Stingless Bees Help Rainforest and Local Communities

They can make medicinal or poisonous honey, depending on the circumstances.

A bee flying near a hive

Ana Elisa Sotelo

Biologist and conservationist Rosa Vásquez Espinoza learned about traditional medicine from her grandmother who had created a pharmacy of plants in the family’s backyard. Of Peruvian-Andean descent, Vásquez Espinoza became fascinated with the microscopic creatures in the Peruvian Amazon. More specifically, she became captivated by Amazon stingless bees or meliponines.

A National Geographic Explorer, Vásquez Espinoza wanted to study the medicinal properties of their unusual honey but ended up discovering that the bees provided even more benefits to the area. She found they pollinated indigenous plants and offered an income source for local people, particularly during the struggles of the pandemic.

Funded by the National Geographic Society, she explores the Amazon rainforest, looking for microorganisms that offer so much to the Amazon and its people.

Vásquez Espinoza talked to Treehugger about what she finds so interesting about stingless bees, the value of their honey, and the challenges she faced while studying them.

Treehugger: What was the impetus for your research?

Vásquez Espinoza: To give voice to the voiceless. I fell in love with the concept that nature can provide us with medicine through plants, sediments, and other life forms. And to me, the Amazon jungle is one of the most beautiful and pure representations of nature. Yet, we still have to find better ways to protect it and take care of it.

I learned that the tiniest creatures in the jungle, from boiling river microbes to native stingless bees, sustain the life we see around us, and I was shocked to realize how little we knew about them. In times when we can easily go to the moon, we still have not explored what's below our feet. 

Rosa Vásquez Espinoza holding a bee on her pointer finger

Ana Elisa Sotelo

How did you become interested in stingless bees? What about meliponines makes them so fascinating?

Learning that we have hundreds of unique Amazonian stingless bees all around the jungle and that they have the capacity of making medicinal or poisonous honey, blew my mind. Why are we not massively promoting knowledge on these native bees and why are we not growing them more if we know they are safe to be around and can be more effective at pollinating local plants than European or African foreign bees? 

How little we know about them from all angles, especially the genetic and chemical level, made me become interested in stingless bees. Then I fell in love with the bees by learning that besides their medicinal, agricultural, and economical value, they have become an important cultural pillar of the communities. Many families live so close to the bees that they aim to live their lives like them—as a group, supporting each other, each playing an important role for the benefit of the entire group. 

How did you study them and what challenges did you face?

We traveled to Iquitos [in Peru] in December 2021 to meet some of the beekeeping families to learn about the process of growing the bees and harvesting the honey. I was interested in understanding the composition of the beehive, how often they produce honey, how the honey looks, and where it gets stored—all to be able to start hypothesizing how the honey becomes medicinal to guide the research studies we will be carrying out later on.

The main challenge in the jungle is water transportation—we had to interrupt our travels from time to time due to intense rain and weather conditions and to go between communities and families, sometimes you need to travel by boat for up to 12 hours. Also, ironically, at the end of our shooting with the native stingless bees, we got stung by wasps! It was a painfully funny anecdote.

hand holding bee frame

Ana Elisa Sotelo

How do people use their honey? 

People use the native stingless bees' honey for food and medicine. They use it to treat a variety of upper respiratory infections and stomach illnesses. In fact, there are records that tribes had traditional medicinal knowledge of honey since before the Spaniards came to South America.

Did you try it? Are people staunch supporters of its value?

I did try it and it tastes like honey I've never had before. It's more liquid by nature, since the plants in the Amazon have a higher water content, and I felt I could taste some specific Amazonian fruits when having the honey.

People are increasingly becoming staunch supporters of its value. Scientific studies on the honey and the bees help increase appreciation of the bees and their honey, and now selling local honey has become an important sustainable economic resource for communities that got drastically impacted by the lack of tourism during COVID shutdowns. 

many stingless bees

Ana Elisa Sotelo

What impact do they have on plants and local communities? Why are they important?

Amazonian stingless bees feed on tons of plants and fruits around them, including medicinal plants. When they feed on these plants, they inherently carry their pollen around to wherever they go next. Scientific research carried out by my colleague Cesar Delgado Vásquez and the Institute of Investigation of the Peruvian Amazon (IIAP) discovered that keeping native bees on your farm increases agricultural crop yields by up to 44% due to their high levels of pollination. So now local families are happy to keep native bees in their backyard, where they also grow the food they eat and sell, creating a self-sustainable ecosystem that can grow greener over time.

Native stingless bees are important for pollination in the jungle bringing life "back to the Amazon," and for generating honey that has become such an important medicine for locals and a critical source of income for them as well.

View Article Sources
  1. "Rosa Vásquez Espinoza." National Geographic.

  2. Rosa Vásquez Espinoza, biologist, conservationist, and National Geographic Explorer