Solutions
05.20.2024

The Bee Whisperers

Indigenous communities in South America are raising native bees to help protect the insects, conserve forests, and strengthen their own cultural ties to the ecosystem.

Marcio Verá Mirim grew up listening to a family story. His grandfather, a leader of the semi-nomadic Guarani Mbyá Indigenous people, had dreamed that one day the sun would cease to rise and the sky would go black. The only light shining would be from a candle made of the wax of the jataí (Tetragonisca angustula), a tiny golden bee. Jataí are native to eastern South America’s Atlantic Forest—one of the most diverse biomes in the world—where Verá Mirim’s people have lived for centuries.

After this revelation his family started collecting the bees, which have bright green eyes and elongated abdomens, from hives within tree trunks. They raised the insects inside dry calabashes near their houses, ensuring easy access to honey for food and medicine, and access to wax for making ceremonial candles. When they traveled they carried the bees along to guarantee protection from the great darkness.

Verá Mirim is now chief of a tiny Guarani community called Yvy Porã on the outskirts of São Paulo, in southern Brazil. Over the past 10 years he has followed in his ancestors’ footsteps—but with a modern twist. Combining his family’s knowledge of bees with Western beekeeping techniques, he is raising jataí and nine other species of native bees in Yvy Porã. The village is one of six within the Jaraguá Indigenous Land, the smallest piece of federally-recognized Indigenous land in the country. It encompasses an area about the size of two soccer fields, flanked by the still-forested Jaraguá Mountain on one side and a busy highway on the other—an island of preservation squeezed by the growing metropolis.

On a sunny autumn day, I follow Verá Mirim through a forest clearing behind Yvy Porã’s communal fire pit, where people gather to socialize and cook. The traffic noise just outside the community’s barbed-wire gate is baffled by an orchestra of cicadas, the squeaky sounds of capuchin monkeys, and the gentle buzzing of bees. The insects fly in and out of dozens of rectangular wooden boxes mounted on poles. Within these three-story “bee hotels,” the insects live, build their nests, and store honey.

Very Mirim wears no beekeepers’ suit, only shorts, flip-flops, and a gray T-shirt with geometric Guarani patterns. He uses a small knife to open one of the boxes. Inside, furry golden-yellow bees with light-brown stripes crawl on top of a disk of wax, which Verá Mirim picks up barehanded. These bees are uruçu-amarela (Melipona mondory), native to Brazil’s portion of the Atlantic Forest and threatened with local extinction in several areas. Some of the insects tangle in my hair, and my skin tingles where one bites me. It is not painful. “All the native species are stingless, so we don’t need to be afraid,” Verá Mirim says, as a bee lands on his nose.

Like most rainforests in the world, the Atlantic Forest where the Guarani live has been threatened for centuries. European colonizers cleared it for mining and coffee plantations starting in the 16th century. More recently, real estate development has begun to encroach. Hoping to help reverse the tide of loss, Verá Mirim is one among an increasing number of South American Indigenous people who have adopted beekeeping techniques to support native bees and the forests where they live as well as to preserve their own cultures and livelihoods.

The bees are fundamental to pollinating forest plants, and the forest keeps the bees alive by supplying the nutrients they need, Verá Mirim says. “There is no reforestation project good enough without beekeeping. Both have to be together so the bees can survive and keep their sacred work of reproducing plants.”

There are more than 20,000 bee species worldwide. A huge group of them, the so-called Meliponini tribe, are stingless bees found across the tropics. Most make their homes in South and Central America, with nearly 500 species described. More than half of these are found in Brazil.

When Verá Mirim was a kid, growing up in Porto Lindo, an Indigenous village in Mato Grosso do Sul, western Brazil, he often saw jataí. “The elderly say that, in their time, they didn’t worry about raising bees because there were plenty of species in the wild,” Verá Mirim explains. It was easy to go to the forest and collect honey and pollen to make medicines, traditional body paints, and food, like mbojapé, a Guarani cornbread dipped in honey and often served in communal festivities.

But later, jataí and other native bees began disappearing—part of a global trend. According to recent research, a quarter of known wild bee species are now so rare that they haven’t been formally recorded in nature in 30 years. In Brazil, the federal environmental agency lists four stingless species as endangered.

One factor in their decline is the widespread introduction of the European honeybee (Apis mellifera), the species that beekeepers worldwide prefer because it produces a lot of honey. In São Paulo state alone, 1,250 registered beekeepers raise 177,000 European honeybee colonies. These exotic insects forage for pollen in the same forests as native bees, outcompeting them and sometimes spreading deadly pests to native hives. 

But the major culprit is deforestation. The Atlantic Forest is an evergreen and highly diverse jungle that harbors more than 20,000 plant species, 1,000 bird species, 450 amphibian species, and 250 mammal species, including cougars, sloths, and tapirs. Once, it stretched along most of South America’s eastern coastline, covering an area five times the size of the United Kingdom. Today, although it remains the second largest rainforest in the world after the Amazon, the Atlantic Forest occupies just 20 percent of its original footprint. Its fate resembles that of the Guarani. Before European colonizers arrived and decimated their population, they were one of the most populous Indigenous groups in the region.

Despite this dark history, the Guarani in Yvy Porã now work with the juruá, their word for non-Indigenous people, to help them care for the remnant of Atlantic Forest within and around Jaraguá. On weekends, they open the doors of their adobe houses to groups of volunteers. These help the Guarani repopulate the forest nearby with endangered native plants that are culturally important and also serve as food for bees, including araçá (Psidium longipetiolatum), a tree that produces a red fruit similar to a small guava, and pau-Brasil (Paubrasilia echinata), the tree from which the country draws its name. In a small greenhouse near the village’s gate, Verá-Mirim kneels down and touches the leaves of pink cedar (Cedrela fissilis). “Inside this tree lives the God Sun,” he explains. The Guarani make infusions from its sap and use it for religious rituals, as well as for medicine to treat several illnesses.

The work groups plant these saplings or throw mixed seeds directly on the ground in the traditional Guarani way. The villages’ spiritual leaders, elders called xeramoin, guide the overall effort, suggesting which bees to raise and what plants to restore. In the last six years the Guarani estimate that these methods have reforested an area twice the size of their official territory. “It is slow work, but it is important because this forest is the source of our survival and the abode of our gods,” says Guarani leader Jurandir Karai Jekupe.

Studies estimate that up to 90 percent of Atlantic Forest and Amazon plants depend on stingless bees for at least some of their pollination. “Some plant species can’t reproduce without an external pollinator, and bees are the most abundant ones,” says Fabia Pereira, a researcher who has been studying bees and other pollinators for more than 30 years at the state-run Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa).

Some plants depend almost entirely on native bees. A recent study in Neotropical Entomology showed that native bees are responsible for more than 90 percent of the pollination of açaí, an Amazonian purple berry popular in juice and smoothies. “Native bees have a history of millions of years of co-evolution with the local flora,” says co-author Cristiano Menezes, a biologist and bee expert at Embrapa. “It is a two-way road. The forest needs the bees, and the bees need the forest.” 

I follow Verá Mirim to a second nesting box. When he opens it, I don’t see any bees flying around. A few mandaçaia (Melipona mandacaia), black bees with yolk-yellow striped abdomens, rest inside, as calm as their keeper. “This one is the hardest to find in the jungle,” Verá Mirim says in a low voice. “They are very timid.”

Native bees have diverse shapes, colors, and behaviors. Some, like mosquito bees (Plebeia droryana), also known as “eye lickers” for their annoying habit of sticking to human tears, are so tiny that their nests could fit inside a matchbox. Toucan bees, a group that includes several species, use wax to shape the entrances of their hives into protrusions that resemble a toucan’s beak. The uruçu-de-chão (Melipona quinquefasciata), meanwhile, builds its hives underground or in abandoned ant colonies.

This variety is what makes native stingless bees such good pollinators. Their different shapes and sizes allow them to access pollen in flowers of different dimensions and formats. And unlike the Apis mellifera, which tends to collect pollen from just a handful of plants, most native bees are generalists. One single species may visit hundreds of plants, spreading pollen far and wide.

Bee diversity also influences honey. Each species produces honey with very distinct colors, flavors, and odors. While jataí makes a bright yellow, sweet honey, the uruçu-amarela makes a golden-hued honey with notes of citrus. The aggressive borá (Tetragona clavipes), found across Brazil, on the other hand, makes honey that tastes like salty cheese.

The variety of pollen that native bees gather confers to their honey a unique terroir, says Menezes. Other flavor differences come from the unusual honey storage structures that the bees build from wax and plant resins that they collect—brownish globs that resemble the work of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí. “The honeypots work like an oak barrel for wine, slowly passing their properties, substances, and aromas to the honey,” Menezes explains. Because native bee honey contains less sugar than honey produced by European honeybees, it gradually ferments, developing even more flavor with time.

The plant resins in the honeypots also give the honey medicinal properties that Indigenous peoples have recognized for millennia. Plants use these chemicals to defend themselves from pests and heal wounds. Recent studies have found several beneficial compounds in native bee honey, including anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antibiotic substances.

These substances “add value to the honey,” says Cesar Delgado, a biologist at the Research Institute of the Peruvian Amazon, in Iquitos, Peru. Delgado explains that beyond the environmental and cultural values, bee products can also be an important source of income for Indigenous populations, which are often socially vulnerable.

For the past nine years, Delgado has worked with five Indigenous nations in Peru, helping them raise native bees they would have ordinarily accessed in the forest, and studying the medicinal uses of products that the bees produce. He has identified at least 15 illnesses that Native people treat with honey and pollen, from respiratory and gastrointestinal problems to skin issues. Now, he is partnering with other researchers to identify which specific compounds present in the honey have which medicinal properties.

Cultivating native bees for other economic uses is catching on in Peru, too, Delgado says. Despite the fact that native bee products are not yet legal or regulated for commercial sale in that country, many communities sell native bee honey informally in local markets. Indigenous people in 13 of Peru’s 24 provinces now raise bees, with hundreds of families tending thousands of colonies, especially in villages in the Amazon.

Beekeeping reduces the pressure on the forest, Delgado notes, providing an economic alternative to destructive activities like logging, and extra incentive to leave trees standing and habitat intact. “The bees are a good example that ecology and economy can work together,” he says.

The Sateré Mawé of the Andirá-Marau Indigenous land in the Brazilian Amazon have run with this idea over the last 30 years, keeping bees to help boost production of guaraná, a tiny, vibrant red fruit that is the main ingredient of a Brazilian soft drink. About 100 families raise several species of stingless bees from the genera Scaptotrigona and Melipona in boxes near patches of forest that produce the fruit, which their people consider sacred. They also rely on the bee boxes for their own honey, which they used to harvest by cutting down trees that contained hives. “In six months, we have enough bees to split the hive into two boxes. Then two boxes become four, and four becomes six, and so on,” says Obadias Garcia, a local leader of the Sateré-Mawé Producers Consortium that sells guaraná and its derivatives in Brazil and Europe. “Today, we don’t get honey from cut trees anymore, but only from our own beekeeping.”

In Espírito Santo, on the southeastern Brazilian coast, Guarani and Tupiniquim communities have also developed livelihoods around bees. In 2018, 12 villages that spread over an area of about 12,000 hectares of Indigenous lands created Tupyguá, a cooperative that produces honey, wax, pollen, and propolis resin from the uruçu-amarela bee. As with the Guarani from São Paulo, they coordinate beekeeping with efforts to restore swaths of land once occupied by eucalyptus plantations for paper companies. The cooperative sells its bee products to local markets and high-end restaurants.

Tupyguá beekeeper Josias Carvalho Marinho, whose Indigenous name is Carai Dju, says the extra income helps buy food and other goods that his community can’t produce. But he is most excited about the environmental benefits. Growing up, Carai Dju learned from elders the Indigenous names of many native bees. But the only one he saw in the wild was the uruçu-amarela. Eventually, even it disappeared. Now, the uruçu-amarela is returning with the cooperative’s help. “We are seeing them integrating in the forest, and we are happy about it.”

Anecdotally at least, researchers and beekeepers elsewhere are seeing that with other species, too, says Menezes. “When we raise native bees, we help to maintain their population, and gradually, new swarms get back to nature.”

Despite these successes, raising native bees as a business remains challenging. One obstacle is the general lack of bee research. The Sateré-Mawé, for example, can’t yet legally sell their honey because some of the species that they raise are unknown to Western science. “There are many species in the Amazon that are not yet described,” explains Sidney Fogassa, president of the Association of Beekeepers from the Amazon State. “They are not included in our national catalog and this harms those who want to legalize their business.”

Another barrier is that native honey composition doesn’t fit chemical standards that many countries and states have set based on Apis mellifera honey. In Brazil, for example, the law requires the sugar concentration in honey to be higher than 80 percent. But native honey usually doesn’t exceed 70 percent. Meanwhile, the natural fermentation of native honey makes it more acidic than allowed by most quality and safety requirements. “Regulations request one pattern, but the honey from stingless bees has completely different characteristics,” says Menezes.

Rossana Maguiña-Conde, a plant and pollinator interaction researcher at the University of Texas, also notes that more study is needed to ensure that native beekeeping remains sustainable. Most operations are still small, and the practice is relatively new for most South American Indigenous groups. “We still need to find how much is enough, how to distribute resources, how many bee hives can we have in one place,” she says. “It is good to use native bee species, but we don’t want to make the same mistakes we did with [the European honeybee].”

Back in Yvy Porã, Marcio Verá Mirim is confident that the Guarani are on the right track with beekeeping. “We notice that every year more flowers are blooming in the trees and the forest is producing more fruits, which is good for us and for the animals,” he says. The shamans at Yvy Porã use the native honey to make medicines for the villages that share the Jaraguá Indigenous Land, and other Guarani communities. They recently began producing enough jataí wax to share ceremonial candles, too. Someday, they hope to sell their honey.

Verá Mirim also teaches about his community’s beekeeping initiative, receiving people from neighboring villages, and traveling around South America when called on by other Indigenous groups.

He finds comfort knowing that his people are equipped to face the great darkness that his grandfather foresaw. Once a year, around midnight, the Guarani of Jaraguá arrange the thin, brown, jataí-wax candles upon a circular altar made of cedar sticks and adorned with yellow feathers in the center of the community’s prayer room.

This is the Nhemongarai, or baptism ceremony, where Guarani toddlers between one and two years old receive their Indigenous names, revealed by Guarani gods. The room fills with chants, pipe smoke, and the soft shine of tiny flames—for a brief while the only illumination in this dim patch of forest surrounded by always-glowing city lights. “With our beekeeping, we can again perpetuate this millenary culture,” says Verá Mirim. “Our culture is stronger. Our rituals are more powerful.” 

Sofia Moutinho

Monica Evans

Sofia Moutinho is an award-winning Brazilian journalist covering science, health, and
the environment. Growing up in the Brazilian Atlantic rainforest fueled her interest in
nature and its dynamics. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Federal
University of Rio de Janeiro and a master's in science journalism from Columbia
University. Her work has appeared in Science, Scientific American, Nature, The
Guardian, and others.

Diana Kruzman

Sidney Cardoso

I am a journalist reporting on religion, the environment  and urbanism from the U.S. and around the world.

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