Maya Beekeeping Tradition Fades

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
June 28, 2005

According to Maya history, meliponine bees—native to the tropical forests of Mexico's Yucatán peninsula—symbolize a link to the spirit world, a bequest of the god Ah Muzen Cab.

For centuries, beekeepers in Yucatán have harvested honey from the log nests of the large-bodied, stingless bees.

Then Africanized honeybees arrived.

Introduced to the Americas by Europeans, Africanized honeybees became popular with Yucatán beekeepers. While aggressive, the bees are far better honey producers than the stingless bees native to the American tropics.

The Africanized honeybee is a hybrid of European and African bees. Hybridization resulted when African bees brought to Brazil half a century ago interbred naturally with European bees previously introduced to the area. Since then Africanized honeybees have spread over South and Central America and into the United States.

Now, facing loss of habitat, the future of native meliponine bees is in peril—and the ancient tradition of stingless beekeeping is on the verge of dying out.

That would be a cultural blow, because "there are very few animal husbandry traditions, bees or otherwise, in the world," warned David Roubik, an entomologist with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), which is headquartered in Panama City, Panama.

The bees' demise is also an ecological loss.

"It is a bee that represents the forest and nature's great dependency on the irreplaceable, beneficial relationships between plants and animals," said Roubik, who was nicknamed "The Bee Man" in a National Geographic television special about his work on Africanized bees.

Religious Ceremony

The Maya cultural practice of bee husbandry dates back thousands of years. In the ancient Maya culture, honey was used as a sweetener, antibiotic, and as an ingredient in the Maya version of mead, a fermented drink.

Of the 500 or so species of stingless bees in the tropical world, the favorite species among Maya beekeepers has been Melipona beecheii. Its traditional name, xunan kab (or kolil kab in the Mayan language), means "royal lady."

Continued on Next Page >>


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