Brazil has approximately 250 bee species of the Meliponini tribe, popularly called stingless bees. Some of these species are created for honey production, which has been increasingly valued for gastronomic purposes.
Furthermore, they play a very important role in the pollination of plants, cultivated or not, allowing the production of seeds of several species, many of which essential to human nutrition. Without the collaboration of these bees, many plants stop producing fruits and seeds, and may even get to extinction.
The Meliponines are divided in two large groups: the first one is characterized by the presence of a royal cell, a brood cell that is larger in height and diameter than the other cells, where a queen is raised. This group is the most diverse one in number of species and includes the genera Trigona, Tetragonisca, Scaptotrigona, Nannotrigona, Oxytrigona, Cephalotrigona, Friesella, Frieseomelitta, Aparatrigona, Schwarziana, Paratrigona, and many others. Some of them are very aggressive, such as the Oxytrigona tataíra, which releases an acid substance that burns the skin when it is managed.
The second group is formed by the genus Melipona, characterized by not having a royal cell. All the brood cells have the same size and have similar amount of larvae food. Therefore, 25% of the female brood in a honeycomb can be born as queens. Some species of these bees can produce approximately 8 liters of honey.
The best-known species such as the jataí, mandaçaia, manduri, mandaguari and uruçu usually build their nests in cavities in tree trunks. Others use abandoned ant colonies and termite mounds or build aerial nests attached to branches and walls.
Historically, many of these bees underwent predatory exploitation by honey sellers, with the removal of honey without the correct management and consequent destruction of the colonies, which contributed to the decrease of the population in some regions.
Over time, the predatory exploitation gave way to meliponiculture, which in addition to allowing the production of different types of honey, also contributes to the conservation of different species. In the Northeast of Brazil, especially in the states of Maranhão, Rio Grande do Norte and Pernambuco, there are successful meliponiculture hubs that exploit local species, such as the tiúba, jandaíra and uruçu.
Stingless bees spread over much of the tropical regions of the planet. They are also found in some important subtropical climate regions, such as the South portions of Brazil and Argentina and Northern Mexico.
Since the nineteenth century, there have been several attempts to acclimatize native stingless bees in other parts of the world. In 1872, French naturalist Louis Jacques Brunet sent colonies to the region of Bordeaux. Due to the rigors of European winter, the bees did not survive for long.
In the 1950s, some colonies were sent to North American locations in Arizona, California and Utah, among others. Some survived for up to eight years.
Protection to biodiversity
Brazil has a large diversity of stingless bees, with a huge variety of tongue length and floral preferences. Thanks to these features, these bees play an important role in preserving biodiversity when pollinating in natural environments.
Due to this direct relationship, they also run risks with the aggressions against some ecosystems. At the Caatinga, bees suffer from the devastation that destroys the trees used as nests, as well as the predatory actions of bee sellers, who exploit the hives in a destructive and unsustainable manner.
To try and change this scenario, some environmental compensation programs started contemplating specific trees which serve for the nesting of some stingless bees. In addition, it is necessary for the preservation of pollinators to officially be on the agribusiness agenda as a key part of sustainable agriculture.