- Delio de Jesús Suárez Gómez, a member of the Indigenous Tucano community in Colombia, is combining ancestral knowledge with science to help pollinating bees survive the harsh conditions of life in the rainforest.
- In return, the bees provide honey for families, which is sold, and boosts the communities’ food and fruit supply through pollination.
- The newly-formed group Asomegua (Asociación de Meliponicultores del Guainía) is the result of a decade of beekeeping in La Ceiba, a community on the banks of the Inírida River near the famous Mavicure Hills.
- Bee populations around the world, which participate in the pollination of 75% of the world’s food crops, are on the decline, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
LA CEIBA, Colombia — Nine years ago, Delio de Jesús Suárez Gómez made a pact with wild bees. The arrangement didn’t come easy, given that neither party knew each other well. The relationship was tense. When they crossed paths on the unspoiled trails of the forest in Guainía in eastern Colombia, the bees stood their ground, poised at the back of the hive, adopting a defensive position, ready to attack. Meanwhile, Delio Suárez kept moving, trying not to disturb the elusive calm of the forest that sheltered them.
Then, in an astonishing twist, the man offered the bees the kind of alliance that city dwellers visiting Guainía find difficult to understand. He promised to defend them from their rainforest opponents, such as ants and nomadic bees, which often invade their hives at night. In return, they would provide honey, an added purpose for the community, and a boost to their food and fruit supply.
The fact that their arrangement has, so far, worked perfectly does not mean it has always been a bed of roses — although it has been full of pollen-rich flowers. In order to attract bees to the area, Delio Suárez had to plant wild trees that would produce buds for them to feed on. The pollination process led his village, La Ceiba, to become a garden of myrsines (Myrsine guianensis), cominos (Aniba perutilis), monkey pots (Lecythis ollaria), and Alchornea triplinervia. Yellow, fuchsia, purple and white flowers are resplendent long through the year, as if the bees came to add color to the dull and dusty days of this part of Colombia, where in summer the sun shines mercilessly.
Negotiations between the humans and bees has been a process of mutual understanding, experimentation, trial and error, scientific method and wisdom spanning millennia, rather than simply a forest-based fairytale. This is the only way it has been able to work.
This is partly because the species of bees that inhabit the Amazon are so complex. They have their own internal struggles, conflicts with invasive insects, such as ants and nomadic bees; their own ways of communicating, sending messages, organizing themselves, working. And anyone wishing to interact with them has to be willing to respect the rhythm and rules dictating their hierarchical and surprising world, which revolves around a complex hive society that is home to a queen bee, thousands of worker bees, and a similar number of drones.
Living in a worldly treasure
Delio de Jesús Suárez Gómez is 58 years old, and a member of the Tucano Indigenous peoples. Fortunately, he says, he has a deep understanding of Mother Earth’s enigmas. He was born in a village called Monfort, a small hamlet in the department of Vaupés on the Brazilian border that is not listed on Wikipedia. He has no memory of his birthplace because, when he was six months old, he was brought in his mother’s arms to this community in the department of Guainía, known as La Ceiba, not far from Puerto Inírida, the department’s capital. The boat ride between the two takes 30 minutes.
Suárez Gómez grew up, became a community leader and met Silvia Perez, his wife and the mother of his five children. Laughing heartily as he glances at her out of the corner of his eye, he tells us that she was none other than the beautiful Princess Inírida of local legend who ran into the forest and never returned. He came to find her in La Ceiba. Silvia is an Indigenous Puinave, from a village called Caño Bocón, which is part of Barranco Tigre in Puerto Inírida.
Delio Suárez and Silvia Pérez are one of 57 families officially registered in this community, which was formed on the banks of the Inírida River and in which not only Puinaves and Tucanos coexist, but also members of the Curripaco and Cubeo peoples. There are only about 30 families left in their small village, with new generations having gone to the big cities to look for work. Electricity arrived here only a year ago. Within each conuco, each house’s plot of land, there is now a solar panel installed that provides them with the light that had previously eluded them throughout their lives.
People made a living from fishing, their main activity, and grew what they needed for home consumption, before the eventual bee boom came to La Ceiba. Yucca, pineapple, guama, cashew, lemon, cocoa, and chili were the most common crops. But not much more than that.
Although some other families had begun making handicrafts, selling them was not always easy. A decade ago, not many tourists came to Guainía. The baskets, earrings and bracelets made with the local chiquichi palm fiber were left gathering dust in their homes.
But this has changed over recent years, with increasing numbers of people looking to the department’s wonders as a possible travel destination. In 2016, the area had 1,180 tourists; last year there were 4,627, according to data collected by the tourist information center in agreement with Colombia’s National Tourism Fund (FONTUR).
Delio Suárez knew he wanted to do something for his community without sacrificing his culture and without damaging the forest he held in such esteem. The forest, he says, has a guardian, a higher power that humans must not violate. Although he had explored his territory for years, the idea of raising bees had never crossed his mind.
La Ceiba is located in a region of incredible biodiversity, situated near the Inírida Fluvial Star, where the Guaviare, Atabapo and Inírida rivers cross. It is an area rich in wetlands, and in 2014 was designated as a Ramsar site, a “Wetland of International Importance”, thanks to its abundance of wildlife, water and culture. It is one of humankind’s treasures, but it is under threat from illegal gold mining. In February 2023, the Governor’s Office issued an early warning about what in Guainía is an open secret — dredges had been installed along the rivers that were being used to extract minerals. Indeed, in July 2023, the national army intervened in Chorromanaca and Laguna Guibo, rainforest areas in Inírida, where seven mining production units were extracting seven and a half kilograms (16.5 pounds) of gold and six tons of other raw materials per month. According to the army, this could reach somewhere in the region of $115,000 on the black market.
Jaime Cabrera, a biologist and researcher with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), says that this region’s greatest treasure is not necessarily the ancient soil, the beautiful and varied fauna, or the incredible plants and trees. He says that the region’s greatest asset is its people. Cabrera has become a sort of ethnographer of the region’s Indigenous communities – he knows them like no-one else. For this reason, he sees a hope for the survival of the Amazon in people like Suárez Gómez.
Around 2010, it was common for groups of students to come to La Ceiba for their internships or mandatory field trips. They observed amphibians, insects, birds, fish, soils, plants, all of nature’s greatest riches that call the area home.
But Suárez Gómez was struck by the quiet work of two students who walked around monitoring bees. The young women were taking notes, making reports and talking about a large number of bees that were typical of the area – 27 in total. That’s when he first learned that it was possible to encourage the bees from the wild to human-made hives. And this gave him a big idea. It wasn’t just about honey – that was, perhaps, the smallest part. Suárez Gómez realized that humans depend on bees for survival.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) agrees. “Nearly 90% of the world’s wild flowering plant species depend, entirely, or at least in part, on animal pollination, along with more than 75% of the world’s food crops and 35% of global agricultural land.” Not only do bees directly contribute to people’s food security, but they are also key to protecting biodiversity.
The problem is that there are fewer and fewer bees on the planet. Suárez Gómez, who is by his very nature a researcher, environmentalist and observer, therefore set himself the task of looking at bee behavior, and reading all he could about them. Armed with some notes and a draft project plan, he went to the city to look for funding. He needed someone to believe. He went from office to office, both in Inírida and Bogotá. And no-one showed an interest. That was until a German professor who was traveling to Switzerland asked if he could show his idea to some friends at a charitable organization. It was at that moment in 2010 that the Ricola Foundation, a Swiss company that makes candies and herbal teas using natural herbs, arrived on the scene.
His idea got the stamp of approval. Ricola provided a grant to Colombia’s University of Pamplona to carry out a research project called “Stingless bees as alternative pollinators.” A German zootechnician named Wolfgang Hoffman came to La Ceiba. It involved four years of tracking the bees with GPS, identifying the local species from their taxonomy, analyzing their honey and carrying out tests. The aim of the project, which initially involved ten families, was also to introduce community members to the basic principles of meliponiculture, the term given to stingless bee beekeeping. At the end, the bees would provide honey for families, that could be sold, as well as boost to their food and fruit supply through pollination.
It took four years of diligently working out the details to find the key to success. During that time, Suárez Gómez learned, for example, that Guainía bees, like all hard-working Colombians, get up early for work. As a result of the support provided by Ricola and the University of Pamplona, he also learned that not all bees were suitable for the project. Of 27 Amazonian species, only seven met the fundamental condition of being stingless, a key aspect because only then are they harmless to humans. The seven chosen also had the distinction of being able to build their hives just a few meters above the ground.
The idea was for Suárez Gomez to build wooden hives to establish colonies. The colonies survive thanks to the presence of a queen bee – the only fertile one in the group, with a large tail and small wings – who lays eggs, produces pheromones, and unites the others, including the worker bees and drones. Worker bees eagerly go off in search of flowers from which to extract nectar that they later turn into honey. Drones just eat and wait for the queen to decide with which she will mate.
The seven species that Suárez Gómez began to keep at La Ceiba belong to two genera of bees: Melipona and Tetragonisca. From then on, Melipona eburnea, Melipona marginata, Melipona compressipes, Melipona crinita, Melipona titania, Tetragonisca angustula and Tetragonisca plebeia settled in the community as if they were relatives coming to stay. Although the species have much in common, they differ in physical characteristics such as size and color.
The seven species are also characterized by their unfathomably different behaviors. Melipona eburnea, for example, often decorate the entrance to their hives with tree resin and flower buds, beautifying the doorway to their home. This type of bee, which in the Tucano language Suárez Gomez calls “meneperia”, usually builds hives of around 2,500 individuals, including drones and workers. They produce an average of 2,300 cubic centimeters (140 cubic inches) of honey every three months, which equates to around 23 small jars.
Another type, Melipona marginata, can be identified by their orange and yellow fuzz. Delio estimates that there are 5,000 on average per hive. They produce much more honey – almost every two months — because they have more workers than drones. They are the most disciplined and aggressive, although not enough to harm a human. Common to all seven species is their excellent quality honey.
The bees’ natural and amazing symphony began in the boxes built by Suárez Gomez, and they had to be observed day and night. He, along with several fellow community members, learned the bees’ schedule, so he could take a young queen to the new wooden palace he had built for her at exactly the right moment, with her whole retinue of subjects following her. The regal bee then continues to lead the hive for her lifespan of at least three years.
The members of the colony also had to be helped to protect themselves against invaders. At night, nomadic bees from the area, recognizable by their shiny black color, often arrive in droves to attack the hives. First, they release an acid into the air, and go looking for the queen so they can slit her throat with their long pincers, as if waging war to seize a kingdom. Suárez Gómez had to learn the necessary skills to avoid fatalities and to save the lives of his allies. On many occasions he has achieved this by simply scaring off the invaders; other times, by killing some of them with traps made of canvas.
When a hive was becoming established, he also had to help the bees with various tasks so that they wouldn’t struggle to produce the first drops of honey – for example, by leaving them glasses full of sugar water. This is a sort of downpayment intended to give them a helping hand while they get used to their new job.
He also learned how to fight ants so that they would not climb on the wooden boxes, and studied the most sophisticated way of preventing the hives from being overrun with fungus. This technique makes use of another of nature’s wonders; encouraging mites capable of eradicating harmful microorganisms and hosting them in the hives, turning them into the bees’ partners and tenants. Today, the pollinators and tiny arachnids happily cohabit under the same roof, as if they have known each other all their lives.
In 2014, after four years, the Ricola Foundation and the University of Pamplona left. The goal of the project had been achieved, with the community successfully trained in the art of meliponiculture. During the last year of research in La Ceiba, the first drops of honey were produced. The process was a slow but meaningful one. At that moment, an even greater challenge arose for Suárez Gómez and his community as they established Asomegua (the Association of Guainía Meliponiculturists), which today has some 20 members.
The group has been working to perfect the project for the past nine years. At first, they partnered with a business in Bogotá that helped them set up a website and a brand for their honey trade, as a store window to attract tourists keen to take the honey route in the incredible landscapes of La Ceiba. But the partnership did not work out. Suárez Gómez says that he and his colleagues felt that the business was appropriating a work that belonged to the community. Several of the business’ actions were interpreted as interference that overstepped the boundaries of their trust.
So, together with his colleagues, he decided to go independent. It wasn’t exactly like starting from scratch, as the infrastructure and honey production already worked like clockwork. The difficult part was setting up a website, a new brand and a whole marketing platform for the honey. They are working on a way to let the world know about their bee tour, which includes a visit to La Ceiba, with lodging, food from the region, and the chance to visit the Inírida Fluvial Star and the Mavicure Hills, one of the oldest rock formations on the continent.
Years later, it is six o’clock in the morning on a day in July in 2023 and Suárez Gómez, with a coffee in his belly, begins his monitoring watch of the community’s 184 beehives. He is a jovial man who mixes jokes with stories of his success and the behavior of the bees – the same bees who, at this time in the morning, have already finished their working day. Wearing glasses that magnify his eyes and give him the look of a scientist about to reveal his secrets, a bee lands on one of his spectacle frames as he poses for a photograph.
We asked, what has impressed you most about bees in all the time you’ve known them?
He says he continues to be amazed by the way they bring the landscape to life. Since they arrived in the community, the trees and flowers bloom for longer, and the fruits germinate more easily. It is as if the soil is richer with their presence.
As Suárez Gómez approaches one of the hives, the Melipona marginata bees come out to defend their queen. Although they have no sting, they begin to hover over the heads of visitors and cling to clothing, as if fearing an invasion. Once they see that people are moving away, they return to their hive to continue working. This is just one of the experiences awaiting tourists when they visit La Ceiba.
During a guided tour with Suárez Gómez or one of his coworkers, he says people can truly appreciate the pact of mutual respect between the bees and this community in all its splendor. Theirs is a community that cares for the bees and that helps them fulfill a lifecycle full of mysteries, he tells Mongabay. It is an alliance between animals and human that is hard to explain with words, and that only makes sense against the setting of this now flourishing forest.
Banner image: Delio de Jesús Suárez and his coworkers are encouraging tourists to visit their village and take the honey route. There, visitors learn about the process of beekeeping and the importance of bees in the balance of nature. Photo Jose Guarnizo.
*Editor’s note: This coverage is part of the project “Amazon rights in focus: peoples and forest protection”, a series of investigative articles on the situation of deforestation and environmental crime in Colombia funded by Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative. Editorial decisions are made independently and not on the basis of donor support.
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: We look at how the Shuar Indigenous community in Ecuador recently won a major victory to protect its ancestral territory of Tiwi Nunka Forest from cattle ranchers, loggers and miners. Listen here:
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