Native Village Youth and Education News

May 1, 2009 Issue 198
Volume 4

Native Chiapas Bees: Recouping an Ancient Mayan Tradition
Condensed by Native Village

Chiapas, Mexico: Zapatista movement members are reviving the ancient Mayan tradition of cultivating hives of the region's stingless, native bees.

“This year I am going to put several stingless bee hives into boxes so that we can reproduce the hives - because
most of the big trees where they live have been cut down,” explained a Chol indigenous bee keeper and Zapatista member.  “I’ve always kept the African bees and the stingless kind, but people bother me a lot for the wild kind of honey, and the old people want the wax for their candles so they can pray."

Known in Chiapas as Ansil Pom (Tzotzil), Chap (Chol), or Melipona (Spanish), these native bees’ are highly valued for their honey which is an important medicine and has a powerful sweetness.  The wax from their unique hives is used to make candles for praying or communicating with dead family members  – especially during Day of the Dead ceremonies.

“My mother always had her bee trunk beside our house,” said one 50- year-old Zapatista leader.  “She used the honey for medicine when we had sore throats and to sweeten our tortillas.  She called the wax, 'black wax', and she always used the 'black wax' for candles so she could pray during Day of the Dead.  I want to be part of recouping this tradition because it is very important to us.”

Spring is the traditional season to seek stingless bee honey in the hollow trunks of huge trees.  With trees and flowers blooming everywhere, these Native American bee hives are literally dripping with honey during this time of year. However, increasing de-forestation means fewer large trees and fewer nesting places for the stingless bees.  

“My father said the entire community used to go the mountains to get honey during Easter weeks,” said one Tzotzil Mayan beekeeper attending a Melipona bee conference. “But now the trees are all cut down so people could make money, and our bees are gone."

Invasive bees are also competing with native bees for nesting places and food sources. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, the Mexican government encouraged the use of high producing commercial bees, so many native bee hives kept in trunks near peoples’ homes have not been well maintained.  However, falling honey prices and aggressive Africanized bee hives have cooled many Mayan communities to commercial bees.

“They’ve cut down our trees and poisoned our land with their chemicals; our native Melopona bees are being exported to Japan to pollinate tomatoes in greenhouses, yet we’ve almost forgotten about these bees,“ said one  Zapatista promoter.  “Everyone should study this Melipona bee keeping box carefully because it is easy to make and all of us need to learn how to raise and reproduce Meliponas in our communities.”

As part if its Ecological Education in the Zapatista communities, "Schools for Chiapas" is seeking funding to host workshops to care for stingless bees and to construct Melipona hive boxes.  They are also seeking individuals and communities knowledgeable in the Mayan tradition of caring for this important American pollinator.


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