There are about 800 species of stingless bees (Meliponines) that can be found in tropical regions of the world (Tropical America, Australia, Africa and Southeast Asia). In fact stingless bees do have stingers but they are so small that they are ineffective and instead defend their colony by biting. The stingless bee bite is similar to a mosquito bite. The stingless bees will nest in open tree cavities, rock crevices or underground openings.
The stingless bees (Melipona Beecheii and Melipona Yucatanica) in Central America have been kept by the Mayan people for thousands of years and are part of their traditional religious ceremonies. The bees are kept like family pets in log hives or pots passed down from generation to generation. The future of the Mayan stingless bee is bleak due to deforestation and the introduction of the Africanized honey bee which produces a far greater yield of honey. A significant problem is that the Africanized honey bee does not pollinate many of the native trees and shrubs which as a result are declining. The number of traditional Mayan beekeepers has reduced drastically with elderly men and women being the last of their kind.
Eric Tourneret is an amazing photographer who has studied the relationship between different cultures and bees including the Mexican stingless bee (The Bee Photographer). Part of this study involves the efforts to increase traditional stingless beekeeping along with the fair trade initiative (Fairtrade in Mexico) both of which I feel are very important issues. The group "Schools for Chiapas" is also working to promote traditional stingless beekeeping with educators, students and communities. The video below shows the traditional Melipona bee ceremony known as Un-hanli-cab in Yucatan, Mexico.
Native stingless bees have been kept by cultures throughout the world and the video below is of an Australian native stingless beekeeper.
There are many species of stingless bees in the Amazon and they also play an important part in the environment as pollinators. 34 species of stingless bees have been identified in the Amazon region of which 9 were considered domesticated by the locals. Below is a video by Eric Tourneret in his continuing study of the relationship between bees and people entitled "The Amazing Stingless Bees of the Amazon".
To read further about the stingless bees of the Maya read Xuna Kab, The Stingless Bees of the Yucatan, The State of Melipona in Mexico today and Meliponas in Yucatan. All of these are also available in our Beekeepers' Library. To read an article on stingless beekeeping in India go to The Hindu.
Help the School for Chiapas save the Mayan Stingless Bee through the Mayan Stingless Bee Recuperation Program (http://www.schoolsforchiapas.org/advances/sustainable-agriculture/meliponas/).