Sweet new tenants: Brazil’s biggest city is raising bees to counter species loss

A view of Gerson Pinheiro_s stingless bee colony. Image credit: Courtesy of Gerson Pinheiro

Sweet new tenants: Brazil’s biggest city is raising bees to counter species loss

A lot of people in big cities are familiar with having cats and dogs as pets, but in São Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, a new trend is taking over: breeding bees. This new movement can potentially be great news for conservation.

Henrique Pereira lives in the neighborhood Jardim Monte Azul, in the Southern part of the city. There are 20 bee colonies in his garden, which he started taking care of in 2019. A biologist by formation, Pereira started sharing his observations with friends and family. “Some neighbors started to raise bees too, and we exchanged experiences”, says.

The bees he raises are stingless bees, native to the tropical rainforests of Brazil (most bees with stingers are actually not native). In the country there are more than 300 species, many of which are threatened.

Through various initiatives, Brazilians in São Paulo are starting a movement to breed stingless bees in urban spaces, something researchers call “urban Meliponiculture”. Experts say a massive bee raising movement could help to protect the biodiversity of flora and fauna at risk.

Bee populations have been in steady decline in the last three decades. A 2021 global studyestimated a 25% decline in the number of species since 1990. In Brazil there is no official data, but the Bee Alert application, of NGO Bee or not Bee, recorded the disappearance of 900 million bees in 16 months, between 2014 and 2015.

To combat this, following individual initiatives like Pereira’s, the Brazilian Agricultural Research Company (EMBRAPA), a public research company linked to the Ministry of Agriculture, opened up an online course on raising stingless bees in 2020. The people’s response was overwhelming.

EMBRAPA offered 3.000 vacancies, but so far 45.000 people have signed up. Much more than usual in the institution’s courses.

A UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report said that about 90% of the species of plants with wildflowers depend totally or partially on bees pollination. They are fundamental to food security and conservation in the world. The extinction of bees would mean the extinction of much of the world’s flora, the report says.

A selfie of Henrique Pereira with his bee colony. Image credit: Courtesy of Henrique Pereira

Urban bees

The people’s response to the new bee-raising course caught the researchers at Embrapa by surprise. Not only were they seeing a massive interest, but also coming from unexpected areas, they said.

“It was a big surprise. We had to increase the number of vacancies”, says Cristiano Menezes, PhD in entomology (bugs), a researcher in Embrapa. “We also noted that 80% of the subscribers are people who live in urban areas. Our public is usually rural people, but not this time,” he added.

After that, they decided to offer a new course, focusing on urban meliponiculture (the breeding of stingless bees in cities).

São Paulo experienced a huge increase in bee breeding in the last decade. The founder of the NGO “SOS Abelhas” (SOS Bees), Gerson Pinheiro, says that one reason is that people want to do something relevant for the environment.

Gerson started the group in 2014, after discovering the diversity and the importance of stingless bees. “In the beginning, we used to offer talks for schools and they didn't want to. People used to think bees are dangerous, to think there is no reason to talk about bees”, he remembered.

But after the first talks, the scenario changed. One school recommended the talk to others. The parents start to be interested. “In some years we didn’t have enough volunteers to talk about stingless bees”.

The group grew up and today there are more than twelve thousand people in SOS Abelhas in all of Brazil, most in Sao Paulo. They exchange experiences and participate in conservation campaigns.

“There are people who raise [bees] because they want honey, there are people who do it as a hobby, and there are a lot of people who want more diversity in the city, who care about conservation and about the species.
One of the stingless bee species raised by Gerson Pinheiro pollinating a flower. Image credit: Courtesy of Gerson Pinheiro

One of the stingless bee species raised by Gerson Pinheiro pollinating a flower. Image credit: Courtesy of Gerson Pinheiro

Climate sensitive

Gerson Pinheiro explains that people can raise bees in really small spaces, so they adapt well in urban areas. However, as temperatures increase due to climate change, bee colonies need extra care.

A colony can fit in a simple plastic bottle wrapped in paper to keep the bottle warm and a black trash bag to keep it dark. Bees will be attracted to spaces like this and start a colony, but they’ll need to be transferred to a wooden box afterward.

Henrique Pereira says he spends 4 hours a week caring for the bees. He has 20 colonies. “It’s so simple to raise. We start to develop a close relationship with the colonies, and we learn to know what they need”, says. “We feel close to nature”.

Most bees adapt really well to urban places, says Samuel Júlio Lima dos Santos, Master in biodiversity and conservation, who reviewed most of the research published in Brazil about stingless bees in urban places in the last 50 years.

The more adapted species are the generalists, who visit a lot of flower species.

But the study also shows there is a limit to this adaptation in urban places. “Keep the green areas and stop urbanization is essential. They’re so sensitive to climate change. If the places become too hot, they can die. Also, if big species lost their natural places, they can move to cities”, he explains.

In addition, the light affects them, because they follow the natural light to orient themselves. The bees are also affected by pesticides and products that kill the mosquito Aedes Aegypti (which causes dengue fever).

“Its important to conserve the city's bee population, because of the bees, and that is also a way to conserve and increase the diversity in green areas in big cities”
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