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The University of El Salvador, through the Faculty of Agronomy Science’s project Stingless bees and their importance in agriculture researched the diversity of species and the location of stingless bees and beekeepers. The project also included research on tomato and sweet pepper pollination with stingless bees in green houses, evaluation of the use of propolis in treatment of papilomatosis (disease of cattle), and use of honey and propolis for healing wounds in rabbits. The project offered training to farmers in keeping stingless bees.
Stingless bee species and meliponiculture
It is important to know the species of stingless bees and their role in pollinating crops and wild plants. Biodiversity is indicative of natural conditions. Twenty endemic stingless bee species were identified by our researchers in 2007. Combining these findings with previous inventories by other researchers increases the total to at least 22 species.
In many American countries meliponiculture (keeping stingless bees) is an ancient practice. Honey from stingless bees played an important role in religious traditions of the ancient Maya culture, and today there are over 1,000 families in El Salvador keeping stingless bees. The majority (72%) keep single stingless species, while 28% keep more than one species. The species kept most frequently is “jicote” Melipona beecheii[ followed by “chumelo” Tetragonisca angustula and “zarquita” ]Nannotrigona testaceicornis. Stingless beekeepers with Melipona beechei arvest an average 2.17 litres of honey (range 0.75-7.50 litres). The price varies between US$2.67 and US$14.67 (€2.03-€11.13) per litre. Tetragonisca angustula produces on average 0.33 litres and the price ranges from US$1.00 to US$2.50 (€0.76- €1.90) for 10 ml. The cost of a colony of Melipona beecheii, including a log or box, varies from US$40 to US$100 (€30-€76) and for [Tetragonisca angustula from US$10 toUS$25 (€7-€19).
The majority of stingless beekeepers are male and around 50 years old. They mostly use boxes for housing their colonies, although some still use hollow logs, bamboo trunks, cement tubes or dried pumpkins. The management of these colonies is rudimentary and not all beekeepers check the inside of the hive. A few feed with syrup (water and sugar) during the rainy season. Over 60% do not know how to artificially reproduce colonies and over 55% harvest honey only once a year.
According to stingless beekeepers the main problems are:
• Pests - including “limoncillo” Lestrimelitta limao and “mosca”, mosquito Phoridae spp;
• Deforestation and forest fires;
• Inappropriate use of agrochemicals;
• Theft of colonies;
• Migration of farmers to cities or other countries;
• Lack of technical knowledge.
Products and service
The honey from Melipona beecheii is used for food, as a natural antibiotic and to heal wounds and burns in humans and domestic animals. Honey from Tetragonisca angustula is used particularly as a treatment for eye diseases, including cataracts and conjunctivitis.
There are other products and services that can provide extra income to beekeepers, such as the recycling of cerumen (wax mixed by bees with resins from trees), utilisation of pollen, processing of propolis, the sale of colonies and services for crop pollination.
Cerumen is not usually processed, although a few stingless beekeepers melt it and use it to make receptacles for the bees to store pollen or honey so as to save their material, similar to providing beeswax foundation in Apis mellifera beekeeping. It is used also to seal small grain bins.
Pollen from Tetragonisca angustula ] is a source of protein that is not usually consumed, although some farmers eat it together with honey. Pollen from Melipona beecheii is not used as a food, because its flavour is too acidic and it ferments readily, although one beekeeper uses it for dandruff control and skin care.
If the propolis is processed, it can be sold for US$3 to US$5 (€2-€4) per 25 ml, depending on the concentration. This is equivalent to the price for propolis from Apis mellifera and the uses will be similar: to heal wounds and for its antibacterial, antiviral, and antimicrobic properties.
It is difficult to purchase colonies of stingless bees, because the beekeepers develop very strong bonds in inheritance cases and consider these bees as special pets. However, if they reproduce the bee colonies to increase the numbers, they may sell some of them.
An example of the importance of these bees for crop pollination is Trigona fulviventris, the most frequent pollinator (43% of visits) to [itals]Cucurbita mixta[end], a pumpkin endemic to Mesoamerica. Pollination increases the number of fruits, the weight of the fruits and the number of seeds per fruit.
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El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America. The population is 6.5 million with [itals]per capita[end] income US$2,540 (€1,928). Natural vegetation and cultivated trees cover 34% of the land. The tropical weather has average temperatures of 23°C and the dry and rainy seasons each last about six months.
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