Our appreciation for pollinators has grown exponentially as we learn more about our environments and the importance of even the smallest creatures in the grander scheme of things. However, we still have much to discover about the different species and the specific roles they play.
For biologist, conservationist, and National Geographic Explorer Rosa Vásquez Espinoza, the Amazon stingless bees, also called meliponines, are certainly worth learning more about. These small and gentle bees are known mostly for the medicinal properties of their unusual honey, however, during her time in the Peruvian Amazon, Vásquez Espinoza realized that they offer the entire rainforest and its local communities plenty more benefits.
In an interview with Treehugger, Vásquez Espinoza reveals that she is driven to study native stingless bees because it can help humanity come up with better ways to protect and nurture the Amazon jungle.
“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,” she says. “In times when we can easily go to the moon, we still have not explored what’s below our feet.”
Why are stingless bees so interesting?
There are hundreds of species of stingless bees buzzing around the Amazon, and they have a remarkable ability to make either medicinal or poisonous honey, depending on their circumstances.
Vásquez Espinoza’s fieldwork demonstrates that not only are stingless bees safe to be around (hence their name), but they are more effective at pollinating local plants than the European or African foreign bees. She says that there is still so much we don’t know about them, primarily genetically and chemically, but local Amazonian communities have been living alongside these stingless bees for generations.
The bees offer locals medicinal value through their honey, agricultural value because of their effective pollination, and economical value through the sale of their honey during a time when Covid-19 dried up tourism.
What’s so special about their honey?
Meliponines honey is used to treat many upper respiratory infections and stomach illnesses. There are even records that native tribes were privy to the medicinal knowledge of honey before the Spaniards came to South America.
The medicinal properties of the honey come from the fact that stingless bees feed on a wide variety of plants and fruits in the Amazon, including medicinal plants. When they feed on these plants, they carry that pollen with them wherever they go.
According to the research carried out by the Institute of Investigation of the Peruvian Amazon (IIAP) and Cesar Delgado Vásquez, a colleague of Vásquez Espinoza, keeping native bees on a farm will increase agricultural crop yields by an impressive 44 percent because of their high levels of pollination.
At a time when the Amazon needs as much support as it can get, native stingless bees would be the tiny army it needs to help encourage and sustain life. Plus, the generating of honey doesn’t just heal locals, but it offers them a much-needed source of income.
Native stingless bees aren’t just a valuable resource—they also model a way of life. The families that have lived and grown alongside stingless bees also try to live like they do by supporting each other and taking on important roles that don’t just benefit the individual, but the entire group.