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Importance of stingless bees in El Salvador

Carlos Ruano & Miguel Hernández, Faculty of Agronomy Science, University of El Salvador, San Salvador, El Salvador

The University of El Salvador, through the Faculty of Agronomy Science’s project Stingless bees and their importance in agriculture researched the diversity of species and the location of stingless bees and beekeepers. The project also included research on tomato and sweet pepper pollination with stingless bees in green houses, and evaluation of the use of propolis in treatment of papilomatosis (disease of cattle). The project offered training to farmers in keeping stingless bees.

Stingless bee species and meliponiculture

Twenty endemic stingless bee species were identified by our researchers in 2007 and combining these findings with previous inventories by other researchers increased the total to at least 22 species.

In many American countries meliponiculture (keeping stingless bees) is an ancient practice. Honey from stingless bees played an important role in religious traditions of the ancient Maya culture, and today there are over 1,000 families in El Salvador keeping stingless bees. The majority (72%) keep single stingless species, while 28% keep more than one species. The species kept most frequently is “jicote” Melipona beecheii followed by “chumelo” Tetragonisca angustula and “zarquita” Nannotrigona testaceicornis. Stingless beekeepers with Melipona beecheii harvest an average 2.17 litres of honey (range 0.75-7.50 litres). The price varies between US$2.67 and US$14.67 (€2.03-€11.13) per litre. Tetragonisca angustula produces on average 0.33 litres and the price ranges from US$1.00 to US$2.50 (€0.76- €1.90) for 10 ml. The cost of a colony of Melipona beecheii, including a log or box, varies from US$40 to US$100 (€30-€76) and for Tetragonisca angustula from US$10 to US$25 (€7-€19).

The majority of stingless beekeepers are male and around 50 years old. They mostly use boxes for housing their colonies, although some still usehollow logs, bamboo trunks, cement tubes or dried pumpkins. The management of these colonies is rudimentary and not all beekeepers check the inside of the hive. A few feed with syrup (water and sugar) during the rainy season. Over 60% do not know how to artificially reproduce colonies and over 55% harvest honey only once a year.

Horizontal brood combs of Melipona beecheii
Artificial pots inside colony of Melipona beecheii
PHOTOS © CARLOS RUANO

Problems

According to stingless beekeepers the main problems are:

• Pests - including “limoncillo” Lestrimelitta limao and “mosca”, mosquito Phoridae spp;

• Deforestation and forest fires;

• Inappropriate use of agrochemicals;

• Theft of colonies;

• Migration of farmers to cities or other countries;

• Lack of technical knowledge.

Products and service

The honey from Melipona beecheii is used for food, as a natural antibiotic and to heal wounds and burns in humans and domestic animals. Honey from Tetragonisca angustula is used particularly as a treatment for eye diseases, including cataracts and conjunctivitis.

There are other products and services that can provide extra income to beekeepers, such as the recycling of cerumen (wax mixed by bees with resins from trees), utilisation of pollen, processing of propolis, the sale of colonies and services for crop pollination.

Cerumen is not usually processed, although a few stingless beekeepers melt it and use it to make receptacles for the bees to store pollen or honey so as to save their material, similar to providing beeswax foundation in Apis mellifera beekeeping. It is used also to seal small grain bins.

Guard bee at hive entrance
Stingless bees and larger Apis mellifera honey bees feeding on mango

Pollen from Tetragonisca angustula is a source of protein that is not usually consumed, although some farmers eat it together with honey. Pollen from Melipona beecheii is not used as a food, because its flavour is too acidic and it ferments readily, although one beekeeper uses it for dandruff control and skin care.

If the propolis is processed, it can be sold for US$3 to US$5 (€2-€4) per 25 ml, depending on the concentration. This is equivalent to the price for propolis from Apis mellifera and the uses will be similar: to heal wounds and for its antibacterial, antiviral, and antimicrobic properties.

It is difficult to purchase colonies of stingless bees, because the beekeepers develop very strong bonds in inheritance cases and consider these bees as special pets. However, if they reproduce the bee colonies to increase the numbers, they may sell some of them.

An example of the importance of these bees for crop pollination is Trigona fulviventris, the most frequent pollinator (43% of visits) to Cucurbita mixta, a pumpkin endemic to Mesoamerica. Pollination increases the number of fruits, the weight of the fruits and the number of seeds per fruit.

Queen of Tetragonisca angustula with worker bees around her
Honey from Melipona beecheii
Tetragonisca angustula carrying pollen

References

DEPARTAMENTO DE PROTECCIÓN VEGETAL-FAO (1993) Abejas nativas de El Salvador. Protección Vegetal (Universidad de El Salvador) 3 (1): 11-12.

ENGELS,M. et al (1998) El Salvador: estudio climático de datos meteorológicos mensuales para llegar a una zonificación agroclimática. MAG-CENTA, FAO, San Andrés, El Salvador.

GALLO,M. (2005) Estado del conocimiento de la biodiversidad de El Salvador. Ministerio de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, El Salvador.

MINISTERIO DE ECONOMÍA (2008) Reporte Sistema de información seguimiento económico. Ministerio de Economía, El Salvador, 9 pp.

MORENO AREVALO,M.C. (2007) Identificación de agentes polinizadores entomófilos en el cultivo de pipián (Cucurbita mixta) a campo abierto en el Cantón El Almendro, del Municipio de Jucuarán, Departamento de

Usulután. 93 pp.

PROGRAMA DE PEQUEÑAS DONACIONES DEL FONDO PARA EL MEDIO AMBIENTE MUNDIAL SGP (2002) Marco estratégico de acción del Programa de Pequeñas Donaciones del Fondo para el Medio Ambiente Mundial El Salvador. 23 pp.

RUANO IRAHETA,C.E. (1999) Preliminary data on meliponiculture in west and central El Salvador. Pegone (Summer): 19-21.

Further reading BfD

Journal 100 Stingless bees in Ghana

BfD Journal 82 Stingless bees in Guyana

BfD Journal 83 Stingless bees in Kenya

BfD Journal 67 Simple ways to manage stingless bees

For these and other articles see www.beesfordevelopment.org/portal