[PHOTOS] Honey from stingless bees increasingly sought after in gourmet cuisine

[PHOTOS] Honey from stingless bees increasingly sought after in gourmet cuisine

BET À DAY

BRASILIA | Luiz Lustosa lifts the lid of a wooden box and instantly thousands of bees emerge from small wax craters and form a buzzing cloud around him.

“It's wonderful!”, told AFP this 66-year-old civil servant who devotes his free time to his breeding of native bees, whose honey is increasingly sought after in gourmet cuisine, but also in the pharmaceutical industry or the cosmetics.

Mr. Lustosa wears only a long-sleeved shirt, jeans, and a hat with a veil to protect her face.

Because native bees (“meliponids”) have no stinger, and coexist without problems with humans. They have a huge role to play in protecting the environment, and that impresses Luiz Lustosa.

President of the Abelha Nativa (Native Bee) Institute in Brasilia, Luiz Lustosa has taken a passion for the reproduction of six species, when he realized, with other researchers, that they were on the verge of extinction.

“But it wasn't just the bees, but all of nature” that was, he says.

“We explain to the children that these bees don't sting, that they are necessary for the environment, to nature, and that they are there to help us”, says Mr. Lustosa, interviewed at the Institute where he organizes workshops on the reproduction of bees, and sells native honey.

Untapped potential

Although interest in these bees has increased during the Covid pandemic — individuals have started to keep them at home — native bees remain a little-known treasure in Brazil, where there are a large number of species.

Jatai, uruçu, mandaçaia, mandaguari… of the 550 species of stingless bees identified in the world — always in tropical or subtropical countries — 250 have been found in Brazil, according to Cristiano Menezes, head of research and development at the state-run Embrapa (Brazilian Agricultural Research Company).

On farms, growers rely heavily on native bees to pollinate and improve the yield of soft fruit crops, pears or avocados, among others.

But this honey has long been known to native tribes and considered purer and healthier (it has a low glycemic index and bees only feed on flowers and fruits) is also beginning to interest the gastronomy sector.

Honey from these bees, whose taste and acidity differ depending on the species, is more expensive and sought after than that of bees with stingers, which produce up to 30 times more.

When a kilo of African bee honey (with stinger) sells for nearly six euros ($8 CAD), that of a native bee trades for almost 55 euros ($72 CAD).

“Bees allow companies to have a positive impact on society, the environment and agriculture”, summarizes Mr. Menezes.

“A rich world like that of wine”

Native bees were forgotten during the colonization of the Americas.

The Jesuits are said to have introduced African bees, which were more sought after at the beginning of the 19th century because of their thick wax used to make candles.

Unlike these, meliponids will not feed on food scraps containing sugar, but only on native trees. So it is as important for honey growers to plant fruit trees as it is to breed insects.

“They depend on the vegetation, on the forest. This is why these beekeepers are conservation agents,” Jeronimo Villas-Boas, an ecologist and beekeeper in Sao Paulo, told AFP.

Mr. Villas-Boas is trying to increase the production of honey so that this product “consumed by different populations” such as indigenous tribes and descendants of slaves can make it “a trade”.

Among its customers: renowned Brazilian chef Alex Atala, of the two-Michelin-starred D.O.M restaurant in Sao Paulo. Fascinated by the honey from native bees, he put it on his menu.

It's the “most entertaining part of the menu”, Mr Atala told AFP in the restaurant's kitchen located in the chic neighborhood of Jardins: a piece of cassava cooked in milk, drizzled with honey from the Brazilian tubi species, which is offered between the main course and dessert.

“We have a world as rich as that of wine to discover”, marvels the starred chef.