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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."

In the Maya tradition, a priest harvested stingless bee honey as part of a religious ceremony twice a year. To increase the number of hives and honey production, beekeepers would regularly divide existing nests.

But Africanized bees, with their far greater honey production, presented a more economically attractive option for the beekeepers in Yucatán. While a colony of stingless bees may produce a few pounds of honey per year, Africanized honeybees can produce 220 pounds (100 kilograms).

"Moreover, the Africanized honeybee colonies are free, or nearly so, and don't have to be looked for but merely gathered by trapping mobile colonies in suitable hive boxes," Roubik said.

"The stingless bees only reside in forests within living trees," he added. "They're not easy to find and not attracted to bait hives."

Few young people seem interested in the ancient art of stingless bee husbandry.

"For many the colonies are an heirloom, like their father's stamp collection, and they don't feel a burning desire to carry on the tradition," Roubik said.

Ecological Blow

Roubik started working in Yucatán in 1987 to find ways to study the impact of invasive Africanized honeybees.

In the 1980s researchers estimated there were more than a thousand active hives of native bees on the Yucatán peninsula. In 1990 that number had shrunk to around 400. In 2004 there were only 90 hives left.

"At this rate, we would expect the art of stingless beekeeping to disappear from the Yucatán by 2008," Roubik said.

The dramatic decline has ecological consequences.

Take pollination, for example. While both stingless Maya bees and the Africanized honeybees visit many of the same flowering plants, there are some plants, such as the tomato family, and some forest shrubs and trees, that are not visited by Africanized bees.

"From my long-term work in French Guiana, where I documented the gradual takeover from Melipona [stingless bees] of certain flowering plants by African honeybees and their spread, I measured a 40 percent decline in seed production by one native shrub as the result," Roubik said.

Furthermore, the native bees may starve as deforestation, forest fragmentation, and hurricanes reduce the availability of the floral resources they need.

Another threat may be human.

"It comes from well-motivated but clumsy attempts to domesticate or propagate colonies … by transferring [the colonies] to hive boxes or move them to places where the conditions are not particularly good, like windy, open areas or places near the sea coast," Roubik said.

The ancient beekeeping technology is "all but lost," he added. "We would like to see it turned around, not only to ensure the survival of meliponiculture as a way of life, but also to build up breeding stock to be reintroduced into the wild where bees play an important role as pollinators."

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