Brazilian part-time beekeeper Luiz Lustosa lifts the lid of a wooden beehive. The reaction is instant and furious as thousands of bees envelop him in a buzzing cloud.
However, Lustosa doesn’t wear a special suit or gloves, just a light mesh to cover his face. These bees are stingless.
“What a miracle!” Lustosa marvels at the honey-filled wax craters in the hive as the bees attack him furiously but impotently – his childish wonder is not diminished by six years of working with the insects.
Long overlooked, Brazil’s native bees are making a comeback, and people like Lustosa, a 66-year-old civil servant, are joining the movement to raise their profile.
About 250 out of 550 stingless bee species found in tropical and subtropical areas of the world are found in Brazil, according to Cristiano Menezes of Brazil’s Embrapa Agricultural Research Corporation.
However, they are little known outside of rural and indigenous communities, having been relegated to a lesser place by European and African honey bees, brought to Brazil over the centuries, for their more prolific honey and wax production skills.
Most of Brazilian honey today comes from non-native, stinging bees.
– ‘Here to help us’ –
Lustosa is President of the Native Bee Institute, a nonprofit organization that plants trees to expand the habitat of native bees and educates people about their important role as pollinators.
“We explain to the children that the bees don’t sting, that they are necessary for the environment and nature, and that they are there to help us,” Lustosa told AFP at the institute’s premises in Brasilia, where he holds workshops operates and sells local honey.
A 2016 study estimated that about 1.4 million jobs and three-quarters of all crops worldwide depend on pollinators like bees – a service that is provided for free but is worth tens of billions of dollars, according to scientific studies.
Bees account for 80 percent of plant pollination by insects.
Unlike their immigrant counterparts, Brazil’s native bees are choosy, feeding solely on fruit and pollen from native fruit and avocado trees – which they are vital to pollinating.
Beekeepers “depend on vegetation, a healthy forest” for the bees to feed on, said Jeronimo Villas-Boas, a local beekeeper and ecologist.
“For this reason, beekeepers are agents of conservation.”
Villas-Boas helps Indigenous communities improve the quality of the local honey they produce and connects them with buyers to get them involved in the ‘business’ of the coveted sweet liquid.
“Bees enable businesses with positive social, environmental and agricultural impacts,” Menezes says.
Native bees produce a honey that proponents claim is healthier because of its lower sugar content. Flavor and acidity vary from variety to variety.
They produce about 30 times less honey than their stinging cousins, and as a result, native honey costs about US$55 per kilo in Brazil, compared to US$6 per kilo for the others.
One of Villas-Boas’ clients is Brazilian chef Alex Atala, whose restaurant DOM in Sao Paulo has two Michelin stars for its local cuisine.
Honey from the local Tubi bee is a key ingredient in one of Atala’s award-winning milk-cooked cassava dishes.
“We must know a world as rich as that of wine,” Atala told AFP.
“Eating our biodiversity will add value to products that are now forgotten and devalued.”
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