Buzzing with History: The Sweet Story of Mayan Bees
Discover the fascinating world of Mayan bees, their importance to the ancient Mayan civilization, and their unique characteristics. Learn about the threats facing stingless bees today and the efforts underway to protect them.
In the dense tropical jungles of Central and South America, the Maya civilization thrived for centuries. The Mayans were known for their impressive architectural feats, intricate hieroglyphs, and advanced agricultural practices. Among their many achievements, the Mayans also developed a unique relationship with a special kind of bee: the stingless honeybee.
Stingless bees, also known as meliponines, are native to tropical regions of the Americas, from Mexico to Brazil. Unlike the common honeybee, stingless bees do not have a stinger and are smaller in size. In ancient times, the Mayans kept colonies of stingless bees in log hives, and they harvested their honey for both culinary and medicinal purposes.
Mayan Bees: A Vital Part of Maya Culture
Mayan bees played an essential role in the culture and economy of the ancient Maya civilization. They were revered for their honey, which was considered a sacred food and used in various ceremonies and rituals. The Mayans also used honey for medicinal purposes, such as treating wounds, coughs, and colds.
Moreover, Mayan bees were an important source of income for the Maya people. They traded their honey, beeswax, and propolis with other communities and neighboring tribes. The Mayans also used beeswax to create candles, figurines, and other decorative objects.
The Stingless Honeybee's Unique Characteristics
Stingless bees have several unique characteristics that differentiate them from the common honeybee. They are smaller in size and have no stinger, making them less aggressive and less likely to cause harm to humans. Instead of building honeycombs, stingless bees store their honey in small, wax-lined pots or chambers inside their hives.
Stingless bees are also known for their ability to produce different types of honey, depending on the type of flower they visit. Each honey has a distinct flavor and medicinal properties. Some of the most popular types of honey produced by stingless bees include Jatai, Uruçu, Mandaçaia, and Guaraipo.
Preserving Mayan Bees and Their Habitat
Despite their importance to the Mayan civilization, stingless bees are facing many threats today. Habitat loss, pesticide use, and climate change are among the main factors contributing to the decline of stingless bee populations. In many parts of Central and South America, the traditional knowledge of beekeeping has also been lost.
Fortunately, there are efforts underway to preserve Mayan bees and their habitat. Local communities and organizations are working to promote sustainable beekeeping practices and raise awareness about the importance of protecting stingless bees. In addition, some researchers are studying the unique properties of Mayan honey and its potential medicinal uses.
The Importance of Stingless Bees for Biodiversity and Agriculture
Stingless bees are not only important for cultural and economic reasons but also for their ecological significance. They are excellent pollinators, and their contribution to the ecosystem is invaluable. Many plant species, including fruit trees, depend on the pollination services of stingless bees for their survival.
Moreover, stingless bees are more efficient pollinators than common honeybees in certain crops, such as tomatoes, cocoa, and coffee. Their small size allows them to access flowers that are too small or too deep for honeybees to pollinate effectively.
The Rich Floral Diversity and Honey Types
The Yucatan Peninsula encompasses much of the Petén region of Guatemala, a portion of the eastern appendix of Tabasco, most of Campeche, and the states of Yucatan and Quintana Roo. It stands apart from the rest of Mexico due to its unique biogeographical characteristics. Its physiographical features, climate, soils, and hydrography have resulted in a distinctive flora and fauna, sustaining endemic species that contribute to its distinctive character.
Experts classify primary vegetation as flora that has reached maximum development through regeneration and remains unmodified by human activities or recent natural events. Secondary vegetation, on the other hand, develops after natural or human disturbance due to ecological succession. The peninsular flora comprises primary and secondary vegetation, some of which are essential for nectar production and result in diverse types of honey that beekeepers recognize. Approximately 900 plant species in the Yucatan Peninsula are visited by bees, indicating the region's floristic richness.
Honey and wax have been produced in the peninsula since the origins of the Mayan civilization through stingless bee cultivation (Melipona beecheii). While melipon farming is still practiced in the Mayan area today, beekeeping (breeding of the European bee Apis mellifera) was developed in the early 20th century. Due to the area's floral diversity and resources, European bees adapted and multiplied successfully.
The type of honey produced depends on the prevailing vegetation in an area and the time of year. This leads to different types of honey throughout the year, which can be characterized based on their botanical origin and the pollen grains they contain. Monofloral honey has a 45% dominance of one type of pollen, while multifloral honey has no predominant pollen type. The Yucatan Peninsula's diverse honey types are a result of its biological diversity.
Annual honey production from a specific flower in the Yucatan Peninsula shows that 42% comes from tajonal, which blooms from December to February, 48% from ts'its'ilche, which blooms from March to May, and 8% from various leguminous flowers and vines that bloom from June to October. Each type of honey has its own characteristics, such as high humidity and enzyme content for vine honey, low humidity and crystallization for tajonal honey, and aroma and high mineral content for ts'ilche honey.
The Importance of Designation of Origin for Honey Production
The designation of origin is a geographical indication that identifies the country, region, or locality where a product originates. It recognizes that the unique qualities and characteristics of the product are primarily a result of the environment, which includes natural and human factors. The main goal of this designation is to safeguard local knowledge and production methods, passed down through generations within a specific region. The Yucatan Peninsula, for example, promotes the use of this designation to differentiate and add value to its honey production.
One aspect of honey production that can affect its value is its botanical origin. By analyzing the pollen in the honey, it is possible to determine if it comes from a single species of flower (known as mono-flower honey) or from several species (multi-flower honey). If the organoleptic properties of the honey are linked to a short flowering period, it can command a higher price in the market.
Geographical or environmental origins also play a crucial role in the designation of origin. Products are identified by the name of the place where they are produced, and they are associated with the raw materials and harvesting methods unique to that region. All beekeepers or honey producers in the defined region would share the same designation. Nowadays, honey produced in a traditional manner can be found on the market through collective marks created by producer organizations in a specific area.
The Unique Characteristics and Flavors of Yucatan Peninsula Honey
Honey can have a range of characteristics such as softness, creaminess, subtlety, intensity, perfume, and flavor. These traits depend on several factors, including the flowers the bees visit, the location of the beehives, and the time of year of harvest. The color of honey is the first quality that is noticeable and can indicate its floral origin, minerals, freshness, and storage conditions. Honey colors are described using the Pfund scale in the international market. This scale starts at white, associated with soft honey, and goes up to dark amber, linked to more intense flavors.
Here are some descriptions of honey according to the flower that bees feed on:
- K'an chunúup (Thouinia paucidentata): Extra light amber color (25 to 40 mm Pfund) with a light yellow appearance, medium crystallization, floral and herbal odor, sweet and mild taste.
- Ha'abin (Piscidia piscipula): Light to dark amber color (49 to 87 mm Pfund) and texture with liquid and solid phase. Its tendency to crystallize is slow. It has a caramel smell, as well as a taste, with sweet, sour, and spicy notes. It is considered strong honey.
- Tsalam (Lysiloma latisiliquum): Clear, white to extra light amber (31 to 38 mm Pfund). It is harvested in the rainy season, so it generally has high moisture content and is liquid and transparent. It has a fine crystallization when harvested at maturity. It is tasty, aromatic, and has a soft consistency. Due to its characteristics, this honey has a better chance of entering the market as a differentiated monofloral.
- Chakàah (Bursera simaruba): Its color ranges from extra light amber to light amber (38 to 68 mm Pfund). When harvested, it is liquid and transparent, but it crystallizes quickly due to its low moisture content. It has a floral smell and a sweet taste with a waxy note.
- Box káatsim (Acacia gaumeri): Its color varies from extra light amber to light amber (44 to 54 mm Pfund). It is generally liquid, with a tendency to slow crystallization and high moisture content because it is harvested in the rainy season. It has an herbal smell with a sweet and waxy taste.
- Sak káatsim (Mimosa bahamensis): It is a light yellow honey, in the white to light amber category (38 to 58 mm Pfund). It is liquid and transparent, and foams when shaken due to its high moisture content. It has a herbal smell and a sweet, fermented, and acidic taste.
- Tajonal (Viguiera dentata): Honey with yellow tones, white to light amber color (22 to 54 mm Pfund). Its flowering is late and overlaps with Thouinia. It tends towards medium crystallization and has a floral smell with a herbal note and a sweet taste of soft caramel.
- Ts'its'ilche (Gymnopodium floribundum): It is liquid and amber-colored, with a floral perfume smell and a sweet taste at the beginning. Later, its spicy or astringent component predominates, so it is considered strong honey.
Flowers of primary vegetation are essential for honey characteristic of the Yucatan Peninsula. Bees are also crucial to pollinate flowers, without which there would be no honey. Finally, without pollination organs, honey would not exist.
Mayan bees are a unique and vital part of the Mayan culture and the ecosystem of Central and South America. They are an example of the intimate relationship that humans have with nature and the importance of preserving traditional knowledge and practices. By protecting Mayan bees and their habitat, we can also help to promote biodiversity and sustainable agriculture.
Full Citation: Hernández, Elisa T. 2016. Una denominación de origen para las mieles de la península de Yucatán. Ciencias, núm. 118-119, noviembre 2015-abril, pp. 106-114. [Online]
Graduate in Physics and Mathematics from the IPN School of Physics and Mathematics. Graduated from UNAM with a degree in Science Dissemination. For 10 years she has been dedicated to the teaching and popularization of science, has been the author of nine basic education textbooks, and likes to write articles on the popularization of science. She currently works in the UNAM's Ciencias magazine, where the original article first appeared (in Spanish).
Update: Some of the text and and headings were ammended for a better reading experience.