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Jicote Bees in Costa Rica: Melipona and Other Species of Tube Bees
There Are Many Species of Stingless Bees
Jicote (Melipone beechii and Trigona ) bees are wild bees that can be found throughout Central America. These diminutive creatures have been used by indigenous cultures within this region to produce honey since the times of the Mayans. In recent times, they are also being investigated for the pollination of commercial crops.
I happen to have a hive at my home in the middle of the town of Liberia. It is curious to me, however, why they would make a home in a crevice in the rock wall of my garden. Normally, they would make a home in a hollow of a tree, or in human-altered logs made by indigenous bee keepers. However, I recently also saw a hive in a hole in the embankment alongside a dirt road on the way to Rio Celeste.
These bees are known commonly as "stingless" bees, although they can produce a welt like a mosquito bite when disturbed. They are part of the same group of bees as the European honey bee, Apis mellifera , but they are of a different family, the Meliponinae , which includes the species Melipone and Trigona . Costa Rica has two distinct species bearing the name of the country, Melipone costarricense and Trigona costarricense , as well as several other species.
Anecdotal accounts belie the medicinal qualities of the honey produced by these bees, and in ancient Mayan times the honey was used in religious ceremonies. I have also read that Nicaraguan women use the honey in a beauty-mask recipe as well, mixing the honey with dried milk.
Trigona Bees in a Tree Near Nacoscolo Beach
Stingless Bee Honey
Jicote honey (miel de jicote ), which is commonly available in both Nicaragua and Costa Rica, is prized for its medicinal qualities and costs about 3 times that of honey from Africanized honeybees (AHB). In Nicaragua, it is used as a directly applied cure for conjunctivitis and It is used to sweeten a tea to help mothers recover after they give birth. I have heard of the later use here in Costa Rica. Another use for the honey is as a component in a beauty mask formula.
The Jicote honey has a higher moisture content than AHB honey and smells more perfume-like. The stingless bees don't produce as much volume as the AHB, but beekeepers have safer bees to work with and they get a better price for their product. There are other advantages: they don't require treatment for the parasite varroa and they can be raised in simple boxes without frames. Raising melapona bees for honey production is thus a means of making significant income for rural people in Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
Beekeeping from Amazon
Mayan Use of Stingless Bees for Honey Production
Production of honey from stingless bees in Central America has been known since the times of the Mayan people, who documented the practice and revered the bee enough to create a bee god. Of the approximately 500 species of stingless bees, the one bee that was preferred by the Mayans was Melipona beechii . Cultures of that bee are still maintained by a few in the Yucatan Peninsula, however it is a dying art, because of the loss of natural habitat used by the bee and because many old men who know the art of dividing the bee colonies have passed away. Extinction of this bee is a concern. For commercial production of honey, the use of AHB is more attractive as well due to the volume of honey produced. Unfortunately, the AHB competes for pollen sources in many areas as well.