An Exploration of Stingless Bees in the Peruvian Amazon

There are almost twenty thousand species of bees that exist on our planet. They live in nearly every continent and lead the most extraordinary and various lifestyles. Few are solitary, some live in small groups (pre-social), and others form very complex societies (eusocial).

My first approach to this astonishing world was a few years ago in Australia, afterwards in Italy, and in both cases with the European honeybee, Apis mellifera, and I can affirm that once you enter into the bees’ world, it is difficult to get out. I have recently come back from an experience in the Peruvian Amazon with a different tribe of bees: the Meliponini, the subtropical and tropical stingless bees. They live not only in Latin America but also in Asia, Africa, and Australia.

It has been amazing to spend time in Tarapoto, discovering more about meliponini. While I was there, I also intended to pursue and fulfill my passion for beekeeping and the world of social insects, being inspired to communicate my experience through new art projects.

Currently, the diversity of stingless bees’ in the American tropics amounts to over 400 species. They are distinguished by a non-functional atrophied sting and they’re organized in incredibly fascinating hive architectural structures, which maintain a different architecture for each species, adapted to the place chosen to nest. Many nests are in tree trunks, others in the soil, and others in the nests of other insects. They build little cerumen (a combination of plant resin with beeswax) ampoules, called ‘food pots,’ where they store pollen and honey often arranged around the brood chamber, the center of nesting cavity containing the brood cells. The latter is usually surrounded by the involucrum, frequently laminated, and made up of several layers.

Meliponini construct the nest utilizing various combinations of different materials, self secreted or collected, such as mud, wax, cerumen, resin, feces of vertebrates, wood, gum, seeds, etc. The nest’s entrance is very characteristic of each species: it can vary from a straight tube to a hole where only one bee can fit, and it’s usually the only outside indication of the presence of the bee colony. Many nests camouflage perfectly within the environment, while others take the most varied and unusual forms.

Scaptotrigona Polysticta’s hive at Urku in Tarapoto.
Trigona Tetragonisca Angustula entrance at Urku in Tarapoto.
Trigona Tetragonisca Angustula homemade hive - San Andrés De Cutervo, Cajamarca, Peru.
Trigona Tetragonisca Angustula’s hive at Urku in Tarapoto.
Melipona hive, San José De Sisa, San Martin Region.
Wild Trigona’s hive in Tarapoto.
Scaptotrigona Polysticta - Lamas, San Martin Region.

The honey of the stingless bee is very different from the Apiis mellifera. What characterizes honey, not only depends on the flowers and plants visited by the bees, but also on the variety of the species itself. It is not possible to classify honey, as it tastes differently from season to season, from place to place, from flower to flower. That’s why most of the time aromas are very particular: floral, fruity, and always slightly acidic. They represent the flavor and, likewise, the smell of the tropics: it was astounding how often I could smell the hive’s scent from a distance.

We all know how much human disturbance and habitat fragmentation nowadays affect many organisms negatively and interfere with the ecosystem’s equilibrium. Like the rest of our planet, the Amazon needs to be preserved and respected, now more than ever. Even stingless bees are affected by these changes. These species have been devalued because they produce less honey than introduced ones, and the little knowledge about their fundamental importance and their cultural relevance are now at risk of being lost.

Furthermore, two non-native species of bees have been introduced in Latin America: the European honey bee (Apis mellifera ligustica), imported during colonialism, and the africanized bees, a honey bee hybrid generated in the middle of the nineteenth century (between Apis mellifera scutellata and A.mellifera ligustica). Both are monopolizing and affecting the pollination of the tropical ecosystem, altering the already critical situation of native stingless bees.

In Tarapoto, I had the marvelous occasion chance to work with four different Melliponidae species:

Trigona Tetragonisca Angustula: very tiny (4-5mm), bright yellow, pretty, gentle and highly appreciated for the quality of the honey it produces, which has important medicinal properties. It’s surprisingly adaptable in building its nest in unthinkable locations, with a tube entrance of clear wax, porous, soft, usually impregnated with resins.

Melipona Eburnea and Melipona Iota: rather docile, two very great stingless bee pollinators, they defend themselves by biting, easily confused at the first look with the European bee due to their size and sometimes by their colors. They build the entrance of the nest with soil, little seeds, resins.

Scaptotrigona Polysticta: my favorite species, entirely black, good pollinator, with a pretty dark tube entrance; when they get annoyed some start to bite, mostly your hair, your eyes, as well as your hands. My first approach with the meliponi culture was with this latter species that enchanted me with its brave and stubborn temper.

Alexander Von Humboldt wrote that “nature has to be measured and analyzed,” but he also believed that a great part of our response to the natural world should be based on the senses and emotions. The possibility to discover the wider beekeeping world is incredibly fascinating, challenging, and important. Your concentration level increases, your awareness grows, and all the senses are captured. Furthermore, bees teach us how important the single individual is to the community as a whole. Humboldt believed that knowledge had to be shared, exchanged, and made available to everyone, and now more than ever humans need to recover their relationship with nature.