For several years, beekeepers have complained about threats to their bees caused by the deforestation of the Mayan forest for the benefit of intensive corn and soybean cultivation, which requires the massive use of chemical pesticides.
An investigation of the phenomenon has led us to the discovery of an ancient, sacred species of bee, endangered until recently, but which has since experienced a renaissance: the extraordinary melipone.
Ah Muzen Kaab, deity of life
The melipone bee – Melipona beecheii, principally; there are about 40 varieties – has no stinger; it does not sting. She is very sociable and she rarely gets angry since, as the Maya say, she has become accustomed to humans over millennia.
Divinity of life, Ah Muzen Kaab (in Maya), peaceful and benevolent, is also that of writing, the calendar and medicine. The ancient Maya used its honey as a remedy during rituals, but they also consumed it in the form of sugar or fermented drinks. They kept these sylvan bees in pieces of tree trunks and, hundreds of years later, they still do, but they prefer square hives, which are more convenient to open or close.
A little smaller than the European bee (Apis mellifera), the melipone produces 1 liter of honey per year, against 35 for the common bee, which explains why, in the 19and century, the Mayan beekeepers abandoned it for honey-producing plants.
A blonde with blue eyes
The workers have blue eyes, while the queen and the males have black eyes. There is only one guard at the entrance of the hive, a hole of less than a centimeter, which disappears with each entry or exit. Their broods are overlapping circular combs reminiscent of – or inspired, some say – the Maya for their pyramids.
Honey is found in small bubbles or amphoras; it is harvested with a syringe to keep it pure. Like honey, propolis (a kind of mortar) would have medicinal properties that should still be seriously studied.
This is what biologist Aurora Xolalpa is starting to do in her brand new laboratories at the Mayan Intercultural University of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, in the state of Quintana Roo. The students who work in the apiary and the laboratories will be future researchers or beekeepers of melipones, quite simply.
This is the case of Fani Arguello, from Mani, in Yucatan, who studied at this university before embarking on melipone beekeeping in his vast garden, his mipa profusely flowering.
Mayan honey got lost. We are rescuing the honey bees; they are on the verge of extinction, says Fani Arguello. But that could be changing.
The rebirth of the melipone
At the origin of this rebirth: a Frenchman, Stéphane Palmieri, hotelier in Tulum, in Quintana Roo, and beekeeper since childhood. He went in search of ancestral melipone hives, he found three of them and he began to reproduce them.
The idea was to reproduce colonies in order to be able to multiply them. We needed a somewhat substantial genetic heritage. We reproduced lots of colonies that we distributed in Mayan communities, says Stéphane Palmieri.
It is now necessary that the honey and the products of the melipone be recognized, as well as its millennial cultural and heritage value. And also that the species be protected from deforestation, intensive, sometimes transgenic crops and pesticides; like all the bees of Yucatan, for that matter.
All bees are endangered
This was the starting point of our investigation. South of the Yucatan Peninsula is the state of Campeche. Between 2010 and 2020, the peninsula lost more than 80,000 hectares of forest, according to Global Forest Watch, more than half of which in this state, in favor of corn and soybean fields.
Some 80% of this land is exploited by colonies of the Mennonite sect who fled Manitoba in the early 20th century and then the state of Chihuahua in the 2000s for fertile, well-watered and cheap.
The community, however, clashed in 2012 with beekeepers in the region who accused it of carrying out excessive deforestation, practicing transgenic crops and using pesticides. They ended up winning the ban on transgenic seeds, but this is not respected.
First the bees, then civilization will disappear, and the planethe argues, knowing that bees are 70% pollinators of all plants and crops.
Our farmers who deforest to produce more will have to spend more on pollination.