Brazilian Pollinators Initiative

Bees and rural development in Brazil

Prof. Dr. Vera Lucia Imperatriz-Fonseca
Ecology Dep., Biosciences Institute. POBOX 11461 . CEP 05422-970

Brazil and its bees

Brazil is an extremely diverse country. It is also very rich in bee species ( Most are pollen bees and lead solitary lives. However, several social bee species are also native to Brazil. The social bee population includes a few species of bumblebee (Bombini), as well as various members of the stingless bees (Meliponini). The honeybee, Apis mellifera, was introduced in the 19th Century and is currently in abundance in all of Brazil. It has adapted very well and a huge feral honeybee population now exists.

Presently, sustainable rural development is a real challenge, because most of the country's population is concentrated in the urban areas. The quest for sustainability is a priority for rural family farmers. Improvements in environmental conditions, family incomes and opportunities for women and children can be achieved through breeding bees.

Recently, the ecological benefits provided by bees have been considered in an economic context. From an ecological point of view, bees pollinate flowers and contribute to better fruit and seed yields. This is essential in nature, where fruits and seeds are at the bottom of the ecological pyramid. In agriculture, pollinators are important for several crops (

Bees and rural development

When most people think about bees and rural development, images of beekeeping and honeybees come immediately to mind. Beekeeping techniques for honeybees have been known for centuries, allowing for management under a variety of ecological pressures.

In Brazil, the introduction of African bees in 1956 had the primary objective of improving production of honey, at that time considered the most important product of honeybee colonies. The dispersal of African honeybees throughout the Americas was unexpected. The Study case 01 (Review on Africanised honeybee in Brazil), describes how scientists and beekeepers dealt with the problem of handling a different (more aggressive and migratory) kind of honeybee. Recently, honey production, as well as production of the more profitable products (pollen and propolis) has increased considerably. However, the role of feral honeybees as crop pollinators is also significant, e.g. for the coffee harvest in Panama, as discussed by Roubik ( Africanised bee colonies are rented to Brazilian farmers for pollination of a variety of crops: apples, pears, citrus fruit, melons and kiwi fruit, as well as and other fruits and vegetables. Honeybees, aided by well-developed beekeeping techniques, are also used as the main method of crop pollination in the Northern Hemisphere ( However, a parasite, Varroa destructor, has caused a decline in the numbers of foraging honeybees in cold areas. Africanised honeybees (AHBs) present another unexpected trait: they control Varroa infestation, as presented in the Study case 02 (Varroa research in Brazil).

Beekeeping with AHBs brings a high honey harvest in a short period of time. Whether AHBs produce more honey, wax, or royal jelly or whether they are used as pollinators depends entirely on how they are managed. Obviously, good protective clothing is essential for working with AHBs. However, protection from stings should not be the primary consideration. We have improved our methods of handling the bees quite a bit, but we still need to develop better equipment. Some of the equipment that most requires improvement is related to the transport of hives, etc. It is important to remember that the world beekeeping industry we have today has its foundation in a long history of technical development and a large body of research with European bees. Therefore, the current technology is quite efficient. Much research still remains to be done in order to achieve the same level of proficiency with AHBs. However, the technicians, beekeepers and researchers in Brazil appear to have made a good start with the steps they have taken so far. Development and beekeeping activities have recently increased in Brazil, especially in the Northeast, where a boom in beekeeping is now being seen. Thus, the future of our beekeeping industry in Brazil looks positive.

Stingless bee beekeeping

Stingless bee beekeeping, also known as meliponiculture, has a strong tradition in some Latin American countries, where the indigenous peoples knew how to manage them (for example, the Mayas and beekeeping with Melipona beecheii). In Brazil, Kayapo Indians breed several species of stingless bees. In rural areas of northeastern Brazil, meliponiculture is also a tradition ( ; ).

Generally, stingless bee beekeepers are only honey harvesters. Recently, the market for stingless bee colonies has increased, and nest multiplication is the most significant source of income for breeders. Compared to honeybee honey, stingless bee honey also has a greater local market and sells for a higher price. The The Study case 03 (Evaluation of the introduction of new management systems to Melipona fasciculata (Apidae: Meliponina), with small farmers in Bragança, Pará State, Brazil) shows a programme of stingless bees being raised for rural development in Amazon region.

There are a wide variety of types of stingless bees. Size, tong length and floral preference varies among species. Native stingless bee species are important pollinators of natural environments because they partition floral resources. They increase biodiversity, and are essential for maintaining the original flora.

Cultivation of plants that are considered key for nesting or are important food sources for bees is also an activity compatible with sustainable development. Thus, plant nurseries play an important role.

Farmers who breed stingless bees have two marketable products: the honey and the nests. In addition, they also have better fruit crop harvests because these bees act as pollinators. Although the efficiency of pollination by bees has been studied and some bee species are already being used as pollinators, this fact has not been well publicised in the agribusiness world, where all the economic impacts on yields are closely evaluated.

Bees as pollinators

In order to use bees as pollinators, it is necessary to know how to breed them in quantity. Because of this, the honeybee, a generalist pollinator, is used for this function worldwide.

The decline in the honeybee population in subtropical areas introduced a need to find other crop pollinators and inspired the International Pollinators Initiative, approved by the COP5 from the Convention of Biological Diversity ( techniques for the bumblebee known as Bombus terrestris were developed around 1985 ( They have been used successfully in greenhouses for tomatoes, eggplant and bell pepper. Consequently, breeding companies have arisen in several regions. Some have exported colonies of Bombus terrestris; others have raised their own pollinators for local use. The value of Bombus terrestris as pollinators was evaluated in an impact study for their introduction into Australia: for each US$1 paid for a colony, farmers realised a US$100 increase in crop yield ( Although there are six Bombus species in Brazil, they are too aggressive for use in greenhouses and have not been raised commercially.

Stingless bees are good pollinators. In Mexico, the stingless bee Scaptotrigona mexicana is used as an avocado pollinator and has actually been exported to Israel. They are also used as pollinators in Australia, where a lot of breeders have stingless bees whose main activity is pollination (one breeder's site: In Brazil, the agricultural benefits of this activity are still under study. For example, Nannotrigona testaceicornis and Tetragonisca angustula are used for greenhouse strawberries, Melipona subnitida is used for guava (Psidium guava) orchards. Study case 04 (Stingless Bees As Important Tropical Crop Pollinators) supplies additional data about Brazilian initiatives.

As soon as the role of stingless bees as pollinators receives the proper attention and the economic value in crop yields becomes known, their use will be widespread. Demand for their nests will rise, farmers will raise colonies for agriculture and those that live in conservation areas or rural landscapes will find raising stingless bees to be a good source of income.

How to choose between beekeeping with honeybee and beekeeping with stingless bee? Both activities aid sustainable development, because bees depend on flower products (nectar and pollen) for their food and energy supply. Honeybee colonies have larger populations than do those of stingless bees and choose more productive food sources. They are very useful for agricultural crops. Stingless bees, very diverse and with a preference for visiting different plant species, are important for biodiversity conservation. To choose between them, it is necessary to evaluate their impact on the environment and the value of their products to the breeder.

Some solitary bee species, also known as pollen bees because they lay their eggs over a ball of pollen and nectar, are very important as pollinators. Study case 05 (Economic value of cashew to Brazil and its need for pollination) and Study case 06 (Rational Management of solitary bees of the genus Xylocopa and Centris for pollination in agricultural areas) deal with them. Study case 07 (Priority Researches Needed with Solitary Bees to Make Possible Their Large-Scale Use as Pollinators in Agricultural Settings) lists the studies that will be necessary prior to establishing the use of solitary bees as pollinators in our country.

Brazil is also very rich in Megachilidae (around 160 Megachile species). Like Centris and Xylocopa, Megachile use cavities (generally dead tree trunks) as nest sites. They mainly pollinate Fabaceae and Asteraceae flowers, and could have an important role in food and in forage production (including in alfalfa seed production). This is an unexploited market. See Study case 08 (Leafcutter bees in Brazil as pollinators).

Are populations of pollinating bees declining?

Stingless bee populations are declining in several disturbed habitats, including those with fragmentation. Anthropic activity, firewood gathering, in the Brazilian caatinga for instance, destroys trees used as nest sites for native social bees and eliminates all dead tree trunks and branches used as nest sites by solitary bees. In the caatinga, honey hunters have also systematically destroyed several trees in the process of collecting honey for eating or selling (see Study case 09 - Honey Hunters And Pollinators Conservation).

A potential conflict between timber harvest and bee conservation in managed forests in Southeast Asia, where the vast majority of nests are found in hollows in or under large timber trees, was considered by Eltz et al. The authors estimated that more than one third of nest trees (and nests) would be destroyed during an average selective logging operation. They also suggested that, as meliponine colonies are long-lived, direct impact from logging may have lasting effects on bee populations and community composition (; Eltz et al. 2002). In Brazil, concerns about conservation of trees as nest sites as crucial for stingless bee survival in natural environments revolve around the selection of several tree species as nest sites for stingless bees (Table 1). Those tree species are suitable for lists for environmental compensation programmes. Ecological compensation is obligatory for companies that, through their activities, destroy natural environments. This compensation may be in the form of reforestation of the disturbed areas or other means of improving the quality of the environment.

Several studies have shown that trees are also used as nest sites for stingless bees in Central America and that environmentalists there have similar concerns. (
The study cases presented here also show the shortage of solitary crop pollinators. This is true for both small and large crop areas. Landscapes and pollinator abundance merit further study.

Table 1.

Castro, 2001 Caatinga (Scrub savanna) (Bahia) 9 species (mainly Apis mellifera, Melipona quadrifasciata anthidioides, Melipona asilvae) 42,2% Commiphora leptophloeos
29,7% Schinopsis brasiliensis
Martins et al., 2001 Caatinga (Scrub savanna) (Rio Grande do Norte) 7 species 75,0% Caesalpinia pyramidalis and Commiphora leptophloeos
Melipona subnitida 50,0% C. leptophloeos
22,3% C. pyramidalis
Melipona asilvae 92,3% C. pyramidalis
Antonini, 2002 Cerrado Melipona quadrifasciata 77,0% Caryocar brasiliense
Oliveira et al., 2002 Central Amazônia Melipona seminigra merrillae 42,9% Ascomium sp.
Melipona compressipes manaosensis 47,1% Tabebuia barbata
Batista, 2003 Rain Forest (Bahia) 12 species 52% Tapirira guianensis
Tetragonisca angustula 56,3% Tapirira guianensis
Plebeia sp 58,3% Tapirira guianensis
Scaptotrigona tubiba 70,0% Tapirira guianensis


Breeding bees is a sustainable development activity. When the value of the environmental service they provide (estimated at US$65 billion/year) and their value to selected crops becomes available, breeding them will have more impact on family finances. The prospects for rural development are very good, but depend upon an efficient release of results, a commercial plan linking rural properties, co-operatives and training at all levels.

Pollinators also are important in the agenda of forest management and timber logging operation. Studies concerning pollinators in forested areas are almost non-existent in Brazil, even in biodiversity hot spots such as the Atlantic rain forest or the Amazon.

Although Brazilians have a tradition of bee breeding, we have far to go before honeyhunters become beekeepers, pollinators become a part of sustainable agriculture and agribusiness and rural communities begin to use bees as a keystone of their sustainable development. In order to achieve these goals, a join effort will be needed.