Story and photos by Jason Woods, World Ark senior editor

A project in the Yucatan revives the art and traditions of stingless beekeeping to yield prized medicines and preserve precious cultural memory.

MANI, Mexico —  In Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, people say you have to talk sweetly to the bees, or they will fly away. “The bees are very sensitive,” keeper Maria Torres Tzab explained. “Be happy when you see them. Have a good aura,” Torres’ husband, Nicolas Castillo Ucam, said. “They will leave if people fight—they are sad because they understand.” Sensitivity is just one characteristic that sets this particular genus of bee, Melipona, apart. While honeybees of the more common Apis genus fiercely protect their hives with their stingers, Melipona bees are commonly known as stingless bees for an obvious reason—they have no stingers.

No protective equipment is needed when working with stingless bees.
No protective equipment is needed when working with stingless bees.

Torres, Castillo and their daughter don’t need protective clothing to tend their hives, which sit under a roof of thatched palm fronds behind their house in the village of Mani. As members of a Heifer project in this part of Mexico, the family is one of many aiming to restore these gentle stingless bees to cultural prominence and provide a source for the bees’ honey, long prized for its curative powers. 

The family’s bees take their choice between box hives, which are the standard among Apis beekeepers, and hollow logs where Meliponas are found in nature. Or, how they used to be found. For the last 40 years or so, it has been a rare occurrence to fi nd stingless bees in the Yucatan. 

About 200 years ago, European bees, which produce much more honey than the stingless variety, were introduced to Mexico. By the 1970s, it seemed that this competition, combined with pesticides and other chemicals, deforestation and an increasingly fragile ecosystem, had all but eliminated stingless bees in the region. Or, maybe someone did insult the bees, and they actually flew away. Regardless, about 90 percent of managed colonies disappeared on the peninsula between 1980 and 2005, according to bee science journal Apidologie. Today, most people in the Yucatan have never seen a bee without a stinger. 

“People have vague recollections of their grandparents tending to the bees or seeing them in the tree trunks,” said Atilano Ceballos Loeza, director of the U Yits Ka’an school of ecological agriculture. “The knowledge is there. The memory is in the heart of the people. How do we cultivate that memory?”

Maria Torres Tzab opens one of her hives to check on her bees.
Maria Torres Tzab opens one of her hives to check on her bees.

FORMING THE HIVE
Reinvigorating the cultural memory is the goal of a collaboration between Heifer International Mexico and Ceballos’ U Yits Ka’an. For the project, Heifer Mexico fi nanced training and provided families with two animal resources that are now scarce in the region—pigs bred from those first brought over by Spanish conquistadors that adapted extraordinarily well to the area, and the stingless bees known for their connection to the Mayans and their high-value honey. U Yits Ka’an provided their technical expertise and ample experience working with local communities.

In the 1990s, Ceballos and 12 other Catholic priests formed U Yits Ka’an, named for a local Mayan myth. At first, the priests weren’t exactly sure what they wanted to do with the organization, but their church members guided them, and U Yits Ka’an started sponsoring agroecology workshops, analyzing local government development projects and publicizing their own analysis of poverty in the Yucatan. 

After a few years of working this way, U Yits Ka’an became an agroecology school, based in Mani and free to members of the community. The organization also defends Mayan land rights and launches community supported agriculture and seed exchange programs. Today, the school is decentralized, working in fi ve sites in the Yucatan, and four walls and a roof aren’t necessarily a part of the equation. 

“Two trees with some shade—that’s the classroom,” Ceballos said. “A school isn’t equivalent to a building.” 

Nor does it require a designated teacher; participants come to U Yits Ka’an sites to share their expertise with one another. “Campesinos know. That’s where the knowledge comes from,” Ceballos said. When it comes to Melipona bees, the knowledge is just buried a little deeper. 

HARVESTING HONEY’S HISTORY
“Meliponiculture isn’t new in our culture,” Ceballos said. “It’s pre-Hispanic, from thousands of years ago. You can see it in the ceramics and ceremonies of the Mayans.” In the Madrid Codex—a 112- page Mayan book that documents the culture’s calendars, rituals and daily life—the last 12 pages are purely glyphs about Melipona beekeeping.

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The lore carried on, even as the number of stingless bees in the Yucatan dwindled. Adults today remember being entertained as children by stories of xunancab (choo-naan-cap), a queen bee who takes the form of a woman and offers to prepare meals and care for the home, perhaps an allegory for how the stingless bees took care of the Mayans. 

To excavate this latent cultural knowledge, Ceballos and U Yits Ka’an teamed up with Heifer to launch Kuxan Suum (The Thread of Life), a project named after the Mayan legend of a rope that connected Mani and other communities together. In this tradition, the project connects 13 communities through the recovery of stingless bees and pigs as well as training and Heifer’s practice of Passing on the Gift. Sharing animals and training helps revive a similar ancestral tradition, where a family would ask their neighbor for animals and pay them back later with more animals. 

Kuxan Suum project participants hold the same ceremonies that Mayans used for hundreds of years to bless the bees. Spirituality in this part of the Yucatan is a blend of Catholicism and Mayan beliefs, which emphasize nature—so much so that, when Catholics first came to the region, the locals refused to be inside for any religious purposes. 

Mani in particular has always maintained a tradition of shamen or priests, and today four Mayan priests live in the village. When a family involved in the project harvests the honey, a local priest visits their home to perform a ceremony that is a mixture of Mayan and Catholic liturgy. The priest offers a maize-based drink to the goddess of the bees, then to the other people who are part of the ritual. At the end of the ceremony, the priest blesses the four corners of the hut housing the logs and boxes of bees, as well as everyone present, using a traditional tree resin incense called copal. Another ceremony asks for rain to nourish bee-friendly plants and protection for the bees as they gather their nectar. 

Medicine made from melipona honey
Melipona honey, which is locally renowned for its health benefi ts, is sold in its pure state, but it is also used in eye drops, salves and other products.

Obviously, Mayan culture has held the Melipona in high regard for a long time. Part of the reason is the special qualities of the honey the bees produce. “It’s not for daily use,” Ceballos said. “It’s medicine.” 

A SWEET ELIXIR
A Melipona hive might only produce two pints of honey per year, compared with up to 42 pints from Apis bees. In the Yucatan, though, two pints of stingless bee honey can earn 1,000 pesos ($74), while the same amount of Apis honey sells for about 40 pesos ($3). 

The reason for the substantial price difference is the locally renowned health benefits. Although Apis honey undoubtedly has nutritional benefits, it is primarily thought of as a sweetener. Melipona honey, on the other hand, is better than a trip to the pharmacy: proponents swear by it as a cure for coughs, sore throats, childhood asthma and body odor. The bee pollen is good for anemia and natural energy, honey-based salves relieve muscle pain and cure hemorrhoids, and eye drops clean and disinfect the eyes. 

Because of the low yield of Melipona hives, many families keep all the honey for their personal medicine cabinets. Other families, especially those who have had their bees longer and have been able to cultivate more hives, sell the honey — sometimes as much as a dozen pints of the pricey commodity in a year. When people don’t know where to sell their products, they bring them to U Yits Ka’an because, according to Ceballos, people are familiar with the school. 

“The eye drops are always sold out because people know about them,” Ceballos said. The high demand may just be a sign that people around Mani and central Yucatan are speaking extra sweetly about the Melipona these days.

Maria Torres Tzab, Fatima Castillo Torres and Nicolas Castillo Ucam stand outside their home in Mani.
Maria Torres Tzab, Fatima Castillo Torres and Nicolas Castillo Ucam stand outside their home in Mani.

PROMOTING THE BUZZ 
Maria Torres first laid her eyes on the sacred stingless bees her father had told her about a few years ago, when her daughter, Fatima Castillo Torres, brought tree trunks of stingless beehives home from U Yits Ka’an. 

“My dad told me how nice they were,” said Torres, her face lighting up. “It made me happy when my daughter got interested in them.”

Fatima Castillo, now 26, first learned about U Yits Ka’an because both her grandmother and father worked there, and she wanted to know what they did at the school. She eventually became a U Yits Ka’an promoter, teaching local families how to use agroecological practices, and she fell for the bees because they were so easy to keep. 

Now the younger Castillo works long hours at a clothing store, so Torres takes care of the bees, a skill she learned from both her daughter and her husband. Now Torres is teaching eight of her friends and neighbors how to tend to the bees, and her passion for everything Meliponaculture is contagious—from natural techniques to keep the hives healthy, to the fact that the bees, in lieu of a built-in weapon, behead would-be colony intruders, to how the bees are a thread connecting her father, herself and her daughter.

But when asked about what she likes the most about the indigenous bees, the answer isn’t a hard one for Torres. “Because they don’t sting! That’s the most basic thing.”