House of the Royal Lady Bee: Maya revive native bees and ancient beekeeping

 By Jennifer Kennedy and Richard Arghiris

Engineered by insect intelligence, the hive was a convoluted mesh of waxy secretions and labyrinthine cavities. Worker bees streamed through its recesses. Bulbous pods brimmed with fresh honey. It was both organic and otherworldly, earthy yet exotic, a fierce, self-organizing microcosm fueled with the meticulously harvested pollen of rainforest flowers. It was dizzying to our human eyes.

The caretaker of the hive, Rogel Villanueva Gutiérrez, is a biologist specializing in the interactions between bees and tropical forests.

“In order to keep the bees, you have to keep the forest,” he said. “In order to keep the forest, you have to keep the bees. The bees can’t live without the forest. The forest can’t live without the bees.”

Melipona beecheii is one of 16 stingless bee species that inhabit the forests of the Yucatán Peninsula in southern Mexico. Its name in Yucatec Maya is Xunan-Kab: Royal Lady Bee.

Like a regal dynasty whose house has endured the ages, Xunan-Kab has been a part of Yucatec Mayan culture for many generations. Local beekeepers have kept domesticated colonies of Xunan-Kabfor at least 3,000 years, but in modern times they have turned to more productive European honey bees (Apis mellifera) and related Africanized bees. Nobody knows how many Xunan-Kab colonies exist in the wild, but the species, like other stingless bees, is a prolific rainforest pollinator. According to Villanueva, deforestation, whether by humans or hurricanes, is gravely impacting wild populations, but bee husbandry is one way to mitigate the loss of wild hives.

In 2005, Villaneuva published the results of a striking longitudinal survey of M. beecheii beekeepers in the Zona Maya of Quintana Roo state, an indigenous enclave settled by Maya separatists in the 19th century. It showed a 93 percent decline in traditional bee husbandry in a quarter century. Of more than 1,000 colonies known to have been maintained in 1981, just 90 survived in 2004. “Continuing that trend, by the year 2008, there will be no domesticated colonies at all,” wrote Villanueva and his colleagues.

In late 2018, Mongabay set out to see if his predictions had come true.

In the state capital of Chetumal, we met Villanueva at his office at the Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR), a public higher education and research center working toward the sustainable development of marginalized peoples in Mexico’s southern border states, including indigenous Maya.

Located on the outskirts of the Zona Maya, the unpretentious city of Chetumal lies 383 kilometers (238 miles) south Cancún and its parade of manicured beach resorts. A world apart from the international tourist scene, the area’s relentless flush of tangled rainforest is punctuated by intermittent Mayan villages and torpid lagoons.

In the unkempt thickets surrounding the ECOSUR campus, the college’s meliponario, or bee yard, is managed by Villanueva and his bee technicians as a conservation and research project. It consists of modern box hives, called cajas racionales, and traditional log hives, called jobones, organized on shelves under a palm-frond shelter. A technician opened one up for us to see.

Inside, a swarming mass of thousands of Xunan-Kab had an almost electrical quality, as if the hive were animated by a singular energy. When the lid is on, the bees enter and leave via a single opening guarded by a sentinel. The hive’s temperature is regulated by bee-engineered walls of cerumen (wax and tree resin). Globular pods store honey and pollen. Honeycomb houses its brood.

The bees themselves are gentle, buzzing, blue-eyed creatures with orange and white fuzz on their thoraxes, biting mandibles, striped abdomens, but no sting. Villanueva’s research includes analyzing the pollen they bring home to determine which species of plants they forage. He found that Xunan-Kab, like its main competitors, European and Africanized honey bees, forages on understory and weedy plants. But unlike European and Africanized bees, it also pollinates native trees in the higher canopies. Xunan-Kab is truly a vital part of the rainforest ecosystem.

With so much at stake, it is good news that traditional beekeeping, far from going extinct as Villanueva had darkly predicted, is currently experiencing a modest revival. Several years ago, Villanueva brought together 50 local people and trained them in Xunan-Kab husbandry, effectively rescuing the art from extinction. Traditional beekeeping in Quintana Roo has since blossomed and the government is now financing some would-be beekeepers.

However, Villanueva was quick to point out problems. Poachers, he said, are increasingly pilfering wild hives from the forest to jump-start bee operations or to sell to would-be entrepreneurs. Likewise, inadequately trained beekeepers are mismanaging their colonies, causing the bees to leave or die. In other cases, local speculators buy up entire collections of hives from older beekeepers. And when a grandfather or grandmother sells their hives, a lifetime of traditional ecological knowledge is lost.

In the small farming community of La Pantera, Juan Manuel Torres Zapien and his family keep 98 hives — eight more than Villanueva recorded in the entire state of Quintana Roo in 2004. Torres, who was part of Villanueva’s first training group, now teaches Xunan-Kab bee husbandry to others. He also heads a regional cooperative of 42 beekeepers. Their mission is to help rescue the bees, and they hope to accomplish it by expanding the market for their honey from a local to a national level, and perhaps one day beyond.

According to Torres, Xunan-Kab beekeeping is a family activity that integrates the whole community. To build enough capacity to expand, he wants every community in Quintana Roo to have a meliponario. Honey production, he said, should be managed by cooperatives and not by corporations. And with Xunan-Kab helping to pollinate his organic fruit trees, his approach is clearly agroecological.

“In the little farm where we work we have coconuts,” he said. “The coconut palm produces flowers and flowers and flowers and flowers until the end of its life cycle. Along with those, I am going to put capulin cherries. Capulin also produces nectar all year. There’s going to be mamey, which also produces fruit all year. And we’re going to have mango, avocado, guayaba which also flower for much of the year.”

Torres appeared to approach Xunan-Kab beekeeping with the technical mind of an engineer. He talked about hive design, how modern cajas racionales are easier to maintain than traditional jobones, and how the size of the box appears to influence the temperament of the bees and the color of their secretions. He waxed lyrical about designs from Thailand and showed us pictures of elaborate bee houses on his smart phone.

At present, however, he is not in the business of producing honey. He is in the business of dividing hives, cutting and transplanting honeycomb to make new colonies. “At the moment, there are 50 or 60 reproducing,” he said. “We are investing energy, but we are not covering our costs.” His aim is to expand his meliponario to 300 hives. Thereafter, he hopes to produce around 4 tons of honey annually.

Like Villanueva, Torres expressed concern about unscrupulous actors, including “people who want to control meliponiculture … [who] want to sell honey but don’t want to invest.” Nonetheless, he was positive about the future. He and his fellow beekeepers are forming a civil association called Capacidores Organicos y Ecológicos (Organic and Ecological Trainers). They hope to obtain financing and perhaps collaborate with an international foundation. They will be ready to take their honey to market in two years.

In 1992, a group of Catholic priests founded U Yits Ka’an (“Dew from Heaven”) in Yucatán state, a private agroecological school with a philosophy rooted in liberation theology and traditional Mayan knowledge. With support from international organizations, including the U.S.-based W.K. Kellogg Foundation and NGO Heifer International and the NGO Slow Food Mexico, it has successfully trained 300 Maya farmers in stingless beekeeping, and twice as many in agroecology.

Alfredo Serralta Interián, who leads bee husbandry courses, said the number of Xunan-Kab beekeepers in Yucatán is increasing. When they started teaching, they “searched and searched” for beekeepers to donate hives to the communities. Now, he said, there are groups who have “70, 60, 50 boxes, one has 100 and another nearly 200.”

Unlike Quintana Roo, Yucatán state has a history of intensive colonial settlement. Nestled among fragrant citrus groves, the soporific village of Maní, where U Yits Ka’an is located, is infamous as the site of Bishop Diego de Landa’s auto de fé. On July 12, 1562, he burned the town’s unique collection of Mayan codices, destroying a record of thousands of years of Mayan history. Today, as a center of cultural resistance, the school is rescuing and revitalizing traditional knowledge and forging new connections with the ancestral past.

The school’s Xunan-Kab project is called Cuxan Suum (“Thread of Life”), a reference to a local myth about a magic rope found by Spanish conquistadors inside a sinkhole in Maní. The rope linked one Maya community to another, and in the same spirit, the project links four communities and 40 families. Participants each care for three hives, learning how to harvest and divide them. After two years, they give three hives to another family.

Serralta said that U Yits Ka’an is working with academics to decipher parts of the Madrid Codex — one of just three survivingMayan codices — to gain fresh insights into traditional Mayan bee husbandry. The school also uses the Tzolkin, the Mayan lunar calendar, which states that hive division should be timed with lunar phases. “With respect to Melipona bees and division, we do it near to a full moon,” said Serralta. “The Maya have a belief that the full moon is like the sun. It produces energy. So when there is a division, it helps the bees make the most of this energy and they are more active.”

According to the calendar, the ancient Maya honored Xunan-Kab with an important celebration in the month of October. For the last two years, U Yits Ka’an has hosted a similar festival, bringing beekeepers together to share their experiences, discuss challenges and learn from one another. In 2018, the festival included a workshop about the importance of rescuing native bee species, talks from experts about the health benefits of Xunan-Kab honey, and a Mayan ceremony.

Ultimately, Serralta credits the school’s success in promoting Xunan-Kab beekeeping to traditional knowledge, which taught his team how to manage the hives, and to science, which taught them the properties of honey in order to market and sell their produce.

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.

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.

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.”