As a child, Heriberto Vela, an indigenous resident of Loreto, Peru, watched his father extract nests of wild stingless bees from the trees of the Amazon rainforest. Together, the two would then extract honey from the nests to help cure colds and other ailments.
Stingless bees are native to the Amazon, unlike the more familiar but invasive honey bees from Africa and Europe that have spread throughout the Americas. The most obvious difference, perhaps, is that stingless bees don’t sting. Their honey, which is thin enough to drink as a liquid and is said to have a citrus aftertaste, is used by many indigenous Peruvians as a natural medicine.
Mr. Vela’s father didn’t know how to save the bees: they would fly away or even die. “We would take the nests and leave them on the ground in the forest,” Vela said. “Those bees were lost.”
Today Mr. Vela’s methods are more sophisticated. His family keeps 76 stingless bee nests in square wooden boxes perched on sticks and scattered around the house. Each artificial nest has multiple drawers, but Mr. Vela collects honey only from one, which he calls the honey pot, leaving the rest to the bees. “They need it to live,” he explained. “If I take it away from them, they might run away.”
The Amazon is home to hundreds of species of stingless bees, but as deforestation turns the tropical landscape into farms and ranches, these and other native pollinators are at risk of disappearing. Pesticides, climate change and competition with the honey bee, which is better suited to agricultural areas than the stingless bee, introduce further tensions.
Mr Vela’s family is among the few who raise stingless bees and live off the income they provide. César Delgado, entomologist at the University Peruvian Amazon Research Institute who helped Mr. Vela refine his practice, wants to broaden the appeal. “Beekeeping is a great way for forests and communities to adapt to climate change,” he said.
Building an economy based on stingless bees, which pollinate much of the Amazon’s native flora, is a creative way to combat deforestation, said Rosa Vásquez Espinoza, a chemical biologist and founder of Amazon International Search. But for the effort to work, Dr. Vásquez Espinoza stressed, it needs to incorporate the knowledge and lifestyle of the indigenous peoples who call the rainforest home. It must be “a self-sustaining process and in line with the culture of the communities,” he said.