Stingless bees (Apidae, Meliponini)

Just a few days ago (14. January 2019) we have been gifted with a box of endemic “Catana” (Scaptotrigona ederi Schwarz) also known as Meliponini or “stingless bees”. They are twice the size as the “Angelitas” (Tetragonisca angustula) Meliponini stingless bees which are all-ready on the farm since over 2 years now. When we first started the bee hives we got the classic Africanized honey bees (Apis mellifera scutellata) which have been introduced in Ecuador by europeans. So currently we have a total of 3 species on the farm. The Africanized honey bees (Apis mellifera scutellata) which have built their bee hive in two old wooden trunks. One Angelitas hive (Tetragonisca angustula) and now another Catana hive (Scaptotrigona ederi Schwarz). Our bet is on with the Meliponini as you can asume from a holistic point of view. The next years experience will teach us to see how they will impact our fruit trees and on which flowers they will thrive.

The Africanized honey bee was first introduced to Brazil in 1956 in an effort to increase honey production, but 26 swarms escaped quarantine in 1957. Since then, the species has spread throughout South America and arrived in North America in 1985.

Melipona

There are about aproximately 500 species of stingless bees belong to the Meliponini tribe, and these live in tropical and subtropical regions. These bees store honey in cerumen pots, therefore the term “pot-honey” was coined to differentiate them from honey produced in beeswax combs by Africanized honey bees (Apis mellifera) and other Apis spp. In Latin America stingless bee keeping is known as meliponiculture, the origin of the term is uncertain, and could be linked to the Melipona genus or to the subfamily Meliponini. The traditional stingless bee keeping or meliponiculture should be protected to prevent its extinction, and paradoxically, stingless bees should be protected from stingless bee keepers for a sustainable instead of predatory practice. Again more holistic worldview also for the Meliponini would really help. The decline of forest and plant species diversity, increase competition for food in large Melipona, and reduce pot-honey yields. Therefore, the traditional practice needs input from current knowledge on stingless bee keeping and environmental protection, to pinpoint an ultimate philosophy “caring gentle bees to protect forests”. As an indicator of the great biodiversity of stingles bees, 89 species of Meliponini are reported in the Southern region of Ecuador.

The temperature of 19 to 30 C, and altitudes between 80 and 900 m.o.s.l. are good for stingless bee life, indeed few species are currently kept. Stingless bees (Hymenoptera; Apidae; Meliponini) are a tropical group with more than 500 known species, and perhaps 100 more to be named. This great biodiversity is mostly represented by Neotropical Meliponini with almost 400 species group.

Stinglessbee (Tetragonisca, Melipona)
Close-up photo: Stinglessbee (Tetragonisca, Melipona)

Catana (dark Scaptotrigona ederi) Meliponini

The dark Scaptotrigona ederi has variable defensive behavior, generally entangles in the hair and bites, therefore the use of the veil is advised for harvesting. But this behavior compared to the Africanized honey bees (Apis mellifera) is not a big deal. The Africanized bees tend to be extremely aggressive in our tropical climate and additionally tend to have issues with local natural flora food source. Most likely because they are not endemic to the continent and the flora. What bee keepers tend to do in the region of Zamora-Chinchipe is to keep them alive with a transparent plastic filled with sugar and water or sugarcane so that they can feed on that for energy. With the sugar those bees tend to be even more aggressive. Similar human-hack with the hummingbirds in touristic operations they tend to serve water with sugar to attract hummingbirds. Very few seem to think about the implications and the difference between sugar water and natural nectar… But logically the quality of the Africanized honey bees cannot be compared to the one of other colder climates where the bee can thrive on the surrounding flora. We have no own experience yet with the Catana (dark Scaptotrigona ederi) but all tends to show that the Meliponini have been around in the americas for much longer than the Africanized bees and thus the edndemic Meliponini can adapt and survive much better in our climate.

Although the oldest fossil of a bee in our planet is a stingless bee , and Precolumbian honey was produced only by stingless bees; pot-honey is not included in the national Ecuatorian honey regulations, as of 2019, because they are currently devoted to Apis mellifera which was a species introduced after the discovery of America.

Health Benefits of Meliponini honey

Ecuadorian stingless bees (Apidae, Meliponini) have ethnomedicinal interest because their products are used in healing. Diverse remedies consist on pot-honey alone or mixed with infusions. This set of medicinal uses were informed in El Oro province by Ecuadorian stingless bee keepers -known as meliponicultors in Latin America: Bruises, tumors, ocular cataracts, pterygium, inflammation, infections, varicose veins, cleaning blood after childbirth, kidney diseases, tumor, wound healing, and soothing balm before sleeping.

Medicinal Uses of Melipona Stingless Bees

Pot-honey is widely used alone or mixed with medicinal plants to treat tumors, eyes (ocular cataracts, pterygium), inflammation, sour throat infections, blood (bruises, varicose veins, purifying blood, cleaning blood after childbirth), kidney diseases, wound healing, and soothing balm before sleeping. The most frequent medicinal use was related to blood in 27% of the reported uses.

However, whole body extracts of bees are used as anticancer and antibacterial agents, namely for their antimicrobial peptides (AMPs) (Ratcliffe et al., 2011).

Antibacterial and antioxidant activity of honey vary according to the botanical and entomological (Rodríguez-Malavaer et al., 2007) origin. The bioactive properties of honey are ascribed to specific factors such as the synergistic action of sugar and hydrogen peroxide for wound healing (Kwakman et al., 2010).

Further ongoing studies are of interest to identify the megabiodiversity of stingless bees in Ecuador, the traditional meliponiculture, and medicinal uses of pothoney as ancestral knowledge. Although these pot-honeys were produced and used before Columbus, they are not yet considered in the honey regulations (Vit, 2008). This joint effort besides the characterization of pot-honeys, and its inclusion in the honey standards of the INEN 1572 regulation (Vit et al., unpublished), using the Melipona favosa pot-honey model (Vit, 2013), would increase its current value in the market up to USD 27/kg, promote the study of its medicinal properties and praise the activity of meliponicultors. The role of honey is perceived therapeutic in 90% of multispecies medicinal recipes.

The ecological contribution of stingless bees as organisms is encapsulated in their pollinating service to about 50% of flowering plant species in the Neotropics (Biesmeijer, 1997) and Australia (Heard, 1999). The role of honey is perceived as therapeutic in 90% of multispecies medicinal recipes from Misiones, Argentina (Kujawsca, 2012).

Besides the nutritional, organoleptic and sanitary values of a medicinal food like honey, an enterprising concept on the quality of the agri-food systems –as reviewed by Monastra and Crisponi (2013), considers animal welfare and defence of the ecosystem, as practiced by stingless bee keepers in modern days.

Chemical Composition of Ecuadorian Commercial Pot-Honeys

Pot-honey produced by Trigona is the most different from Apis mellifera with free acidity some 12-20 times higher than the maximum of 40 meq/kg, double water content of the maximum 20 g/100 g, and a third of the minimum 65 g/100 g of reducing sugars. Pot-honey produced by Melipona and Scaptotrigona may fulfill Apis mellifera standards, with a slightly higher moisture up to 27.88 g/100 g and free acidity up to 76.77 g/100 g, but lower contents of reducing sugars (50.75-63.38) g/100 g. Sucrose content of pot-honey produced by Trigona, Melipona and Scaptotrigona is lower than 5 g/100 g in the Apis mellifera honey standards. Smell and aroma were more “floral” for Melipona, “citrusy” for Trigona and “pollen” for Scaptotrigona pot-honey.

Conclusion

Pot-honeys produced by Ecuadorian Trigona fuscipennis “abeja de tierra”, Melipona mimetica “bermejo” and Scaptotrigona ederi “catiana” where characterized, and suggested chemical quality standards were compared with those of Apis mellifera honey. Sensory analysis was useful to describe the diversity of entomological origin and also to assess the acceptance of pot-honey. Further data is needed to reduce the HMF standard, as is the case for the Melipona honey standard of the State of Bahia, Brazil, with a lower HMF limit, up to 10 mg/kg.

Bee fauna of some tropical and exotic fruits: potential pollinators and their conservation. Read full publication here

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