Stingless bees belong to the order of insects called Hymenoptera and are globally recognized as a very large group of bees, between 400 and 500 species. Tropical regions of the American Continent are considered a center of diversification of stingless bees. In the case of Mexico, there are 46 species of stingless bees, and 26 percent of them are native to the country. Stingless bees are a group of insects of great ecological importance for their role as pollinators and also are greatly important in the life of diverse human groups.
The interaction between insects and humans has been an important topic in various American cultures. Particularly, there was a close relationship between Mesoamerican peoples and native stingless bees and this relationship still persists in some areas of Mexico.
Declining stingless bee populations and conservation strategies
Currently, stingless bee populations are declining due to environmental degradation, mainly from land use changes and deforestation. Likewise, traditional local knowledge and management practices are at risk of disappearing as a result of cultural, economic and landscape changes.
In this context, the authors of a recent publication have developed a research project in the central-western region of Mexico, in the Balsas River Basin, that aims to generate strategies for conservation and sustainable management of native stingless bees.
The management of stingless bees had its most complete expression in meliponiculture, which developed from pre-Hispanic times in order to use the products of stingless bees (which represented an important food and medicinal supplement), through a specific technique for breeding and reproduction of native stingless bees. Currently, the practice of meliponicultura continues in some areas of the Mexican tropics, mainly in the Yucatan Peninsula area and in the Sierra Norte de Puebla.
Sustainable management practices for stingless bees
Among our findings in this area of work, we recognized specific knowledge on the biology and ecology of native stingless bees that result in a local system for identifying species based on morphological, ecological and behavioral characteristics and management strategies of wild populations of these bees. Management strategies included the extraction of nests made by local experts called colmeneros (beekeepers) and were not registered meliponicultura practices.
This circumstance encouraged the authors to implement, as in other regions of Mexico, an innovative productive activity based on the principles of meliponiculture and current techniques. This has been well received by producers, which has led to the formation of the Meliponicultores Michoacanos del Balsas association, which grows five species of stingless bees.
The research suggests that conservation associated with the use of bees (integral meliponiculture) can be enhanced in the region. Faced with the loss of biodiversity and environmental crisis, it is essential to maintain and enhance local knowledge of stingless bees and management practices. This represents an alternative to develop management schemes that allow the raising and breeding of these bees, while its products are obtained. Thereby, it is feasible to promote conservation of this biological group and the environmental services they provide, strengthen local knowledge and promote productive activities that provide alternatives to human populations who manage these insects.Alejandro Reyes González is a geographer associated with the Escuela Nacional de Estudios Superiores, Unidad Morelia. Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). He works on issues with the use and conservation of native bees focused on the Meliponini group. Andrés Camou-Guerrero is a biologist with the Escuela Nacional de Estudios Superiores, Unidad Morelia, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). His work is related to sustainable management of natural resources from a ethnobiological and educational perspective. Alejandro Casas is a biologist associated with the Centro de Investigaciones en Ecosistemas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). His areas of interest are ecology of plant resources management and conservation of genetic resources. Arturo Argueta Villamar is a biologist associated with Centro Regional de Investigaciones Multidisciplinarias, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). His research interests are ethnobiology, ethnozoology, ethnoecology, traditional medicine and local knowledge. Octavio Reyes Salas is a chemist associated with the Facultad de Química, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). He works to improve the use of natural products, such as bee products. Featured photo by José Carlos W.