Made up of more than 600 species, each of which makes its own version of honey, this tribe of bees lives throughout the world’s tropics. Like honeybees, they are social and form colonies with a queen and workers, many of which collect nectar from various flowers before bringing it back home to churn painstakingly into honey. Their foraging transfers pollen from one bloom to another, a service that many plants — and agriculture as we know it — could not survive without.
But stingless bees are pickier than their European counterparts about what flowers they visit, making them important for keeping certain tropical forests healthy.
Honey from a native stingless bee species cultivated in Bolivia's Amboró National Park.Patricia VitHoney from a species cultivated in Bolivia’s Amboró National Park.
Their honey, too, is different, containing more water — you would probably drink it as opposed to eating it with a spoon, said David Roubik, a bee expert with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama.
It’s also more difficult to get: a typical colony may only produce a couple of liters of honey per year, compared with 50 or more for honeybees. Their nests consist of many small “honey pots” instead of the honeybee’s regular combs. And as their name implies, they lack stingers and are generally less aggressive than honeybees, making them easier to raise; they’re kept as “pets” in many places and can often be tended to by children.
Because there are so many different species of stingless, or meloponine, bees, they produce a wide variety of honey. Its taste has been variously described as sweeter, more bitter or sharper than the honeybee’s product, often with a delightful floral aftertaste, said Stephen Buchmann, a native bee researcher at the University of Arizona. Dr. Buchmann, who has sampled hundreds of varieties, said the best-tasting honey comes from the royal lady bee, a stingless species that the Maya people of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula have cultivated for 2,000 years.
Stingless bee honey also has a variety of medicinal uses. Numerous reports attest to its antibiotic properties, no surprise to native people worldwide who use it to treat eye infections and wounds. A study to be published by the Journal of Experimental Pharmacology by the researcher Peter Kwapong found that this honey is slightly more effective than a store-bought antibiotic at treating eye infections in guinea pigs. And other studies have hinted that it might help deter cancer.
Aside from the Maya, though, few groups have worked out sophisticated methods for cultivating colonies of these bees in manmade structures, partly because of the insect’s tiny size, small colonies and many varieties. Most often, people merely harvest the honey from nests in forest trees and move on, Dr. Roubik said.
But that’s beginning to change. In Brazil, for example, the raising of these bees for their honey, called meliponiculture, is widespread. (The word comes from Meliponini, the taxonomic term for stingless bees.) In some areas, it’s even more common than the cultivation of honeybees known as apiculture.
Patricia Vit, a researcher at the University of the Andes in Venezeula, for example, took humorous issue with frequent references to the stingless bee’s product as the “other honey.” “In the forest, the ‘other honey’ is that of Apis mellifera,” or the European honeybee, she wrote in an e-mail.
From left to right, "uruçú" and "tiúba" honey from Brazil, Mexican "negrita" and Bolivian "suro negro." Patricia VitFrom left to right, “uruçú” and “tiúba” honey from Brazil, Mexican “negrita” and Bolivian “suro negro.”
Indeed, many prominent meliponiculturists in Brazil and elsewhere have long waiting lists for purchasing their honey, said Breno Freitas, a researcher at the Federal University of Ceará in Brazil. This honey often sells for 10 times the price of honeybee honey.
Dr. Kwapong, an entomologist at Ghana’s University of Cape Coast, first learned about — and fell in love with — stingless bees at a conference in Brazil. When he returned to Ghana, he founded the International Stingless Bee Center, dedicated to studying and spreading meliponiculture of native bees throughout West Africa. Dr. Kwapong has helped train more than 200 people from around the region in the delicate trade.
The practice is also receiving growing recognition and study at institutions throughout Central and South America, Australia and elsewhere. In Japan, stingless bees are being cultivated to pollinate greenhouses, a feat at which they excel. Since they can’t survive in temperate areas, they cannot escape and interfere with local insect populations, a problem that has dogged the use of bumblebees for the same purpose.
Still, little is known about how to raise the vast majority of stingless bee species. That’s frustrating for would-be meliponine beekeepers; many give up on the idea because they cannot get the information they need, Dr. Freitas said.
Sam Droege, a biologist with the United States Geological Survey, said in a phone interview that the newfound interest in meliponiculture may be a harbinger of a revolution in animal husbandry. “In the sweep of history, we don’t often see new groups or classes of domesticated animals arising,” he said.
Of course, meliponiculture is nothing new for certain groups, most notably the Maya, who recorded their age-old craft in the glyphs in ruins throughout the Yucatán and in the Madrid Codex, one of the few surviving collections of Mayan hieroglyphics.
Yet the Mayan beekeeping tradition is in serious danger of dying out. Populations of the bee have declined with deforestation, and beekeepers are less frequently passing on the tradition to younger generations as they move to cities, Dr. Buchmann said. To counter this trend, he has taught a series of classes throughout the peninsula to encourage beekeeping and has published a meliponiculture manual in Mayan and Spanish.
While Dr. Buchmann is worried for the future in the Yucatán, he’s encouraged by the spread of meliponiculture elsewhere. But he doesn’t consider the bees a domesticated animal. “We just give them a place to live, and let them be,” he said.
Honey pots on the Paraguaná peninsula in Venezuela.Patricia VitHoney pots on the Paraguaná peninsula in Venezuela.