BRASILIA | Luiz Lustosa lifts the lid of a wooden box and instantly thousands of bees emerge from small wax craters and form a buzzing cloud around him.
"It's wonderful!", told AFP this 66-year-old civil servant who devotes his free time to his breeding of native bees, whose honey is increasingly sought after in gourmet cuisine, but also in the pharmaceutical or cosmetics industry.
Mr. Lustosa wears only a long-sleeved shirt, jeans and a hat with a veil to protect his face.
Because native bees (“meliponids”) have no stinger, and coexist without problems with humans. They have a huge role to play in protecting the environment, and that impresses Luiz Lustosa.
President of the Abelha Nativa (Native Bee) Institute in Brasilia, Luiz Lustosa fell in love with the reproduction of six species when he realized, along with other researchers, that they were in the process of 'extinction.
"But it wasn't just the bees, but all of nature" that was, he says.
“We explain to the children that these bees do not sting, that they are necessary for the environment, for nature, and that they are there to help us”, says Mr. Lustosa, questioned at the Institute where he organizes workshops on the reproduction of bees, and sells native honey.
Although interest in these bees has increased during the Covid pandemic -- individuals have started to keep them at home -- native bees remain a little-known treasure in Brazil, where there are a large number of species.
Jatai, uruçu, mandaçaia, mandaguari... of the 550 species of stingless bees identified in the world -- always in tropical or subtropical countries -- 250 have been found in Brazil, according to Cristiano Menezes, head of research and development of the public body Embrapa (Brazilian Agricultural Research Company).
On farms, growers rely heavily on native bees to pollinate and improve the yield of soft fruit crops, pears or avocados, among others.
But this honey, long known to indigenous tribes and considered purer and healthier (it has a low glycemic index and bees only feed on flowers and fruits) is also beginning to interest the gastronomy sector.
The honey from these bees, whose taste and acidity differ according to the species, is more expensive and sought after than that of bees with stings, which produce up to 30 times more.
When a kilo of honey from an African bee (with stinger) sells for nearly six euros ($8 CAD), that of a native bee trades for almost 55 euros ($72 CAD).
“Bees allow companies to have a positive impact on society, the environment and agriculture,” summarizes Mr. Menezes.
“A rich world like that of wine”
Native bees were forgotten during the colonization of the Americas.
The Jesuits are said to have introduced African bees, which were more sought after in the early 19th century because of their thick wax to make candles.
Unlike these, meliponids will not feed on sugar-containing food scraps, but only on native trees. Planting fruit trees is therefore as important for honey growers as breeding insects.
“They depend on the vegetation, the forest. This is why these beekeepers are conservation agents,” Jeronimo Villas-Boas, an ecologist and beekeeper in Sao Paulo, told AFP.
Mr. Villas-Boas is trying to increase the production of honey so that this product “consumed by different populations” such as indigenous tribes and descendants of slaves can make it “a trade”.
Among his clients: the renowned Brazilian chef Alex Atala, of the restaurant D.O.M in Sao Paulo, two Michelin stars. Fascinated by honey from native bees, he put it on his menu.
This is the "most entertaining part of the menu", Mr. Atala told AFP in the kitchen of the restaurant located in the chic Jardins district: a piece of cassava cooked in milk, drizzled with honey from the Brazilian species tubi, which is offered between main course and dessert.
“We have a world as rich as that of wine to discover,” marvels the starred chef.