Bees, a prodigy of nature, and the pollinating insects par excellence

22/07/2021

Days with bright sunshine, warm temperatures, and a humid environment are ideal for that moment of joy, happiness, and excitement that bees experience when they leave their nest in search of food. Tireless and eager, they set out to visit the flowers to collect the nectar and pollen they lavishly produce.

Most of these insects are solitary, and only a few families group species that live in colonies of more than 60,000 individuals. The preference of bees for the type of nest they inhabit varies. Some dig their nests in the ground, others look for hollow tree trunks, and still, others may nest in the hole of a cement post, in the cavity of an abandoned tire, or in nests previously occupied by other bees. They are the pollinating insects par excellence.

There are species that, when they land on a flower, shake and vibrate, causing the pollen to detach and disperse; others, depending on their body structure, rub their bodies against the anthers - parts of the stamen of the flowers that contain the pollen - when they enter the flower, and then visit other flowers where they leave the pollen that has stuck to their bodies. These behaviors are what ensure the fertilization of flowers and the reproduction of plants.

Bees belong to the superfamily Apoidea, which comprises about 20,000 species, grouped into 11 families. Eight of these families live in Mexico (Andrenidae, Anthophoridae, Apidae, Colletidae, Halictidae, Megachilidae, Melittidae, and Oaxaeidae), grouped into 153 genera and 1,589 species. The greatest diversity of species is found in desert regions, while tropical regions are inhabited by a smaller number of species, with Apidae being the most abundant family. In Mexico as in many other countries, the most commercially known species is the European honey bee Apis mellifera.

The first Spanish colonists were the ones who introduced Apis mellifera in Mexico. At that time the production and commercialization of honey and wax obtained from the Melipona beecheii bee was a very important activity of the Mayan peoples. Besides being docile and resistant to disease, Apis mellifera began to reproduce abundantly and produce large quantities of honey, attractive characteristics that the indigenous people began to exploit for commercial purposes. By 1920, beekeeping in Mexico was developed in mobile wooden hives, which are still in use today. The easy adaptation of the European bee to Mexico, the application of technology, and the demand for the product were the main factors that gave rise to highly successful beekeeping.

Bees are highly efficient pollinators and the reproduction of various plants is in many cases dependent on the existence of these valuable insects.

Mexico is currently one of the top three honey-producing and exporting countries in the world, after China and the United States, with the state of Yucatán being the main producer. Honey is exported to Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the rest to other countries. Mexican honey is exported in bulk and its quality is recognized abroad because it has the same standard of color, flavor, and aroma, which is why it is priced higher than Chinese honey or honey from other countries. Although honey is an apt product to improve the country's nutritional levels, its consumption in Mexico is only 288 g per capita, a very low amount compared to Germany, which is 1.20 kg per capita.

The potential of beekeeping beyond its primary products is huge

The potential is enormous: from propolis, for example, extracts and syrups are obtained for coughs, asthma, and bronchitis; from bee venom, ointments are made to relieve rheumatic pains, sprains, and muscular pains; royal jelly, honey, and pollen are used as nutritional principles in the preparation of shampoos, creams and many other products that are sold in health food stores and department stores. Currently, there is a growing interest in consuming products that come from the immense natural wealth that the country possesses. It is good for people to know that there is a great diversity of honey, as many as there are kinds of nectar or flowers, that is, there are honey that are light or dark, liquid or solid, with different aromas and flavors. This is the result of the variety of flora available here.

In 1986, the African honey bee Apis mellifera scutellata arrived in Mexico and spread throughout most of the country in just a few years. This species is very similar in size and shape to the European bee, but they are very swarming, i.e., they frequently divide their colony, and have a very aggressive behavior that makes the beekeeper's work difficult. Since the arrival of this bee, the Secretariat of Agriculture has implemented a control program that has managed to cushion its impact. However, since its arrival, there has been a process of Africanization or hybridization as a result of crossbreeding between European and African bees.

European bees evolved in an environment determined by the spring-summer season, when nectar production is high. During this season the colony develops, swarms, and builds a new nest in which it will produce and store enough food to support its population during the winter when there is no nectar, the worker bees do not fly and no offspring are produced. In contrast, Africanized honeybees developed in an environment with a warm climate and year-round nectar production. Faced with limiting factors such as their natural enemies - ants, small mammals and birds - they behave differently from European bees: they are colonies that do not grow much, invest little energy in building their nest, do not need to store much honey, and produce swarm after swarm.

When Africanized bees hybridize with European bees in the American tropics, something peculiar happens: Africanized bees grow and store as much as European bees because two genetic loads have been combined: one determines an intense production of swarms and the other considerable storage of honey. Beekeepers are now adapting to working with Africanized bee populations and employing management techniques that allow them to take advantage of the honey they produce.

The breeding of xunab kab, or fine bees in Mayan, is an ancestral tradition that is still alive in some Mayan communities, but its practice must be encouraged to prevent its total disappearance.

The commercialization of Mexican honey as multiflora honey, that is, honey from different nectars but mixed, has been one of the successes of this apiculture because this type of honey does not vary in color, flavor, and aroma, which provides the buyer country with a product of constant characteristics. However, in recent years, international markets, particularly those of the European Economic Community, offer the product with a label of a specific flowering, for example, there is orange, alfalfa, eucalyptus, or mesquite honey.

In view of these new market conditions, perhaps in the not too distant future, Mexican beekeeping will have to face, through new production techniques, the classification of honey according to the most important types of flowering in a given region and thus achieve diversification of the product. With this, a transformation system could be initiated that implies packaging and labeling of origin that generates an added value for the benefit of beekeepers and thus abandon the traditional system of bulk trade.

A stingless bee

Xunan kab is its Mayan name. The ancient Maya gave this name to the only bee they domesticated (Melipona beecheil) and from which they obtained honey and wax. The breeding of this insect, as well as the harvesting and commercialization of its products, was one of the most important activities of the Mayan civilization. Honey and wax were traded from the border between Campeche and Tabasco and were destined for Guatemala and Honduras. During the Conquest, honey was one of the main products offered in the Tenochtitlan market. The meliponarios ("beekeepers") of that time, according to pre-Hispanic texts, had hundreds of "jobones" (bee nests in hollow pieces of tree) that provided honey, which the Maya used as a sweetener and medicine, in addition to the wax with which they made candles. Both products were an essential part of their religious ceremonies.

The decline of meliponiculture (cultivation of stingless bees) began practically from the arrival of the European Apis mellifera bee, whose massive honey production largely displaced the traditional xunan kab system. At the same time, the introduction of sugar cane and its widespread consumption further contributed to the abandonment of this activity. Another recent factor that has negatively influenced xunan kab populations is that they share floral resources with a growing population of Africanized and European bees. At present, it is very difficult to find this species in the wild due to the ever-increasing reduction of its habitat: the deciduous and sub-deciduous forests that are being highly deteriorated for various reasons. On the other hand, the Africanized bee competes with xunan kab for both food sources and nesting sites. Moreover, the Africanized bee has a low selectivity of nesting sites and reproduces with great abundance.

Xunan kab or Melipona beecheii belongs to the Meliponinae family and is found in the neotropics of Central America and Mexico. In this country, it is mainly concentrated in the Yucatan Peninsula.

Today honeybee farming in the Yucatan Peninsula has approximately 500 producers. In Puebla, Veracruz and other states this species is bred but on a small scale. For producers, beekeeping does not represent an activity that requires large investments, but its production has certain disadvantages. To work with these bees does not require a lot of money, but you have to wait a long time to get honey because they are very slow to produce.

The technique for cultivating the Melipona beecheii bee is still the same as in the past. They use hollowed trunks called jobones, which come from different trees. In the past, guano (Sobal mexicana), a plant of the Palmae family native to the Peninsula, was planted to provide nectar for the bees, and its leaves were used for roofing houses and the trunks for bee stumps. At present, the knowledge of the management of the melipona bee is being lost, since the few producers that still try to reproduce their colonies do it at a stage of their development that is not adequate and generally lose the colonies. In Brazil, a hive model was designed for the honey bee that shows advantages in both management and production and allows the colony to be easily checked, so that Mexico has tried to promote the use of this type of hive.

Traditionally, beekeeping has been developed in a system that is related to the cultivation and diversified use of native plants in home gardens. These orchards constitute one of the most efficient management systems for biodiversity conservation. The arrival of the African bee forced the removal of Apis mellifera colonies from the backyards, which is why today they are unoccupied.

Apis mellifera bees present certain limitations for crop pollination. Given the successful dispersal of Apis mellifera in America, it is believed that this bee is the ideal pollinator of many crops, but this is not the case. In Canada, an attempt was made to introduce it into alfalfa crops, but the results were not good. Then it was discovered that the Megachile rotundata bee existed there, which is a very efficient pollinator of that crop, so now they are reproducing it to pollinate alfalfa crops. Here in Yucatan, for example, tomato crops have difficulty pollinating without the intervention of an agent, so it is urgent to investigate and detect the bee that shows a preference for that crop and is probably a native bee.

Although the outlook for beekeeping seems to be in its most difficult stage, the cultural value it represents, the benefit it provides to native plants, and the economic income that can result from its resurgence are fundamental reasons to promote this activity. To this end, it is necessary to undertake actions aimed at disseminating among the local population the value and importance of this resource, provide advice and training to producers on the management of adequate hives to increase the volume of production, give greater attention to existing honeybee farms and reproduce the number of their colonies, develop and disseminate scientific studies on the curative potential of the products and find marketing channels.

The division of labor and the main products offered by bees

In a honey bee colony there is a very marked division of labor. The queen bee -only one in each hive- has the function of procreating the population of individuals that make up the hive. Most of the bees in a hive are workers: some, the nurse bees, take care of the brood, others collect nectar and pollen, others ventilate the hive, still, others clean the cells, and the guard bees ensure that no outsider enters the hive. The builders make new combs and the only function of the drones is to mate with the queen.

Royal jelly

Normally bees use this substance as food for the queen bee and for the larvae during their first 72 hours of life. It is mainly composed of vitamins and ashes.

Wax

It is a white substance secreted by bees for the construction of honeycombs.

Pollen

Pollen is collected from flowers and formed into tiny balls that are carried in the baskets on their hind legs to the comb. It serves as a complement to their diet; it is rich in proteins, reducing sugars, starch, and ash.

Propolis

It is a resinous substance composed of balsams, oils, wax and pollen. Bees collect it from the bark of trees and use it in their hives as a disinfectant sealant.

Honey

They make it from the nectar they collect from flowers. The transformation of nectar into honey begins as soon as it reaches the bee's honey crop. It is then deposited in the cells by adding salivary secretions, rich in minerals and enzymes. In the hive, the bees beat their wings rapidly to generate air currents so that the water evaporates and the sugars are concentrated until only 18 to 20% of water remains and the honey is concentrated.

By Jacinta Ramírez, Source: Biodiversitas (6), Mexico: CONABIO