digestive disorders and respiratory problems to reducing fatigue and speeding up infection healing and wound recovery. Ancient civilizations prized the honey for the known medical virtues that modern science research has only been verifying in the past few decades.
Recent research on Meliponines reveal that they produce honey with six unique antibacterial properties that common bees do not. The results of qualitative tests showed that Melipona honey inhibited strains of Staphylococcus and E.coli along with other bacterial strains, demonstrating that the antibacterial potency of Melipona honey could be a new alternative for controlling foodborne illness and skin infections. They also found that antioxidants in stingless bee honey breaks the chain of free radicals that cause detrimental effects to the wounded area. Furthermore, the antimicrobial properties of stingless bee honey could overcome the bacterial contamination and improve healing rate. Moreover, the anti-inflammatory attributes in this honey protects tissue from highly toxic inflammatory mediators.
Melipona honey has 30 percent water and therefore ferments more quickly than mellifera honey, which contains 19 percent or less. The consistency is more liquidy, like a golden syrup, but with a longer finish. The honey has a distinct “bush” or “jungle” flavor. Many with discerning palates describe the honey as ambrosial: slightly tart, citrusy, highly aromatic, and complex in all the flavor notes of sweet, sour, spicy and herbal.
B Project: Bees, Building, Biodiversity
B Project is TreeCasa’s love letter to Nicaragua’s tribe of native stingless bees. Inspired by local grassroots efforts to protect biodiversity and restore native populations, we developed our own Meliponini conservation program dedicated
to bringing more of these beloved bees back.
B Project will realize the construction of 25 bee boxes that will house meliponini hives, and a bee house shelter, or meliponario, in the new garden expansive.
We currently have 8 active hives on the TreeCasa property (and 1 in Montecito) that contain four native species. Along with Melipona beecheii (abeja jicote), you’ll also find:
Tetragonisca angustula (abeja mariola) –4mm pint size bees that look more like delicate-winged flying ants 1/6 the size of a commercial honey.
Scaptotrigona subobscuripennis (abeja socuan negro), small black bees that love to visit the flowers of cucumber, squash and chayote.
Cephalotrigona zexmeniae (abeja tamagas), amazing architects that can build their honey pots up to 4cm high.
The native bee conservation program is led by our resident biologist and sustainable habitat builder, Orion Comstock. From turtle ponds to hummingbird villages and monkey bridges, Orion makes green living a reality at TreeCasa. This naturalist also leads Camp Chavalo, a summer camp program that takes kids and the kid at heart on adventures to explore the expansive TreeCasa property and forests, discovering native fauna and flora in our ecosystemB Project also offers visitors and people in the community opportunities to learn more about the importance of stingless bees, meliponiculture, and biodiversity in the region.
Stay tuned for bee-lated workshops!
Facts About Meliponini
- Stingless bees are eusocial and live in colonies. Meliponini colonies are much smaller than those of common honey bees at around 1000-3000 bees a hive (compared to the usual 20,000 of the mellifera).
- Stingless bees also tend to be smaller in size than bees of the mellifera species. Some, like the Tetragonisca angustula, are only 4mm in size.
- Stingless bees have stingers, but being extremely small, cannot be used for defense. They will bite with their mouths and some secrete an enzyme when they bite that causes skin irritation.
- Meliponini are more docile in temperament, which means that beekeepers can handle them without the heavy protective gear needed for keeping mellifera bees. Traditionally, families kept Melipona hives close to their homes next to the front door.
- Stingless bees build horizontal hives, as opposed to the vertical hives of common honey bees.
- Meliponini store honey in honey “pots” rather than combs, which makes mass harvesting harder. The egg-shaped pots are placed on the outer periphery of the hive around the combs at the center, in which they keep the brood. Some honey pots reach 4cm in height.
- They construct their nests with cerumen, similar to propolis, a mixture of wax and plant resins enriched with bee secretions.
- These friendly bees don’t produce as much honey as common bees do, but the quality of the honey happens to be much higher in healing properties. The taste has been described as sweet with a citrusy, tangy or sour note.
A single hive may produce 2-3 liters of honey a year.
- Like their other bee relatives, Meliponini communicate through the enchanting languages of scent (pheromones) and dance.
Come visit and get to know our Meliponini at TreeCasa!