Originally published in The Speedy Bee, February 1997.

Eleventh Brazilian Beekeeping Congress Meets in Teresina


Malcolm T. Sanford

In this article:

Africanized bees Introduced in the sertao of Brazil
History of Africanized Bees in Brazil
Advantages of Africanized Bees in Brazil
Selection of Africanized Bees in Brazil
Advances in Managing Africanized Bees in Brazil
American Foulbrood in Argentina; Risk to Brazil
Honey Marketing: Organic Honey and MERCOSUL
Viruses and Varroa in Brazil
Pollination Possibilities in Brazil
Electronic Revolution in Brazil
Bee Nutrition Concerns: Feeding Protein
Other Bee Products
Stingless Bee Culture in Brazil
Commercial Displays
Associations and Funding


Brazil's northeast, like its Amazon rainforest, is one of the last frontiers in this huge country. During World War II, it became the stopover for many flights in an effort to find the shortest overwater route to supply troops in North Africa and elsewhere. Thus, Natal, Recife, and other Northeastern Brazilian coastal cities became well known in the early days of aviation and continue to be tourist destinations today. This is the poorest region of Brazil, principally due to the environmental conditions of the interior, a vast region called the sertao. Because of its extreme aridity and general inaccessibility, it was considered useless for agriculture for many years. Those owning land in the sertao abandoned/sold it whenever possible. The region is undergoing a renaissance of sorts, however, and there is increasing economic activity of all kinds, including beekeeping.

When the rains come to the sertao, they inundate this Brazilian upland with huge quantities of water for months on end. Once the floods stop, the land quickly becomes parched again. Most plants and animals inhabiting the area flourish during the wet period then physiologically withdraw until the next rains, often more than a half a year away. The bees of the sertao are no exception to this pattern. With the appearance of the first rain drops, these insects seem to appear out of nowhere to take advantage of the abundant pollen and nectar produced by a wide variety of plants in the predominant vegetative association called caatinga.

Africanized Bees Introduced to the Sertao

The sertao is perfect country for the African honey bee (Apis mellifera scutellata), the now infamous insect brought to Brazil in the 1950s that has since migrated throughout tropical America, crossing the Texas border in 1990. The bee is well adapted to produce the migratory swarms required by this harsh environment . The region is also home to a large number of stingless bees that produce smaller amounts of a qualitatively different honey than Apis bees. Although not as efficient in collecting and processing nectar, native, stingless bees are important to the region's ecology and increasingly, its economy.

In spite of the honey beekeeping resources of the caatinga, the sertao was not exploited until the brothers Arlindo and Arnaldo Wenzel from the southern state of Sã Paulo and Américo Bende from the northern state of Piauí teamed up to bring the first Langstroth hives to the region. In December 1977, they introduced 300 colonies of Apis bees to Piauí state. The results were nothing less than spectacular. In three months, they produced the same amount of honey as during an entire year in Sã Paulo state. Since then, the Wenzels have averaged 200 tons of honey per year with 5,000 colonies, reaching their highest yield in 1988 of 375 tons. This began a beekeeping boom that is apparent to any apicultural visitor to Piauí.

It is appropriate, therefore, that the Eleventh Brazilian Beekeeping Congress convened in the heart of the sertao, the capital of Piauí state, Teresina, November 26 through 30, 1996. Teresina is formed from the name of the Brazil's Portuguese emperor Dom Pedro II's wife, Teresa Cristina. The city is located between the Poti and Parnaíba rivers. The Parnaíba empties into the Atlantic Ocean to the north. Its delta is considered to be rivaled in complexity only by Africa's Nile and Vietnam's Mekong; characterized by large areas of mangrove, it is the source of the huge number of crabs consumed throughout Brazil. Teresina is unique in the region, being the only inland capital of Brazil's nine northeastern states.

History of Africanized Bees in Brazil

It is obvious from the size and enthusiasm of the crowd at the Teresina congress that beekeeping is alive and well here and in the rest of Brazil. Although there was no special theme for the event, several important topics were stressed. Most of these emerged in one of the major addresses by Eng. Agr. Paulo Gustavo Sommer, President of one of Brazil's largest beekeeping confederations. Titled "Forty Years of Africanized Beekeeping in Brazil," Eng Sommer's discussion charted the course of beekeeping in the world's fifth largest country from the 1940s to the present. Infestations of nosema (1943), tracheal mite (1950) and European foulbrood (1953) caused large loss of European honey bee colonies. A critical point was reached in 1962. Introduction of the Africanized honey bee 1956, however, was in the process of changing conditions radically.

The result of twenty-six queens escaping confinement in Rio Claro in the state of São Paulo was a huge expansion of Africanized bees in the wild. The rest is history; the insects saturated much of Brazil and neighboring countries. The result was complete destruction of beekeeping as it was known with European bees in mostly rustic hives. Rising phoenix-like from these ashes, however, has come a robust commercial activity based on Africanized bees, according to Eng. Sommer. Over ninety percent of Brazilian colonies are now managed in modern Langstroth equipment. A growth rate of 4.5 percent per year in honey production since 1985 has resulted in production of 35,000 tons in 1996, rivaling nearby Uruguay. And there seems little reason, Eng. Sommer concluded, that a level of 200,000 tons per year could not be reached in the future.

Besides the Langstroth hive, other modifications in beekeeping technique have been made in Brazil to accommodate the Africanized honey bee according to Eng. Sommer. Wax foundation has been adjusted to the bee's size, somewhat smaller than the European bee. The increased defensive behavior required a different smoking technique. Huge numbers of migratory and reproductive swarms nesting in many places and the possibility of them stinging the general public has presented challenges and opportunities in trapping bees. Finally, beekeepers have actively selected their bees to eliminate many objectionable behaviors for which this bee is generally known.

Advantages of Africanized Bees in Brazil

Among the most important attributes of the Africanized bee in Brazil, according to Eng. Sommer are:

1. Increased hygienic behavior.
2. More efficient foraging.
3. Greater natural resistance against pests and diseases.
4. Superior pollination in intensively cultivated fields.
5. Stronger genetic dominance.
5. Increased defensive and swarming behavior that can be controlled by genetic selection.

The latter behaviors would seem to be counterproductive, but proof that they are controllable is found in the present condition of Brazil's beekeeping industry. As part of this activity, Eng. Sommer, concluded, the country can count hundreds of short courses, symposiums, seminars and eleven national congresses. The scientific energy engendered is also apparent. The proceedings of the Teresina congress contains 429 pages. It includes summaries and full presentations of major talks, open discussions, small conferences and 79 posters, mostly by a large number of academics and students that were present from all over Brazil and a sprinkling of other countries.

Another important topic mentioned by Eng. Sommer is governmental recognition and regulation of bee products for human health. Since 1990, there has been a great increase in the number of extracts, cremes, and powders made from honey, wax, propolis, royal jelly and pollen. And the fact that beekeeping in Brazil does not require use of antibiotics nor pesticides also presents a unique opportunity to market so-called "organic" bee products to the world.

A lead institution in Brazilian bee research and education is the University of São Paulo at Ribeirão Preto (USPRP/SP), one of six campuses associated with the university bearing the name of Brazil's largest and most dynamic city. This author attended a conference given on that campus in June, 1996 called the II Encontro de Abelhas that showcased the scientific energy going into bee research of all kinds. It was near Ribeirão Preto in Rio Claro that the Africanized honey bee was introduced in 1956 by the well-known geneticist Dr. Warwick Kerr. Much of what has gone on subsequently in bee research is owed to that event.

A summary of this considerable body of knowledge was published as homage to Dr. Kerr in 1992. Called Brazilian Bee Research, the book is 600 pages in Portuguese with English abstracts of theses and dissertations, characterized in the introduction as, "...a resource for beekeepers, teachers, students and researchers in Brazil and around the world." It sells for $40 and is available directly from the publisher. For more information, contact Dr. Francisco A. Moura Duarte, Editor, Brazilian Journal of Genetics, FAX (016) 633-8631, email: rbg@genbov.fmrp.usp.br.

Selection of Africanized Bees in Brazil

As part of the II Encontro, Dr. Antonio Carlos Stort, Biology Department, Biosciences Institute at the Rio Claro campus, summarized the history of research and selection of Africanized honey bee behavior in two areas that have been controversial: defensiveness and food collection (production). Stinging behavior has been a major concern of Brazilian beekeepers ever since the arrival of the bees and their productivity has also been challenged by other countries invaded by the bee.

Dr. Stort said there is great variability in defensiveness. In Brazil in particular, it has been shown that climactic factors are important, as is production of alarm pheromone. Using this information, selection at the Ribeirão Preto campus and the subsequent release of 30,000 European queens to the beekeeping industry has ameliorated substantially the defensiveness in colonies over the last 40 years. Not only have Brazilian beekeepers learned the effectiveness of requeening, however, but they also have adapted in other ways, including more judicious use of smoke. Dr. Stort concluded that defensiveness is no longer the number one concern of the beekeeping industry.

Honey production has also climbed since introduction of the Africanized honey bee into Brazil, according to Dr. Stort. Research has shown that the bee and the hybrid cross with Europeans produces more honey than pure Europeans. A standardized test has been devised to compare colonies. Worker bees are trained to a 50 percent sugar solution located 70 meters from a hive and the following variables are studied:

1. The weight of the bee for each visit.
2. The amount of syrup collected.
3. The time spent at the syrup source.
4. The time spent in a colony between visits.
5. The time before the syrup source is located.
6. The flying time to the source and back to the colony.

Analyzing the above over time, Dr. Stort said, it has been possible to show that Africanized workers fly faster, spend less time in the colony and more in the field and recruit sister bees better than Europeans. These taken together make them more productive, and these traits have also been incorporated by selection into local bee populations.

Advances in Managing Africanized Bees in Brazil

At the Teresina congress, Dr. Ademilson Espencer E. Soares of the Genetics Department, Faculty of Medicine RPSP/SP reported on advances in instrumental insemination developed in Brazil as part of the selection program discussed at the II Encontro. These include different syringes and needles and techniques in semen storage. Of special significance is use of cocoa water as a semen dilutent.

Dr. Soares also described methods to reduce africanized bee stinging incidents. Two kinds of swarming behavior can be seen in Africanized bees. One is reproductive in nature and similar to European bees. The other is absconding, or leaving the nest when environmental conditions require it (migratory), the one so necessary to honey bees in the Sertao. Both have led to a huge number of Apis bees looking for living quarters. Much of the land around Ribeirão Preto, for example, has now been converted from coffee to sugar cane. Sugar is used in huge quantities in Brazil to make alcohol, a major part of the fuel automobiles use. Large sugar plantations, however, provide little good nesting habitat. As a consequence, bees have moved into the city in increasing numbers, posing a risk to the public. To reduce this, Dr. Soares and colleagues are working on developing a trapping mechanism with Nassanov pheromone lure. This is being tested at local schools and industry.

Another Brazilian development is creating a honey bee with a "split sting," resulting from exposing the insects to radiation from cobalt 60. The process creates a mutation and the sting apparatus does not develop correctly. As a result, these bees cannot sting. Beekeepers themselves have been reported not to use this kind of bee which is in effect defenseless, however it has potential in some areas where risks of stings must be minimized. ,p> Stinging incidents can be greatly reduced in urban areas , Dr. Soares concluded, by using the following:

1. Manipulating colonies with great care.
2. Locating hives correctly.
3. Using adequate equipment and protective clothing.
4. Manipulating only when climactic conditions are favorable.
5. Selecting for less-defensive bees and using European bees when necessary.
6. Taking advantage of mutations such as the split sting.

American Foulbrood in Argentina; Risk to Brazil

Dr. David DeJong also of FMRP/SP led a discussion in Teresina of what an infestation of American foulbrood in nearby Argentina might mean to Brazil. He called uncontrolled importation of honey a huge risk. Brazil is the only infested country where large-scale use of fluvalinate or other chemicals to control Varroa mites is not practiced. It also is free of American foulbrood so that antibiotics are not routinely employed for either treatment or prophylaxis. In effect, in comparison to other countries of the world, Brazil has a valid claim to producing true organic honey.

However, honey from Argentina contaminated with Paenbacillus larvae (the result of a name change from Bacillus larvae) spores could produce an epidemic of foulbrood in Brazil and a concomitant use of antibiotics that would destroy this marketing advantage. Argentina is a special case because it also harbors a strain of American foulbrood found to be resistant to oxytetracycline, the active ingredient in Terramycin®.

The following speaker, Med. Vet. Alfonso Lorenzo, Veterinary Science Faculty, National University of Buenos Aires, Argentina discussed the actions being taken in fighting American foulbrood first detected in 1989. These include:

1. Using fire to destroy badly infested colonies.
2. Shaking bees from infested colonies into packages for installation elsewhere.
3. Moving bees onto foundation and destroying infested combs.
4. Feeding oxytetracycline, tylosine and/or essential oils.
5. Sterlizing infested equipment such as charring hive bodies, emersing woodenware in hot paraffin or lye (caustic soda), radiating infested equipment with Cobalt 60.

Med. Vet. Lorenzo also reported on efforts to inspect Argentinean honey for Paenbacillus larvae spores prior to exportation. The process is in place, but is costly and is not at present required by law. There is also little regulation of the disease itself in Argentina. The government considers it a producer problem. This appears to be less-than-good news for Brazil which because of its common market agreements through MERCOSUL with Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay cannot easily exclude the importation of honey. On a larger scale, this also presents a risk to other countries, including the U.S., of introducing AFB spores resistant to antibiotics.

Honey Marketing: Organic Honey and MERCOSUL

A discussion by Eng. Agr. Aroni Sattler, Professor Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (FEPAGRO/UFRGS) suggested several things Brazil must do in the present marketing climate with MERCOSUL to become competitive and reduce the risk of introduction of diseases such as American foulbrood. These include:

1. Limit the use of trade barriers based on sanitation (i.e. introduction of AFB).
2. Increase production and efficiency to become competitive with Argentina and Uruguay in marketing honey on an international basis.
3. Continue development of lines of disease-resistant bees, cultivating the organic honey image.
4. Develop a national campaign to promote the domestic use of honey in the country.

Viruses and Varroa in Brazil

Other diseases discussed in some detail in Teresina were sacbrood and viruses. Although few colonies are lost, sacbrood-like symptoms have been found in brood. Evidence suggests this condition could be linked to pollen collected in the field. Adult viruses described in Brazil include Acute Paralysis Virus (APV), Black Queen Cell Virus (BQCV), filamentous virus (FV), and cloudy wing virus (CWV).

The Varroa situation in Brazil is such that many bees are tolerant to a consistently low percentage infestation and few colonies are killed by mites, even though no chemical treatment is used. Two poster presentations discussed possible reasons for this. One provided evidence that more damaged mites were found in Africanized bee colonies. Another revealed a relatively greater response in uncapping and removing parasitized larvae by these bees.

Pollination Possibilities in Brazil

Commercial pollination using honey bees is increasing in Brazil. The role of honey bees in commercial sunflower and cashew production was described papers presented in Teresina. The former is particularly important for hybrid sunflower seed production which requires insect pollination. The use of insect attractants is also being studied. Bee-Here®, a sugar-based product, attracted more honey bees to coffee and citrus, but also brought in a host of other insects including mosquitoes and other stingless bees. Information garnered through several years of study indicated that applying the material by 12:00 noon was more effective than if delayed to 14:00 (2 p.m.).

At the II Encontro on the Ribeirão Preto campus in June 1996, a symposium on pollination was also held. The roles of both Apis and stingless bees were discussed . In a general discussion of pollination, Prof. Regina Nogueira Coutou described work in Brazil that is being done in and outside greenhouses. The number of variables being studied for a number of crops include:

1. Coloration and flowering period
2. Time the flower is open
3. Number of open flowers, depending on roof type (plastic thickness, shade cloth)
4. Soluble sugars present in the nectar
5. Gross protein in the pollen
6. Effective period of pollination
7. Which bees or other insects are the most effective pollinators
8. Bee behavior in preferring to collect nectar and pollen, length of time spent on a flower
9. Length of time for fruit to mature
10. Yield in greenhouses versus open environment
11. Number of resultant seeds and germination time.

Brazil, like the United States and other countries, concluded Prof. Nogueira Coutou, is undergoing a revolution in the knowledge and importance of pollination as a vital part of modern agricultural practice. She reconfirmed this at the Teresina congress in her paper entitled: "Honey Bee Pollination in Brazil." There is a great deal of evidence that Africanized honey bees can be effectively used in commercial pollination, she said. However, she concluded a good deal more research is needed under Brazilian conditions to determine the qualities to select for an optimal insect that fits the needs of both grower and beekeeper.

Electronic Revolution in Brazil

I was privileged to be the only North American on the program besides Dr. DeJong, originally from the U.S., but now permanently on the faculty at the Ribeirão Preto Campus. I gave two presentations. One was on the digital information revolution using computers and the Internet. This is not being ignored in Brazil. There are three Internet providers, for example, in Teresina alone, and more and more Brazilian home pages in both Portuguese and English are being mounted on the World Wide Web each day. Since the Congress, a Brazilian discussion list on honey bees has been mounted.

Bee Nutrition Concerns: Feeding Proteinl

I also provided some information on the general state of knowledge of honey bee nutrition, particularly how protein provided by pollen is monitored and its substitutes can be fed to colonies. Two poster sessions at the congress fortuitously added to my presentation.

One showed the effects of a plant called barbatimão in Brazil's state of Mato Grosso. Floral extracts from this native plant fed to colonies reduced longevity in honey bees. This is reminiscent of the situation in the southeastern U.S. where both yellow jessamine and summer titi have deleterious effects on colonies. The latter is particularly virulent in some years; larvae are killed outright and take on a blue color. Incidences of "purple brood" can be reduced by moving bees temporarily out of an area where these flowers predominate or feeding colonies to reduce the concentration of toxic materials coming into the colony. Experiences in both Brazil and the U.S. show that not all plants are beneficial to the introduced honey bee, and some can be harmful.

I also discussed the benefits of monitoring and feeding protein to honey bee colonies using supplements/substitutes. For many years, pollen substitute/supplement was recommended to be based on expeller-processed soybean flour. This particular kind of processing was important to reduce the amount of fat in the resulting flour. A fat content of over seven percent can be toxic.

In Brazil, soybean flour is expensive and expeller processing is not easily found. A local plant has been found in the sertao, however, that costs less. It is jatoba (Hymenaea courbaril) which, when processed, has a similar nutritional profile to soybean flour. A poster session at the congress reported these results and suggested substituting the less expensive flour in pollen substitutes.

Papers on production and commercialization of honey and royal jelly revealed a good internal market for these products in Brazil and the concern for maintaining quality in the market place. Brazilian propolis and pollen were also given attention. Venom, too, is being looked at carefully for its apitherapeutic qualities. In general, there appears to be much better acceptance of these products in the human health arena than is the case in the U.S. This is an outgrowth of the European and Asian influence that is evident everywhere one goes in Brazil.

Other Bee Products

Propolis became a major commercial product in Brazil about after an Apimondia congress in Japan. Production boomed subsequent to a presentation by Dr. Matsuno entitled: "Fractionation and Purification of Anticancer Substances in Propolis," at the 50th Conference of the Japanese Cancer Society. Some 60 tons of Brazilian propolis are now exported each year, according to Jos‚ Alexandre Silva de Abreau, of CONAP in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais state. He concluded this is just the tip of the iceberg with reference to the Japanese and other southeast Asian markets.

Propolis is complex stuff. O. Malaspina and M.S. Palma of the Biology Department, Biosciences Institute, Rio Claro, provided an in-depth analysis of various samples. They recommend certain standards be developed for the two major ways propolis is exported: raw state as collected from colonies and in alcoholic solution. Some forty samples in alcohol showed a range of solids from 9.40 to 34.96 percent. The presence or absence of beeswax contamination contributed to this variability and is problematic in analysis. The ethanol index ranges were from 56 to 93. A minimum of 45 is suggested in the standards; below that there is a risk of toxicity to consumers. The amount of flavanoids ranged from 2.5 to 13.1 milligrams/milliliter.

Another paper by M.C. Marcucci, Biological Chemistry Laboratory, Rio Claro also presented information on constituents of Brazilian propolis. These included di-terpenes, flavanoids, amino acids, and other complex compounds. Studies are progressing using antibacterial assay. One comparison of Brazilian and Hungarian propolis showed the former to be more active presumably due to increased amounts of phenols. Propolis was also shown to be effective against Trypanosoma cruzi and also toxic to human cervical cancer cells.

Ciro Protta, of Protta Pharmaceuticals presented information on the commercialization of bee venom in a cream base, called Apis Venenumr . The product shows excellent anti-inflammatory activity in animals with sore and chronic foot problems. In humans, the material has also been effective in sinusitis and arthritis. A patent for this material has been applied for in Brazil and the U.S.

Stingless Bee Culture in Brazil

Although the congress emphasized Apis bees, there was substantial discussion of stingless beekeeping in Teresina. There are many of these bees throughout Brazil. Called albelhas sem ferrao, two general types exist called trigona and melipona based on the genus name. This kind of beekeeping usually comes under the rubric of meliponiculture. There was a full minicourse presented on this kind of beekeeping at the congress. Presentations included practical advice on collecting, splitting and managing colonies of these wild bees. There is some concern that because of increased collecting, some of these insects are becoming endangered. Two posters discussed programs now being implemented to protect several species from being over exploited in the sertao. The commercial display area featured at least two booths dedicated to stingless bees, complete with nests and samples of honey and wax produced by these insects. The interest garnered by these displays was enormous, showing the general affection of beekeepers for social insects in general.

Dr. Warwick Kerr is a major force in promoting the use of meliponiculture in Brazil. In his paper, "Uruçu and Tiúba: Great Possibilities in Northeastern Meliponiculture," Dr. Kerr said so far only three stingless bees are present candidates for any kind of domestication in that region. These are the uruçu (Melipona scutellaris), tiúba (Melipona compressipes) and uruçu-boca-de-renda (Melipona seminigra). A principal problem is the lack of knowledge about the biology and management of these insects. Dr. Kerr, along with G. Carvalho, V. Nacimento and other collaborators, has written a book on the biology, management and conservation of one species. Albelha Uruçu is published by Fundaçao Acangaú, Ex Postal 123, 38600-000 Paracatu, Minas Gerais, Brazil 1996 (ISBN 85-86171-01-8). It costs about $15.00.

The major impetus in stingless beekeeping is the high price of the honey produced by these insects. Estimates at the Teresina congress were as much as ten times the price commanded by Apis-produced honey. This has some justification, Dr. Kerr said, as the honey has much more flavor. This is due to a honey produced with higher moisture content which also contains a special bacterium (Bacillus meliponotrophicus) that imparts a particular flavor. This honey is highly sought after in Asian and European markets for its reputed health benefits.

Commercial Displays

The commercial exhibits at the congress featured equipment manufacturers and firms specializing in commercial and specialized honey and other bee products. A German technology which puts honey into plastic sachets or pockets was prominent. This involves filling a plastic tube with honey, then using a hot stamping device to crimp the plastic, producing a sausage-like row of sachets. This is a variation of the plastic, honey-filled straw being seen in the U.S.

One of the larger, better attended displays was that of the Wenzel family. It featured a huge variety of products and included a video of the operation of these sertao beekeeping pioneers.

Associations and Funding

Several beekeeping associations were present at the congress, including Confederaçao Brasileira de Apicultura (Brazil Beekeeping Confederation). A major discussion with presentations was held on the present state of associations and their future.

In the center of the display area was headquartered the Servicio Nacional de Aprendizagem Rural (SENAR), Brazil's rural extension service. It has offices in each state dedicated to teaching the rural population about animal husbandry. Beekeeping is one of the subjects; the office was outfitted with slide and video projectors, computers and slick informational pamphlets used in teaching students.

The SENAR, as well as a host of other organizations, provided much of the congress' funding. These included a array of governmental agencies such as Fundaçao Banco do Brasil, Servi‡ao Brasileiro de Apoio as Micro e Pequenas Empresas, and the Ministry of Brasilian Agriculture. Federal and local governmental support for Latin American congresses attended by this author are impressive. This is something quite different than in the U.S., where direct governmental financial support either at the state or federal level for conventions of this nature is practically absent.


It is estimated that about 1000 persons were present at the Eleventh Brazilian Beekeeping Congress in Teresina. The next will be held two years hence in Bahia. The last time it was staged there in 1986, during a period of great growth in Brazilian beekeeping, 2500 persons attended. Whether that many will again be present remains to be seen. Given the current energy and enthusiasm of Brazilian beekeeping, reaching that level again appears to be a distinct possibility.

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