Honey Hunters And Pollinators Conservation

Marina Siqueira de Castro
Empresa Baiana de Desenvolvimento Agrícola- Brazil

The continuous pattern of eusocial bee exploitation by honey extractors (honey hunters), who adopt predatory practices as a professional occupation in the semiarid regions of northeastern Brazil, was identified as a factor in the decline in the numbers of pollinators in the caatinga ecosystem. Cutting the biggest trees in semiarid areas, they remove habitats and food for pollinators. Pollinator populations decline and, consequently, remaining trees fail to set fruit. The ecosystem fails as the vicious cycle continues, as described by Janzen for tropical ecosystems.

Honey extractors in Bahia were profiled and their activities were studied. Each collector studied harvested, on average, 450 kg of honey in three months. Through their activities, each also destroyed 35 to 40 trees of relevant economic importance to the semiarid region of NE Brazil: Commiphora lepthophoeus, Burseraceae; Schinopsis brasiliensis, Spondias tuberosa and Myracrodum urundeuva, Anacardiaceae, and Caesalpinia pyramidalis, Caesalpiniaceae.

The average honey extractor earns his living from activities as varied as sporadic plantation work, Spondias tuberosa fruit picking and honey extraction after rainy seasons. He doesn't fear the Africanised honeybees (he doesn't use any protection other than smoke). He knows the names of the various bee species, their behaviour and their nesting sites, as well as the "caatinga dynamics". He is a leader and shares his knowledge with other members of the community, who believe his honey to be totally reliable. Women and children help him in locating nests. In the semiarid areas, honey extraction and capture of wild animals is, as they say, a "professional occupation" involving true "specialists", whose objective is earning money to survive.

The negative effects of honey hunter practices have been identified as low honey quality, bacterial contamination due to the non-hygienic extraction process, contamination from plaguicides; the destruction or dispersal of colonies of stingless bees (Meliponini) and Africanized honey bees (Apis mellifera) and the partial or total destruction of bee nests during honey extraction.

Could honey hunters contribute to pollinator conservation in Brazil? They are leaders in the community, and have an inherent knowledge of bees and their nesting sites, as well as of honey harvesting. But they need new approaches to bee handling and habitat conservation. They should receive special training regarding bee management and breeding techniques. They also need financial support during their transition from predators to protectors. This is the true challenge: to transform a honey hunter into a leading beekeeper in the community.

We concluded that the activities of honey hunters in NE Brazil are one of the causes of the decline in the numbers of pollinators. The success of pollinator conservation programmes in semiarid areas depends on the degree of involvement of honey extractors. They must be made to understand that the maintenance of eusocial bees would also increase their incomes.
Ecosystem studied: Semiarid areas of NE Brazil.

Organisms: Stingless bees and Africanised bees.
Main lessons learned: The study highlights the need for employing honey hunters' knowledge of local bees, plants and habitats in order to establish the sustainable use of stingless bees and Africanised honeybees and the conservation of pollinators in semiarid areas.