“Stingless bee” is a general term that usually refers to species in the tribe Meliponini of the family Apidae. Like their close relatives the “true” honey bees (genus Apis, also in the family Apidae but from the tribe Apini), stingless bees also produce honey. The raising of stingless bees for honey is called meliponiculture, and has been an important activity in many traditional cultures around the world for thousands of years. Long before Europeans introduced honey bees to the Americas, indigenous peoples throughout the New World practiced meliponiculture or gathered honey from wild stingless bees. Meliponiculture declined after the introduction of Apis mellifera (the western or European honey bee), in large part due to the fact that honey bee hives yield greater quantities of honey, but many peoples still raise stingless bees and use their honey as both food and medicine.
In Bolivia’s Serranía de Iñao National Park, the Guaraní people raise stingless bees of the species Tetragonisca angustula, known locally as abeja señorita or melipona señorita (other local names include burro, negro, opa, sañaru, chojñiri, and boca de sapo). The National Park is located in the sub-Andean region of Bolivia, between the Eastern Cordillera and the Gran Chaco. The elevation in this region ranges from 1,100 to 3,300 meters above sea level; average annual precipitation ranges from 900 to 1,200 millimeters (though some humid forests receive 2,500 mm); and the average temperature ranges from 14 to 24 °C throughout the year. Guaraní families—particularly women—have practiced beekeeping here since time immemorial. Traditionally, hives were made from hollowed-out gourds (e.g. tutuma and porongo); today they are usually made of wood and positioned near producers’ homes or under the eaves. Stingless bee honey is less viscous and more acidic than Apis mellifera honey, and has a more delicate, less cloying flavor. It is rich in vitamins and minerals, has antibacterial, antiseptic, and cicatrizing properties, and is used to treat upper respiratory ailments (laryngitis and sinusitis), eye diseases (cataracts, glaucoma, conjunctivitis, and ulcers), gastric ulcers and gastritis, and anemia. It also improves liver function, reduces mental and physical fatigue, and is used as a cosmetic and a treatment for skin irritation.
Traditional meliponiculture among the Guaraní in Bolivia is at risk due to deforestation and the introduction of honey bees. Fortunately, as markets for stingless bee honey and other bee products have begun to develop, many families have decided to persist with meliponiculture and to protect the local forest instead of allowing it to be cleared for agriculture. The vegetative cover that has returned to some areas provides habitat and helps conserve water. Today, 158 women and their families in Serranía de Iñao National Park are organized in four beekeeping cooperatives. Most of the honey is consumed or sold locally. The producers are working to improve collection techniques and marketing, and to create value-added products such as cosmetics and medicines. It is important that more people know about the beneficial properties of stingless bee honey, and that these bees are protected: Without their pollination services, many plant species would not be able to reproduce, the structure and composition of local forests would change, and biodiversity would decrease.