Ko'olel-Kaab: The Majestic Mayan Lady Bees of Honey

Discover the unique and fascinating world of the Maya Meliponas, also known as the Lady Bees. Find out how important they were in Mayan culture, what interesting things they do, and how you can help protect this valuable species.

Ko'olel-Kaab: The Majestic Mayan Lady Bees of Honey
The Xunáan-Kaab, or Lady Bee, holds a special place in Mayan culture, both for its honey-making abilities and its role in religious traditions and political power. Image by DALL·E

The bees cultivated by the Maya are the Beecheii meliponas, known as xunáan-kaab "lady bee" or ko'olel-Kaab, which means "the lady of honey", perhaps because they lack a functional sting.

The characteristics that make this bee special are that it lives in the hollow trunks of trees in permanent colonies with a queen called Balam Kaab ("jaguar bee") and thousands of workers; it takes its nectar from Mayan medicinal plants; and it can feed itself with its honey.

The cultivation of melipona is closely tied to religious tradition and political power. The figures in the Tro-Cortesian Codex, also known as the Madrid Codex, which may be the only complete pre-Columbian Maya codices, show that this was the case.

Its last ten "pages" are known as the "Section of the Bees", in which 42 drawings of the Xunáan-kaab can be seen, as well as a deity who, as one of his attributes of power, wears a hobón as a necklace, a horizontal trunk used to breed stingless bees.

Did you know that the honeybee as we know it is of European origin, brought to Yucatan from the United States at the beginning of the 20th century?

The incessant activity of the hive as well as the harmony of the swarm impressed the indigenous peoples, who saw in the bees the cardinal virtues of social life: peace, order, and justice. For the Maya, the Ko'olel-Kaab are the creators of fertility, which is why all dead bees must be buried, so that in the world of death they can build a life from the dead.

According to research, the Maya used the word "kinam", which means "rigor, strength, and fortitude" in their language, to refer to the power of honey to heal or restore the hun ol, the well-being, and harmony of the heart; pregnant women are even given this type of honey after childbirth for its properties and benefits.

Stingless bees need forests with a certain degree of protection, where they can find trees with a sufficient diameter for nesting, as the colonies are unable to migrate by swarming, as is the case with honeybees.

Severe deforestation and the indiscriminate use of pesticides are destroying honeybee habitats. Although projects are underway to protect them, everyone's help and cooperation are needed; consuming Melipona bee products is a good start.