The use of Melipona bees in Mesoamerica dates back to the pre-Columbian era. These highly valued stingless bees were used for their honey and wax, which was used for a variety of purposes.
The Mesoamerican culture highly valued Honey and cerumen (wax) and used them as a method of exchange for other goods, as well as for tribute and taxes. They developed a system of cultivating stingless bee species and created a complex culture around them that involved traditional knowledge, ecology, and mythology.
In the Postclassic Maya period, the indigenous people in Yucatán used honey and cerumen primarily as a sweetener and medicine, but also in spiritual rituals. Cerumen was an important material for making sculptures and figurines to represent gods or as offerings. Early people often destroyed wild bee nests to obtain honey, a practice that is still used today in other areas of the world.
During the colonial era, honey and cerumen were still important resources in Yucatán bringing wealth to the region.
The Beginning of Meliponiculture
Meliponiculture started in the Maya area of the Yucatán Peninsula and northern Guatemala. From there it spread to other regions. Outside this region its development was more rudimentary and sporadic.
The farmers took great care to safeguard the bee colonies from being taken by others. They carefully collected the hives from the hollows of trees in the forest and relocated them close to their homes. The Chontal Indians in Tabasco, Mexico, often cleared forest areas and relocated the colonies to their own backyards.
Once a bee hive was located, they cut down the tree, sealed up the ends of the trunk, and transported it to their home. By sealing the trunk they ensured the hive was safe with minimal disruption to the colony. These hollow pieces of tree trunks (Jobon) were suspended beneath an eave at home.
As a result, honey became an integral part of the Mesoamerican culture and way of life. For centuries, they utilized honey for a variety of purposes that extended beyond its culinary applications. Until today, honey has an important cultural and religious significance. It is used for many ailments and many of the traditional healing methods are still actively practiced today.
Cultivating Melipona Bees
Cultivating stingless bees like the Melipona beecheii, was a gradual process. It started by selecting wild colonies that produced high-quality honey. The steady production of queens was essential to ensure successful division. Choosing Melipona beecheii could be because of their association with fertility in Mayan cosmogony.
Domesticating stingless bees like Melipona beecheii provide a unique example of how ancient cultures interacted with nature. By selecting and cultivating the species, they were able to sustainably harvest honey while preserving the species and its associated culture. This process is still in practice today, providing a link between pre-Columbian cultivation practices and present-day conservation efforts. Thus, this form of domestication serves as an important reminder of the long-term relationships between ancient cultures and the environment.
Once the colonies could reproduce, the Maya developed methods to maintain large numbers and facilitated harvesting. They still use hollow logs (jobon) for this purpose today. Jobon dimensions are similar throughout the region. They are usually 50-60 cm long with a cavity of 20-30 cm in diameter and 4 cm thick walls.
Meliponario (Nahil-Kab in Maya) arrangement, which is similar across the Maya zone, traditionally involves orientating and arranging jobones with their main axis running east-west along the Yucatán Peninsula. Melipo-nurturers have long shared and refined a tried-and-true method of construction that involves erecting an A-frame wooden structure of logs beneath a roof.
The Spanish Conquistadors discovered an abundance of Melipona honey produced in large numbers of colonies. Historians believe that the Yucatán Peninsula have controlled the production of Melipona honey, leading to an accumulation of wealth from its trade by capitalizing the production of honey for commercial use. To this day, traditional meliponario arrangements are still in place, and used both for production or research purposes. This has helped preserve the species and maintain the important role it plays in creating a sustainable environment.
These traditional methods kept Meliponiculture alive, and it is with this knowledge that we can continue to maintain the biodiversity of our ecosystems. The Spanish tried to introduce the stinging honey bee (A. mellifera) in the early colonial years to other parts of Mexico. However, the honey bees did not establish in the Yucatan Peninsula (Quezada-Euán et al. 2011), probably because of the large amount of honey and wax produced by the M. beecheii colonies. It is thought that the Mayas probably did not welcome the honey bee because of its stinging ability (Labougle and Zozaya 1986). In Yucatan, the introduction of A. mellifera occurred until the early 20th century from the United States. It is known locally as the “American bee” (Quezada-Euán 2005).
The Spanish imposed the catholic religion upon the Maya culture in the early colonial times. They persecuted and burnt the original codices, which meant much of the culture´s knowledge was lost forever. However, monks and shamans who had learned Spanish took on the task of writing several documents. As a result, many traditions and beliefs were recovered. Such is the case of the Chilam Balam of Chumayel and the ritual of the Bacabes, both written at the end of the 16th century or beginning of the 17th century. It was in these documents where it was possible to gain a glimpse into the importance of melipona bees for the Mayan communities.
The sacred books of the Chilam Balam were written during the 17th, 18th, 19th centuries. However, some of the writings of the Chilam Balam date back as far as the 7th century. Chilam means ¨mouth-piece¨ or interpreter of the gods, and Balam means jaguar, but Balam is also a god of agriculture.
These writings contain manifestations of the importance that the native melipona bees still had for the Mayan communities. The bee was considered a sacred animal and was respected as such, since honey production from the melipona bee was an important element of Mayan life.
The Chilam Balam of Chumayel, a sacred book written during the colonial era, associates a bee with each of the four cardinal points. They are denominated with a specific color. The big red bee in the East, the great white bee in the north, the big black bee in the west, and the great yellow bee in the South. Although it was not until the colonial period that melipona beekeeping began to be documented in detail, the Maya cultivated these bees for centuries. The traditional knowledge of many Maya beekeepers allowed them to preserve this practice over the centuries until today.
The Maya believed that the bees were able to communicate with their gods and act as messengers between them. This sacred relationship between bee and Maya continues to the present day. As evidence of this, in many Mayan communities it is still a common practice to release melipona bees at the top of the pyramids to thank the gods for their abundance. The Mayan culture is a testament to the importance and value of melipona bees, both in the past and present.
Although meliponiculture was an ancestral activity in Mesoamerica, there is only little archaeological evidence. This is probably due to the perishable nature of the materials used. Current evidence are round, flat stones known as U maak, tapas or panuchos (López-Maldonado 2005). The Mesoamericans used these pieces of stone or wood as plugs on the ends of jobones. Jobon caps are found frequently throughout the Maya area (even in Preclassic settlements), which suggests that meliponiculture was established in Yucatán around 100-300 B.C. (Crane 1992). This is confirmed with a recent finding of a ceramic piece resembling a jobon in Nakum (Petén, Guatemala) that dates back to the Protoclassic period (100 BC to 300 AD) (Zralka et al. 2014). It is the oldest representation of a Maya beehive used in meliponiculture.
The Maya settlements of Cozumel, Tulum and Mexico City all contain artifacts related to meliponiculture. The most noteworthy is the Trocortesian or Madrid Codex, which clearly shows the importance of stingless bees to the Maya culture.
These artifacts demonstrate that meliponiculture has been a fundamental practice to the Maya, as it still is today. As such, it ensures the continuity of this ancient tradition and allows us to better understand the importance of pollinators in today’s world.
The Pre-Columbian Maya Codex
Hernán Cortés is thought to have taken the Pre-Co-Columbian Maya Codex, dating from 900-1500 A.D., to Spain, where it has survived to this day. The Codex consists of 56 painted sheets on both sides, depicting 47 glyphs of bees. It shows stylized images of various gods performing activities related to beekeeping and honey harvesting. Several deities were connected to the care of bees, their nests, and the places they were kept. The deities shown were Ah-Mucen-kab and Hobnil, as well as gods like Noh Yum kab, Balam-kab and Moc-chí.
The Codex offers a unique insight into the ancient Maya culture and its relationship with bees and beekeeping. It is a valuable document in understanding their beliefs and practices, as well as providing an opportunity to appreciate the artistic skill of the Maya people.
According to Maya mythology the elder god, Kun’ ku or Yumbil dios gave Melipona bees to man, making the meliponiculturists their guardians and caretakers. To this day the Maya consider the Xunan-kab colonies to be an extension of their families, and often refer to them as “people”.
In the Maya´s cosmovision, four gods known as “bacabes” sustain the world in the four cardinal points, and are also the gods of the bees. The most important among them is Jobnil, the god of beehives and patron of the meliponicultores. He is identified by wearing a necklace with a jobón (hollowed trunk where the meliponas live in a horizontal position) on his chest.
Evidence of the descending god “Ah Mucen Kab” can be found in many Mayan cities, such as Sayil, Tulum, Cobá, Cozumel and Chichen Itzá. This god is depicted as holding honeycombs between his hands in a horizontal position, characteristic of stingless bees. On both sides of the deity are two pairs of small jobons, indicating the god’s association with meliponiculture.
Thus, in Mayan culture and religion, the melipona bee was seen as a sacred species, linked to many of their gods and the long-standing tradition of their caretakers.
They believe when a beekeeper dies, the bees will perish unless another male relative in the family hierarchy quickly informs them of his willingness to take on the responsibility of care. Until today rituals of certain harvesting and breeding practices reflect the strong relationship between man and bees.
For example, an intermediary shaman Maya priest performs a ceremony (U hanli-kab “the food of the bees”) before the harvest to request permission and invoke the care of the true “owners” or “lords” of the bees (Weaver and Weaver 1981).
Honey is also an important ingredient in many Maya ceremonies. It is used in a ritual drink ingested by Maya priests known as balché, that consists of fermented Melipona honey with other ingredients. The most important ingredient is the bark of the tree known as balché (Lonchocarpus longistilus). According to science, the alkaloids in this beverage produce hallucinations. These allow the priests to reach transcendental states of consciousness (López-Maldonado 2005).
Balché is a drink for men only. Women can drink a non-alcoholic beverage called Sac-há, made from ground corn dough and sweetened with Melipona honey. Even to this day the Maya prepare and consume these drinks during ceremonies and offerings. They use them to pray for the care and harvest of crops, domestic animals, and bees.
According to Maya belief, M. beecheii honey has special properties because it holds a warm temperature. It relates closely to the Mayan concept that women take care of the home and the Earth is a living entity with soul, blood, and flesh. Therefore they view Melipona honey as sacred. In traditional medicine, M. beecheii honey is utilized to address diseases caused by imbalances in body temperature due to its warm nature. Midwives use it during childbirth and to increase the production of breast milk.
The Maya believe honey from maculine stingless bee species (bush bees) is cold-temperature honey. They use it for consumption and in traditional medicine, although without any religious connotations. In addition, they believe the pollen is fecal waste of the bees. They typically bury the pollen to prevent invasion from flies. This is probably because of the parasitic Pseudohypocera flie, whose larvae feed on the exposed pollen. Burying the pollen prevents their invasion.
Current Ecological Situation
During the second half of the 19th century the Yucatán peninsula was famous for its production of henequén (sisal). Sisal is made from the fibers of the agave plant and is used for ropes, twine, sacks, clothing and more. The economic success of this monoculture resulted in a large deforestation of the Yucatán peninsula. With the introduction of synthetic fibers like nylon and polyester the demand sharply declined in the mid-20th century. Reforestation began and the return of forest cover brought with it the return of the meliponinae bees, which were able to recolonize their former habitats.
Today, the conservation of biodiversity has become a priority in Yucatán, as it is the home to numerous endemic species. The meliponinae bees are among those species being monitored and conserved. These bees provide an important service to the region, as they pollinate a variety of native plants. In addition, the local communities have incorporated the practice of beekeeping, using traditional methods. This helps to ensure the survival of these species and offers an alternative source of income for local farmers, who have witnessed the decline of henequén production.
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