Maya revive native bees and ancient beekeeping

A women’s cooperative

Melitz’aak is a well-established cooperative of women practicing both apiculture and Melipona beekeeping.At their store in the Mayan town of Felipe Carrillo Puerto in Quintana Roo, one of their founding members, Lizbeth Rosario Pool Uc explained that the color, consistency and taste of honey varies with bee species and pollen.

First, she presented us with spoons of intensely sweet Xunan-Kab honey mixed with raw pollen. Next, she proffered samples of a cheaper and slightly acidic honey. Finally, she produced a bottle of black liquid from another room. “This is the good stuff,” she said, eager for us to try. “We don’t sell this. It’s just for ourselves.” Made by native Trigona stingless bees, the honey had a complex and fermented taste. It delivered quite a kick. “This is the best medicine,” she declared.

Melitz’aak, a Maya women’s beekeeping cooperative in Felipe Carrillo Puerto in Quintana Roo, stocks a range of bee-related health and beauty products, but raw Xunan-Kab honey is the cooperative’s top seller. Image by Richard Arghiris for Mongabay.

The honey of native stingless bees has been used since pre-Columbian times to treat a range of ailments. In fact, its primary use was not as a sweetener. And today, the Maya continue to use stingless bee honey and other bee products, such as propolis, a glue for building and repairing hives, and pollen for medicinal purposes. Pool reeled off the many ailments that can be treated: cataracts, eye infections, stomach problems, gastritis, wounds, skin diseases and more.

Meanwhile, according to the food standards set out in the Codex Alimentarius, a set of international regulations relating to food production, Xunan-Kabhoney cannot be classed as honey because its moisture content is higher than 20 percent. Therefore, it cannot be marketed internationally. But this does not concern Melitz’aak because the local market is strong. Although European and Africanized Apisbees produce around 10 times more honey per hive than Xunan-Kab, Melipona honey sells for 25 times the price of Apis honey: 1,000 pesos ($50) per liter compared, to 40 pesos ($2). Indeed, Pool said it’s their most popular product with local customers, who mix it with herbs as a traditional medicine.

Jesus Pech Pool and Lizbeth Rosario Pool Uc maintain their meliponario on the grounds of their leafy property in the town of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Quintana Roo. Image by Richard Arghiris for Mongabay.
Jesus Pech Pool and Lizbeth Rosario Pool Uc maintain their meliponario on the grounds of their leafy property in the town of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Quintana Roo. Image by Richard Arghiris for Mongabay.

Pool introduced us to her son, Darwin Pool Pech, a biologist in his 20s. A former student of Villanueva whose thesis compared Xunan-Kab foraging behavior in Felipe Carillo Puerto and Chetumal, Pool Pech is expanding his meliponario to 100 hives. He wants 50 for division and 50 for honey production. The meliponario stands within a flourishing botanical garden containing orchids, lemongrass and traditional medicinal herbs. Using jobones and cajas racionales, he manages Xunan-Kaband several species of Trigona. Hand-painted signs with the bees’ scientific and Mayan names label the hives.

Like others Mongabay spoke to, Pool Pech expressed optimism, despite the challenges facing native bees and traditional bee husbandry. “A lot of help has already been given for native beekeeping,” he said. “A lot training, education and preparation. I have a lot of hope for the future. I believe that it is going to continue growing.”

And naturally, as a biologist, Pool Pech understands the relationship between stingless bees and the rainforest. His goal is to keep as many of the Yucatán Peninsula’s 16 native bee species as possible. Ultimately, he hopes to teach children and the local community about the importance of forest conservation and how native bees and traditional bee husbandry support it.

“The bees offer us the most important service,” he said. “Pollination. It is vital for human beings. Without pollination, there would [be no] trees. No plants. And without them, there would be no oxygen.”

In addition to Xunan-Kab, Pech and Pool keep various other native species of stingless bee, including Trigona nigra nigra (known as sak xik in Yucatec Maya). Image by Richard Arghiris for Mongabay.
In addition to Xunan-Kab, Pech and Pool keep various other native species of stingless bee, including Trigona nigra nigra (known as sak xik in Yucatec Maya). Image by Richard Arghiris for Mongabay.

Banner image: Three Xunan-Kab workers consume honey from a broken cerumen pod. At harvest time, beekeepers use syringes to extract the honey. Whereas European honeybees store their honey and pollen and rear their larvae in honeycomb, Xunan-Kab store honey and pollen in cerumen pods, and use honeycomb only for larvae. Image by Richard Arghiris for Mongabay.

Richard Arghiris is a British freelance writer and journalist based in the indigenous Mayan town of Felipe Carrillo Puerto in the Yucatán Peninsula. He has a Certificate of Higher Education in Environment from The Open University. See his work at http://richardarghiris.com.

Jennifer Kennedy is a freelance journalist currently based in southern Mexico. She has an M.A. in Latin American Studies from University College London and writes about human rights, development and environmental issues in the Americas, and sometimes beyond. See her work at http://jenniferjkennedy.com.

Citations

Villanueva-G, R., Roubik, D., Colli-Ucán, W. (2005). Extinction of Melipona beecheii and traditional beekeeping in the Yucatán Peninsula. Bee World(86) 35-41.

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Article published by Rebecca Kessler

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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