Stingless bees: Sustaining land and people in the Amazon


by

Elizabeth Benson

Conservation Fellow

Elizabeth is a biologist who loves studying ecology, food systems, and traditional knowledge. She has been working in the Peruvian Amazon since 2018 when she joined OnePlanet and has since concentrated on research and development of community-based stingless beekeeping, ecotourism, and mammal conservation projects with indigenous Maijuna partners. She is passionate about understanding and sharing the ecological wonder of Amazonian stingless bees through research and education. Elizabeth grew up exploring the Indiana Dunes and majored in ecology and evolution at Harvard University, where she studied pitcher plant microcosms and coral reef ecology.

Learn more about Elizabeth Benson


September 15, 2021

Stingless bees: Sustaining land and people in the Amazon

 

Sprawled on the palm floor of her home, I listen intently as Marcelina recounts the local bees she knows. With the ease of describing old friends, Marcelina names mejayo ua, batigana ua, and many other native stingless bees in her Indigenous language, explaining their behavior, appearance, where she’s found them in the forest, and what their honey is like. She regales me with memories of finding massive colonies with thousands of bees and squeezing gallons of honey into pouches fashioned from leaves.

Marcelina is an elder among the Maijuna people of the Peruvian Amazon. The Maijuna have deep connections to the stingless bees that live in their ancestral lands. For generations Maijuna people have sought stingless bee honey for its unique flavor and medicinal properties and have acquired extensive knowledge about the dozens of species in their rainforests. For many of the bees, the Maijuna are the sole keepers of knowledge about their distinguishing temperaments, habitats, the qualities of their honey, and more. For example, the Maijuna identify abiro ua, a rare bee sought for its high-quality wax that is useful for making fishing spears and for its dense, flavorful honey.

Marcelina fondly recalls the bees of her home forest, the Yanayacu River flowing in the background. [Right] The inside of a stingless bee nest in a hollow tree trunk. The dark structure of the colony is built with cerumen, a material composed of beeswax mixed with resins that the bees collect from trees.
“Ua” is the Maijiki word for honey-producing bees

Indigenous people of the Amazon, including the Maijuna, have expansive cultural connections and practical knowledge about their lands, animal, and plant life. Here, the Maijuna are using traditional knowledge and practices surrounding local stingless bees to shape the communities’ future. During the last decade the Maijuna Federation took control of their lands and expelled the loggers and poachers who had functionally destroyed the rainforest, deciding to forego income from these extractive industries. Instead, the Maijuna sought the means to support their families in ways that align economic goals with their vision for the future of their land and culture.

Looking to the gifts of their culture and land, their focus landed on the local bees. Traditionally the Maijuna destructively harvested honey from wild colonies. With our support and training to adapt beekeeping methods long-practiced in other tropical areas, dozens of Maijuna families are now raising the local stingless bees, managing hundreds of hives, selling the honey, and increasing the number of local bee colonies rather than depleting wild populations. Stingless bee honey is highly valued in local cities and the Maijuna are able to feed that market with sustainably sourced and managed bees. Sales provide beekeepers with income that complements the hunting, fishing, and agricultural practices that sustain the Maijuna people and the land they depend on. Now, OnePlanet’s long-standing stingless beekeeping work with the Maijuna is being enriched and broadened in exciting ways by the help and collaboration of ACEER. 

The bees and their honey are a rich part of Maijuna life – a familiar presence in the forest celebrated with song, dance, and recipes – making bees an excellent connection between tradition and income that can help sustain families now and into the future.

The bees and their honey are a rich part of Maijuna life – a familiar presence in the forest celebrated with song, dance, and recipes – making bees an excellent connection between tradition and income that can help sustain families now and into the future. Income from beekeeping empowers the Maijuna as active protectors of the biodiverse, invaluable forest and river ecosystems they call home. Beekeeping offers a rich avenue for exchange between generations by placing renewed value on traditional knowledge. Through beekeeping, younger generations learn about their forests and culture from their grandparents, who have long known the bees but who are now, with training, raising them and accessing high-value markets for the first time.

Back in Marcelina’s house, her six-year-old great-grandson sporadically chimes in to prove his own knowledge of bees. He’s been getting to know the bee species of the forest through his family’s new practice of beekeeping. With stingless beekeeping, the Maijuna are transforming traditions into a renewed celebration of their culture and a central element of their sustainable livelihoods. The vision is that through the Maijuna’s sustainable practices like beekeeping, and their continued protection of the forest, Marcelina’s great grandson and generations to come will be able to thrive on Maijuna land, community, and culture. 

Dona Juana reviews a stingless bee hive with her great granddaughters.

 

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