At this point in time, it is quite difficult to believe that there are people that don’t understand that bees are essential for life on earth. Bees are the propagators of the base of all the ecosystems that are not found in the Antarctic. You might know that México is one of the eight countries in the world with the highest production of honey and that, within México, Yucatán is the biggest producer. If you’re a connoisseur, you probably know that our honey has a strong and characteristic flavor, quite different from every other honey produced in México or in the world.
What you might not know is that for millennia, Yucatán has been home to dozens of different kinds of bees beyond the well-known European bee, the Apis mellifera.
The best-known bee native to our state is the Melipona beecheii. While there are many other kinds of native bees, this is the one that has lent its name to all the others due to the rare characteristic that they share in common: their lack of stingers. Someone once asked me how they can survive without them, thinking of “regular” bees that die when they sting. But these bees don’t sting, have never stung; they are born like this, harmless and defenseless, but oh-so-very sweet.
This very characteristic is what for centuries allowed the natives of the state to live in peace with the native bees, using their honey, royal jelly, pollen, and propolis for many uses: food, medicine, ceremonies, and sacred uses. In nature, these bees build their homes inside the trunks of trees; this is how the Maya cultivated them, using sections of trees (called Jobones) that, when placed horizontally instead of vertically, made it easier to take care of the bees and extract their products.
The bees that you can find in the Yucatecan jungle are so varied that some don’t even look like bees. Some are so small that they look like small houseflies; others are bright turquoise, almost green… and can be confused with bottle flies. In the case of bumble bees, because of their size and the sound they make, it’s easier to confuse them with helicopters than another insect. In the majority of the cases, their only defense against the giant that threatens them (namely, you) is to get tangled up in your hair and try to drive you crazy with their buzzing in your ears. If this happens to you, keep calm; killing the bee will only make its companions come near to see what happened.
Each different kind of native bee produces honey with characteristics that are unique to their specific species. Another feature that they all have in common is the amount of honey that they produce is much much (but really! MUCH) less than that which the Apis produces. This means that the honey that the native bees produce is much scarcer which makes it much more expensive.
So, to recap, the Melipona bees (Xunáan Kaab, or grand dame bee) and its native relatives have no defense against natural predators. To live, they need, of course, flowers to visit and tree trunks to build their homes, or humans to keep them in Jobones. Taking into consideration the expansion of urban growth and the deforestation of jungles, the indiscriminate use of pesticides, and the fact that it is much more profitable to keep Apis than Meliponas bees…we cannot say that the native Yucatecan bees have a safe future.
Fortunately, there are several people who are dedicated to rescuing not only the practice of Meliponiculture but also the use of the traditional products that are said to have healing properties that alleviate gastric ulcers, cataracts and even cancer. In this edition of Yucatán Today you will find various options of places to visit where you can learn about these small wonders of nature and taste the distinct-flavor elixirs that they share with their human neighbors. Maybe your visit will encourage you to adopt a beehive, but above all else, favor native flowers and stop using insecticide in your garden.
By Alicia Navarrete
Communicologist born circumstantially in México City, but who says “uay” since 1985. Life has allowed me to see the world, which in turn has allowed me to discover how much I love the place where I live.
Photography by Olivia Camarena Cervera, Aram Bobba, and Yucatán Today for use in Yucatán Today.
Esta entrada también está disponible en: ES