Stingless-bee initiatives spur tradition, conservation


Antonia Ku Yah, a beekeeper in the village of Chacsinkín, Yucatán state, checks hives she keeps under cover in her back garden. (Photo courtesy of Fundación por una Nueva Solución)

Ancient Mayans considered bees a gift from the gods. Community beekeepers across the Yucatán Peninsula kept honey-producing stingless bees in log hives to provide antibiotic honey for medicinal purposes, pollen, and other bee products prized by the Mayans.

Today, various organizations are helping Mayan communities on the Yucatán Peninsula as they use ancient knowledge and tradition to revive bee keeping of stingless bee species—known as meliponines after their scientific name, Meliponini.

The practice is seen as a climate friendly economic alternative to the intensive monocrop agriculture that has brought deforestation and intensive agrochemical use to peninsula communities. (See "Campeche beekeeper honored for efforts to curb transgenic crops" —EcoAméricas, January 2021.)

These industrial farming practices pose a major challenge, as do invasions by nonnative bee species such as Apis mellifera, the stinging bee introduced by the Spanish in colonial times.

The stingless Melipona beecheii, known in Mayan as “Xunan-kab,” is the native species of choice for many bee-keepers on the Yucatán Peninsula because it is relatively easy to manage. Found from Mexico to Costa Rica, it is one of some 500 types of meliponines found in tropical climates around the world and one of the 47 found in Mexico.

Scientists fear Melipona beecheii are in danger of extinction, but reliable population figures are hard to come by. In 2005 a group of scientists from the Smithsonian Institute surveyed 20% of the members of the largest traditional beekeeping group in the Americas and combined the information with their own field studies over 24 years. The article, published in the journal Bee World in June 2005, states beekeepers using Melipona beecheii in the Yucatán Peninsula state of Quintana Roo report a 93% decrease in the number of hives during the past quarter century.

“Melipona bees are beautiful beings,” says Manuela Yam Pech, one of three Mayan women who share Flor de Jazmín, or Jasmine Flower, a meliponary that houses 95 hives in the rural village of Xaya in Yucatán state. “They are tranquil, docile, hard-working and show a great sense of unity. They set an example for us and are an inspiration.”

Flor de Jazmin received seven Melipona beecheii hives in 2018 from Educampo, a Mexican nonprofit with six decades’ experience in rural development. Educampo trained the women in bee-keeping, leadership, and production skills. Today Flor de Jazmín sells honey and makes products such as shampoo, soaps, creams and throat sweets to generate additional income while supporting native bee conservation.

“We are working to save the bees that are in danger of extinction and, in turn, they give us the opportunity of living a healthier life,” says Yam Pech, who used to sell hand-woven blouses. “Thanks to the bees, my quality of life is better, I enjoy caring for them, and just a few hours of work a week with the bees means I have been able to drop other jobs I had.”

Gender dimension

Francisco Cruz, the Yucatán Peninsula’s regional director for Educampo, says the initiative also has beneficial effects on gender roles. “Collective work has traditionally been structured [in Mayan society] by men for men, leaving women to one side,” Cruz says. “We believe a focus on gender in community work will bring environmental benefits.”

Meliponines enjoy a rare combination of cultural and economic importance as well as an iconic conservation status. They are considered a thermometer of the general health of the environment. The bees, which typically live a little over 50 days, fly up to one kilometer from their hive as many as three times a day in search of nectar and pollen to feed on. Producers say that with flowers far less abundant on the Yucatán Peninsula due to this year’s drought and record-high temperatures, bees have starved to death.

In its trainings, Educampo emphasizes an integral approach. “It is important to care for the entire system that sustains bees,” Cruz says. “You cannot think of beekeeping as limited to the hives. Reforestation is one of the most important activities for beekeepers nowadays who need to ensure there is an abundance of native species nearby for the bees to thrive.”

Rodrigo Navarro, a honey producer who has studied the breeding of stingless bees, calculates this year’s drought conditions have killed 25% to 30% of bee hives on the Yucatán Peninsula. “In 30 years I have not seen anything like this,” Navarro says. “Bees were dropping dead due to heat exhaustion and excessive body temperature in their desperate search for flowers to feed on. Hives started to collapse. This is an environmental catastrophe.”

Emergency measure

Yam Pech says her cooperative’s meliponines have only survived the drought-induced food shortage because she and her team have bought honey produced by stinging bees and fed it to their stingless species, a practice many producers have had to resort to this year.

“Last year we harvested 53 liters of honey in the harvest season, which runs from February to June,” Yam Pech says. “So far this year we have harvested three liters. We will be lucky if we get a total of five liters in total this season.”

A liter of Melipona honey sells for the equivalent of US$100 because of its medicinal properties and because in a normal year stingless bees produce only a liter per hive compared to the 20-30 liters-per-hive produced annually by stinging varieties. Honey from stinging bees fetches approximately US$5 per liter.

Producers across the board report shortfalls. “Each melipona hive used to produce a liter annually; today it can be as low as 300 milliliters,” says Navarro, whose venture promotes native stingless-bee conservation. “Everything is in decline because of the loss of habitat. These are clear signs the local ecosystem is out of balance and unhealthy.” He notes government programs often focus solely on honey production and result in hives being placed in unsuitable urban locations with insufficient green cover.

“Any bee program not coupled with a suitable habitat is a conservation failure,” says Navarro, whose organization lends hives to first-time producers on condition they plant suitable habitat for the bees. “The ideal is that [the bees] should be able to thrive in the wild where their environmental services are an integral part of the ecosystem.”

- Lara Rodríguez

Francisco Cruz Rejón
Regional Coordinator, Yucatán Peninsula
Merida, Mexico
Tel: +(52 967) 100-0260
Rodrigo Navarro
Miel Nativa Kaban
Merida, Mexico
Tel: +(52 986) 100-8958
Manuela Yam Pech
Flor de Jazmín
Xaya, Yucatán, Mexico
Tel: +(52 997) 129-3034
Documents & Resources
  1. June 2005 article in Bee World: Extinction of Melipona beecheii and traditional beekeeping in the Yucatán Peninsula: link

  2. Article in the journal Sociobiology on the economic and cultural values of stingless bees among ethnic groups of tropical America: link