I remember always being scared of bee stings as a child. I also have fond memories of my mother making me a delicious hot remedy when I had a cough, which consisted of lemon juice, brandy and honey.
These two distinct childhood experiences with bees and honey were triggered during a recent visit with Luis Gabriel Zamora at Universidad Nacional’s Tropical Beekeeping Research Center (CINAT) in Heredia, north of San José. Bees and the healing properties of honey are the focus of several research and educational projects at the center.
Someone once told me that if a bee approaches you, the best way not to get stung is to stay perfectly still. But what if it’s a “stingless” bee? That’s right; Costa Rica is home to about 60 species of stingless bees.
Interestingly, stingless bees are found only in the tropics, from Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula to the Amazon River. These bees also produce honey, and Zamora’s work focuses on the unique medical properties of this honey to heal infected burns and wounds. As coordinator of CINAT’s Microbiology Department, Zamora studies the biochemical characteristics of Costa Rican stingless bees.
What are the most important objectives of his research? With a worldwide problem of resistance to antibiotics, it is essential to find alternatives for treating infectious wounds.
“Stingless bee honey inhibits the growth of microorganisms,” Zamora said. At the blank stare on my face, he went on to provide the following example: “Imagine a plain soccer field. In the middle is a rabbit. This rabbit is the resistant bacteria. On the perimeter of the soccer field is one hunter with one gun, which has one bullet. The hunter is the antibiotic with only one shot at killing the rabbit.
“Now imagine the same field with the same resistant rabbit in the center, but now it is surrounded by many hunters all along the perimeter, with many weapons and many bullets. Those hunters represent the multiple healing properties of stingless bee honey. It is the natural remedy to the problem, with a bouquet of options.”
Zamora has a big vision about the importance of honey’s healing properties. “Imagine people with cataracts, infectious wounds or burns who can be healed,” he said. “Imagine a limb that has to be amputated because of an infectious wound, which could be saved with a dressing using stingless bee honey.”
When I asked Zamora why more research has not been done in this field, he replied, “The pharmaceutical companies have a strong link to use of antibiotics, and studying this would bring different possibilities for everyone.”
“In fact, use of bee venom therapy, or apitherapy, is very common in Cuba, New Zealand and Africa,” he added. “There are clinics in Cuba where stinging bees are used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis.”
The differences between stinging and stingless bee honey was difficult to comprehend until I saw it with my own eyes. During my visit to CINAT, Zamora took me on a tour of the bee garden, where I learned that stingless bees form their hives in a completely different manner to that of stinging bees. While there is still the social behavioral organization headed by the queen bee, stingless bees work to build their hives inside of logs of dead wood, rather than making wax hives like stinging bees do.
We were able to walk right up to a number of logs where the small, harmless, stingless bees were hard at work. They looked more like flies than the typical bumblebee I was taught to fear as a child.
Here I learned that the honey produced by stingless bees differs from stinging bee honey in terms of viscosity and taste; it is a much thinner substance, but with a much fuller flavor, as I discovered upon getting to do a taste comparison.
In addition to conducting research on these fascinating insects, the center offers teaching and community outreach programs. Students can receive Master’s degrees in tropical apiculture from the university, and work on various thesis projects to assist in the research, as well as carrying out studies of their own.
Community outreach programs, such as one in which women in the mountain town of Puriscal, southwest of San José, are trained in honey production (TT, Oct. 22, 2004), aim to educate the general population about the importance of caring for bees and their surroundings.
Projecting research results to the community comes about through teaching and production of honey and honey-based products.
Available for purchase at CINAT are creamed honey, which is a whipped honey for spreading, honey wine and honey lotions for hand and body. These products are made from stinging-bee honey, which is produced in much greater quantities, while the stingless bee honey is reserved for research.
“Man has always been fascinated by bees and their organizational capacities,” said Luis Sánchez, director of CINAT. “Many societies and governmental structures, such as the monarchies in Europe, were modeled after the ways a queen bee leads its worker bees, and Marxist principles relate to how worker bees function as a team.”
These parting words left me pondering the complexities of bees, and the possibilities for healing and health they offer. On a grander scale, one must ponder, “What happens when we don’t take care of bees, and the trees, flowers and fruit that make pollination and honey production possible?”
If we needed another reminder of how fragile our ecosystems are, and the benefits we receive when we protect and preserve them, here it is.