4 minute read

Stingless bees in Costa Rica

Eva Crane, Scientific Consultant to IBRA visited Costa Rica earlier this year. Dr Crane is currently researching into meliponiculture (beekeeping with stingless bees) because she is writing world history of beekeeping: meliponiculture has been practised in Central America for at least 2000 years. Museums in the region display beautiful gold ornaments made between ADIO00 and 1500 by lost-wax casting using wax from stingless bees.

Dr Crane visited the stingless bee project at Heredia (described in Beekeeping and Development 18) where researchers are trying to find answers to many of the unknowns which still surround beekeeping with stingless bees. 

Most of the stingless bees in Costa Rica nest in cavities in trees, and deforestation has removed many of these nest sites. Even where reforestation is practised, nest sites do not become available until the trees are large enough to contain suitable cavities. The limitation on the survival of stingless bees therefore seems to be shortage of nest sites rather than lack of available nectar and pollen sources. It is no longer possible to obtain colonies by collecting them from the forest to put in hives, as was done before the recent decades of deforestation. It is therefore necessary to multiply existing colonies in hives, and one of the aims of the Project is to find out how to do this under present conditions in Costa Rica. Colony multiplication has been done routinely by traditional beekeepers in Yucatan who use Melipona beecheii, in December and also in spring when honey is harvested, so drones must be produced at these times.

An increase in the number of colonies of Meliponine bees, through the work of the present Project, is likely to have an additional economic value as result of improved pollination of native crops. Meliponiculture is low-input activity, that requires no equipment except for the hive.

Both now, and in past centuries, the annual honey yield from hive of Melipona beecheii is 1- 5 kg and occasionally up to 8 kg. From Trigona species it is up to one kg. This could be increased by perhaps 10-20% if improved harvesting methods can be developed. Such methods should also reduce the amounts of pollen and propolis in the honey which are known to reduce the honey’s quality and flavour. 

People much prefer Meliponine honey over honey bee honey, and they believe that it has special medicinal properties. Its economic value lies not in large-scale production or export trade, but in providing rural households with cash crop or food or medicine which they can collect outside their own houses when needed. The price obtained for Meliponine honey is several times that for honey bee honey, and sale of this honey increases a family’s income and social status. 

Meliponiculture can have these socio- economic benefits only where the bees thrive well, having plenty of plants yielding pollen and nectar close by, and a suitable (not too wet) climate, so efforts are being concentrated on these areas, mostly in the west of Costa Rica. 

Products from meliponiculture and apiculture are of the same types, primarily honey and beeswax. The characteristics of honey from honey bees that prevent its spoilage by fermentation are quite well understood, but this is not so with Meliponine honey, although we know that it is free from fermentation at high water contents. Beeswax is used in pharmaceutical and cosmetic preparations, but in most of the world formulations are based on the use of Apis mellifera wax, and buyers on the world market will not accept Meliponine wax. Domestic outlets for Meliponine wax should therefore be explored. For several centuries Spanish settlers used large quantities of this wax for church candles, and craft market for candles made from it might be possible.