The bees of the Maya


The stingless bees, common in the tropical and subtropical regions of the world - Central and South America, Africa, Asia and Australia - belong to the Meliponini tribe (order of the Hymenoptera). Some species are very ancient and are thought to have existed at the time of the separation of the American continent from the African one. The oldest fossil, a Trigona prisca preserved in amber, dates back to the Cretaceous period, between 60 and 80 million years ago.

They were known to the Mayans, who domesticated them and practiced meliponicoltura with complex religious rituals, for the production of honey (manjar de los Dioses, food of the Gods), pollen and wax. They were also known to the Incas, but for these there is little evidence of coexistence with bees. About 500 species of stingless bees are currently known: their taxonomic classification is complex, because we do not have good identification keys for species, many of which can be classified only at the genus level, others have not even been named.

Honey: who does it, how do you do it, how to choose it

They differ from European honey bees (genus Apis) in that they cannot sting, because their sting is totally atrophied. However, they have developed other defensive systems: from the guardians to perennial surveillance of the entrance of the hive, to the strong jaws with which they bite and cut the hair of honey predators, to the production of caustic substances from specialized glands, as in the case of the bee of fire (genus Oxytrigona).

They are organized in complex societies divided into castes: the queen bee, the young virgin queens, the workers and the nectar and pollen gatherers. Males play an important role only at the time of reproduction (the nuptial flight of the queen), and in some species their active role in cleaning the hive was observed.

A meliponarium is composed of 30 to 40 beehives, but it can decrease when species with a strong territorial character are bred. The average population of a hive goes from 3, 000 to 5, 000 individuals (but this is also a variable): a worker can live up to 50 days, the queen from 1 to 3 years. These bees produce honey all year round, and only in countries where there is a marked seasonality production is reduced in winter or rain.

The stingless bees beat about 1 km, a very small territory compared to the common European honey bees, which on average "spoils" (collect nectar) in a radius of 3 km.

The plants visited are generally Euphorbiaceae, Compositae (or asteraceae), Labiatae, Fabacee (legumes), Moraceae, Myrtaceae. Particularly important is their role as pollinators of some cultivated species, such as the tomato, the camu-camu (Myrciaria dubia, a shrub native to the Peruvian Amazonia), the carambolo (Averrhoa carambola, a fruit tree originating in India and the Sri Lanka) and the banana tree.

In 2015, thanks to the support of the biologist Marilena Marconi, president of the Andean and Caribbean section of IUSSI, the union for the study of social insects, and in collaboration with the agrarian cooperative Mushuk Runa, the Peruvian NGO Urku Estudios Amazónicos presented to Peruvian government a project (then funded) in perfect balance between scientific research in the Amazon ecosystem, conservation of biodiversity and upgrading of indigenous cultural identity.

We have been beekeepers for 9, 000 years

The project will allow the community of Kichwa (in the northwest of Peru, in the middle of the Amazon rainforest) to build three modern meliponaries and to count, by the end of 2017, on an important economic income for the community, generated by honey bees without sting. With the technical and scientific support of the NGO, women will be trained above all in raising bees and collecting honey. In addition to the advantages for the local community, for the first time in Peru the antioxidant content will be analyzed and the physical-chemical and microbiological properties of the honey produced by stingless bees will be described.