So much bee news lately is gloomy, I thought it would be nice to highlight a happy story. Central America has a centuries-long history of native bee keeping; the Madrid Codex, one of three surviving Mayan books, describes bees and beekeeping in detail. Mayans called their bees Xunan kab, which translates as “royal lady bees.”
Below is an interview with Anselma Chale Euan, President of the Co’oleel Caab Collective in Yucatan, Mexico. Her women’s collective is practicing meliponiculture, or stingless beekeeping, a traditionally male job in Mayan culture. The video will make you smile.
The bee cultivated by these women is Melipona beecheii; a species named in 1831 for a Captain Beechey, who just happened to have a “bee” in his name for lovely symmetry. These social bees collect honey and live in hives, but have no venom, and cannot sting. (They can still give you a good bite if provoked, though.) Their lovely green eyes and gentle dispositions makes keeping this species as backyard pets practical.
Why isn’t everyone keeping stingless bees, then? Because they produce honey in much smaller quantities than introduced European honey bees. A typical meliponine colony may only produce 2 liters of honey/year, compared with 40 liters or more for a honey bee hive. Stingless bees do produce enough to bring in supplemental income, though.
Diversifying income is important; it’s what makes sustainable livelihoods possible for families living on the edge of poverty. With multiple income streams, a household is more resilient to uncontrollable stresses of bad weather, price inflation, and unemployment. These bees also are a form of cultural pride and social capitol; it allows the community to gather together in celebration of the rich history of the Xunan kab.
Are Mayan Bees Really Endangered?
The best answer is we don’t know, but it’s likely. Sorry to harsh your mellow from the happy video. Native stingless bees forage in a Mexican landscape full of alien invaders. Spaniards introduced European honeybees to Central America around 1620, and they are now well established. European honey bees (and their Africanized form) do compete with gentle native bee species for pollen and nectar on flowers. Melipona beecheii is a forest bee, so if they could find flowering trees and shrubs, competition with honey bees might not be a problem. Alas, Yucatan is heavily logged.
The Yucatan peninsula sits right in the path of a lot of big storms; quite a few hurricanes, floods, and droughts have caused beekeepers to lose all or most of their hives. Native stingless bees are quite sensitive to pesticides, so that isn’t helping either.
We don’t have a firm estimate of how common these bees are in the wild; we only know, anecdotally, where they are being cultivated. So like most animals on earth (which are arthropods, AHEM), their conservation status is “Not Evaluated.”
Traditional knowledge involved in meliponiculture was clearly lost. A 2005 survey found a 93% decrease in Xunan kab hives over the last 25 years. As you can tell from the video, a lot of current bee husbandry is trial and error, since many older, traditionally male beekeepers switched to keeping more profitable European honey bees.
Despite all these negatives, I’m inclined to be optimistic. Renewed interest in these bees as a form of supplemental income is a good sign. The lovely photos of bees on this post are from Eric Tourneret; you can see even more photos of beekeepers and stingless bees here. Tourneret’s photos show us a lively, developing fair trade culture in native bee products. The video above shows women who are empowered through self-employment; they used their creativity to innovate and market new products from a centuries-old tradition.
Here’s hoping meliponiculture in Mexico continues and flourishes.