- The Guarani living in the Jaraguá Indigenous Territory in the northwestern corner of the mega city of São Paulo have managed to recover nine species of native bees that had died out in the region, today thriving in 300 hives.
- Unlike the better-known Africanized honey bees, native Brazilian bees have no stingers and are less aggressive.
- Native bees are sacred to the Guarani, who use the wax to keep bad spirits away and honey and propolis to cure a range of ailments.
- These bee species are also important pollinators: some Brazilian plants can only be pollinated by native bees.
Márcio Werá Mirim, chief of the village of Tekoá Yvy Porã, shares his people’s sacred story in a mix of Portuguese and Guarani as he walks along a path in the rainforest.
“The name we use for sacred, untouched forest is Ka’agüy poru ey. These are places where people should never interfere,” says the Indigenous Guarani leader as he moves deeper into the forest until the sound of cars, just 2 kilometers, or a little more than a mile away in the city, can no longer be heard.
But the Jaraguá Indigenous Territory, where we’re talking, is anything but untouched. Located just 16 km (10 mi) from downtown in the northwestern corner of São Paulo, the most populous city in the Western Hemisphere, this place has been the stage for land ownership disputes and invasions since the first Europeans arrived here in the 16th century: it was one of the first sites where gold was mined in Brazil, was later used for coffee farming, and in recent decades has been subject to invasions and real estate speculation.
Surrounded by polluted rivers, noise, traffic jams and deforested land, not to mention the constant struggle with one of the world’s largest cities for every square centimeter of land, the 125 Indigenous families living in the six villages inside Jaraguá decided in 2017 to join forces in planting native Atlantic Rainforest seedlings and bringing back indigenous bees, which are important pollinators.
After six years of work, the Jaraguá Guarani proudly sustain a meliponário, a collection of Indigenous beehives, with 300 hives that house nine native bee species. These are the uruçu-amarela, tubuna, mandaçaia, mandaguari-amarela, borá, mirim, jataí, arapuá and marmelada.
More than providing food, the return of native bees considered sacred by many ethnic groups in Brazil has also brought back an important part of the Guarani ancestral way of living. This includes naming ceremonies using candles made from native beeswax and the production of various incenses to treat depression and mental illnesses.
“The indigenous bees have helped us recover ancestral knowledge that uses the honey and wax for medicines, blessings, baptisms and keeping bad spirits away. We had always heard about these practices, but had never been able to use them because the native bees had all died off in Jaraguá,” Werá Mirim says.
Before the return of the native bees, gone from the territory for 43 years, the making of traditional handicrafts was one of the few ancestral activities that remained for the people in the Jaraguá Indigenous Territory. Confined to this reservation squeezed between the Bandeirantes and Anhanguera freeways and cut in two by the Jaraguá Tourist Route, the São Paulo Guarani are unable to carry out ancestral practices like hunting and fishing.
“It’s really hard for Indigenous people not to be able to swim in a river, but now we are keeping the native bees. This brings us some peace, calms the spirit and strengthens our traditions. Plus, we now have more flowers in the springtime and our agroforest is more productive,” Werá Mirim says.
No bees, no food
Osmar Malaspina, a professor at São Paulo State University’s (UNESP) Center for the Study of Social Insects (CEIS), says indigenous bees produce less honey than non-native species, yet are important pollinators for the native plants.
“Some native Brazilian flowers can only be pollinated by indigenous bees. And in some other cases, like with the passionflower, Africanized bees disrupt the work of indigenous bees by removing the pollen from the passionflowers without being able to pollinate them,” Malaspina says.
He points to studies showing how native bee colonies can increase agricultural production in Brazil and generate larger fruits in greater quantities.
“We would be able to increase soybean production in Brazil by 18% without cutting down a single square centimeter of rainforest, just because of the pollination power of native bees. We can also say that, if there are no bees, there will be no food. Without native bees, we would have no tomatoes, almonds, passionfruit, bell peppers, eggplants, melons … just to name a few crops,” he says.
When one imagines an apiary full of bees ready to sting anyone that comes close, “peace” isn’t exactly the word that comes to mind.
“But we don’t have an apiary. We have a meliponário,” Werá Mirim says, opening a cedar box that’s home to a hive of thousands of tiny, bright yellow bees.
“Indigenous bees aren’t violent like the Africanized ones. They have no stingers, so the most they can do is get tangled up in your hair.”
Werá Mirim uses no special clothes or gloves to handle the hive.
Africanized bees, often informally called “killer bees,” are a hybrid of various subspecies of the western honey bee (Apis mellifera), a non-native species.
During the European colonization of South America, Catholic priests introduced European bees to Brazil for their wax so that they could make candles, and apiculture spread throughout the region over the years. But because the European subspecies aren’t very strong honey producers, a teacher brought East African lowland honey bees to Brazil in 1956. This subspecies of A. mellifera is a strong honey producer, but it’s also aggressive, Malaspina says.
Highly productive, adaptable, disease-resistant and very aggressive, the Africanized bees spread across nearly the entire Americas. Meanwhile, the indigenous bee species, more fragile and dependent on rainforest and other intact habitats to survive, disappeared from regions that had been intensively deforested — especially the Atlantic Forest, today Brazil’s most threatened biome. According to the 2021 “Atlantic Rainforest Atlas” report, just one-eighth of the original forest cover remains.
A study published this past February in the journal Environmental Pollution, co-authored by Malaspina, shows that native bees are also more sensitive to pesticides than stinging bees.
“The native bee species are greatly dependent on preservation of the rainforests where they live so they can build their hives,” Malaspina says. “If a colony is removed from the tree where it is installed, it can die. This is why we have a law prohibiting the removal of hives from nature. There are ways of collecting them with bait that don’t interfere with the environment.”
Werá Mirim uses one of these techniques, which involves placing natural bait inside plastic bottles hanging from tree trunks in the rainforest to attract the insects. Once a nest is formed inside the bottle, he removes it from the tree and transfers it nest to a cedar box adapted for the native bees to be able to build out their hive.
The bee idea
The idea of creating a meliponário in the Jaraguá Indigenous Territory began with Márcio Werá Mirim’s cousin, Tiago Karai, a xondaro (warrior) and one of the guardians of the territory.
At the time, Werá Mirim was living in the state of Espírito Santo, in the coastal Tupiniquim Indigenous Territory. There, he learned how to raise bees from his uncles. Guarani family members from all over Brazil frequently exchange seeds and plants to ensure that important species in their food traditions don’t disappear from the Indigenous territories.
“I went to visit the village in Espírito Santo. When I arrived, I looked out into the backyard and saw Márcio with his shirt off and a bunch of bees surrounding him. ‘He’s really lost it,’ I thought to myself. It was then that I learned about the stinger-free bees,” says Tiago Karai, who until then didn’t know how important native bees had been to his people.
“Because our culture is transmitted orally from the older generations to the younger ones, the native bee tradition had disappeared together with the Atlantic Rainforest,” he adds.
Karai became fascinated with the indigenous bees and convinced his cousin to return to the Jaraguá Indigenous Territory to teach his São Paulo family members how to raise these species. This was also a time when the territory was suffering invasions from land grabbers along one of its borders. These invasions recur from time to time, compelling the Indigenous residents to migrate along the border to establish new villages and guarantee the protection of their land.
“We physically surround the territory to keep land grabbers from coming in wanting to build housing developments,” Karai says.
This was how the village of Tekoá Yvy Porã was formed nearly 10 years ago, just a few meters off the busy Jaraguá Tourist Route, which provides access to Jaraguá Peak, the city’s highest landmark and a popular destination. The community built its seedling greenhouse right on the shoulder of the tourist route.
So Márcio Werá Mirim returned to the Jaraguá Indigenous Territory in 2017, began the meliponário bee project, developed native beekeeping workshops for the children living in the territory, and was made chief of Tekoá Yvy Porã.
Since his return and the arrival of the native bees, the village’s prayer house has become its busiest meeting place.
“We make the sacred body paint that we use in our ceremony from the jataí bees. We also have the ‘honey ceremony’ in which we sing and pray to be purified. Other species are used for smoke ceremonies that help people with mental problems like depression,” Werá Mirim says.
The meliponário is also said to have brought greater spiritual protection to the homes in the community. “If someone is feeling sad inside a home, or if there are children who cry too much there, we place candles made from the wax from our bees to send the bad spirits away,” Werá Mirim says.
From the fight for territory to organic honey
Before he became chief, Márcio Werá Mirim had moved to the Tupiniquim Indigenous Territory around 2006, when his Espírito Santo family members sent out a call for Guarani warriors to help in their fight against invasions by pulp and paper manufacturer Aracruz Celulose, whose eucalyptus plantations had crossed the borders into the Indigenous territory.
“Family members from many parts of the country moved to the Tupiniquim territory to help. We cut down all the eucalyptus trees that had been planted on Indigenous land and, after much struggle, took back our territory,” Werá Mirim says.
The 14,325 hectares of self-demarcated land claimed by the Tupiniquim and Guarani were only ratified by the government in 2010. Despite the victory, part of the land they’d reclaimed had already been rendered unproductive.
“The eucalyptus left the land dry, lifeless and contaminated by pesticides. We couldn’t plant anything there. That’s when we started raising the indigenous Atlantic Rainforest bees that had disappeared from the region because of deforestation,” Werá Mirim says. Until then, he adds, he’d never seen native bees, nor had he been aware of their importance to the Guarani people.
The native bee project in the Aracruz villages became part of the Tupiniquim and Guarani Sustainability Plan (PSTG), funded by Suzano S/A (the old name for Aracruz Celulose) as compensation for the social and environmental damages caused to the Tupiniquim and Guarani peoples. Today, the Aracruz meliponários produce organic honey that’s a favorite of chefs across Brazil.
After the land was reclaimed from Aracruz and the native bees brought back, with rivers to swim and fish in along the Espírito Santo coastline, Márcio Werá Mirim says he rediscovered joy living there — something that had disappeared from the Jaraguá Indigenous Territory, an area officially the size of two football fields, making it the smallest Indigenous territory in Brazil. (In 2015, 532,000 hectares, or 1.31 million acres, were added to the territory, but this addition is still awaiting ratification by the government.)
“Raising bees brought me happiness, and the coast helped me feel less anguish. I had water to swim and fish in, and the bees to help my spirit stay there,” Werá Mirim says. “This is because we believe that when a person becomes very sad, their spirit has left the place and it’s very dangerous.”
But his happiness in the Tupiniquim Indigenous Territory was short-lived: in 2015, the Mariana dam holding mining waste from iron ore miner Samarco (a subsidiary of Vale, Brazil’s biggest miner) collapsed, sending a torrent of contaminated mud 700 km (430 mi) down the Doce River, affecting all the Aracruz villages. Swimming and fishing in the rivers were no longer possible.
“I couldn’t see any perspective for being able to live well in Aracruz without being able to fish. So I came back to Jaraguá. I came back with the bees,” Werá Mirim says.
Bees in the pet trade
There are 300 known regional species of indigenous bees living in Brazil, according to Malaspina, the UNESP professor.
“Even though they don’t sting and seem easy to handle, indigenous bees are quite fragile. For example, many can’t work in cold weather so their owners need to know how to feed the hives artificially during the winter. If not, thousands of bees die at the hands of these people,” Malaspina says.
Hives of native species sell online today for as much as 2,000 reais ($400). “Jataí hives, which are the most common indigenous species, are sold for 200-400 reais [$40-80], but the rarer the species, the higher the price,” Malaspina says.
Aside from these sales being illegal, he says, moving native bee species to regions outside their original areas can spread illness in the environment.
“In recent years, people have discovered stinger-free bees and have begun to take them out of nature to raise at home as if they were pets without first understanding the environmental risks involved. And then there are those who sell them. In other words, native bees have joined the pet market.”
Lourencetti, A. P. S., Azevedo, P., Miotelo, L., Malaspina, O., & Nocelli, R. C. F. (2023). Surrogate species in pesticide risk assessments: Toxicological data of three stingless bees species. Environmental Pollution, 318, 120842. doi:10.1016/j.envpol.2022.120842