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Year : 2020  |  Volume : 18  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 387-398

Saving the Other Bees: The Resurgence of Stingless Beekeeping in the Zona Maya

Assistant Professor, Department of Earth & Environment, Franklin & Marshall College, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, USA

Correspondence Address:
Eve Z Bratman
Assistant Professor, Department of Earth & Environment, Franklin & Marshall College, Lancaster, Pennsylvania
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/cs.cs_20_66

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Date of Submission29-Mar-2020
Date of Acceptance28-Jul-2020
Date of Web Publication01-Oct-2020


This paper discusses strategies for salvaging biodiversity through a case study exploring the revitalisation of keeping stingless bees in the Yucatan Peninsula. While once Melipona beecheii was at risk of extinction, fifteen years later the species and meliponiculture practices are thriving. The paper highlights the history of the revitalisation and emphasises two factors underpinning stingless beekeeping's resurgence: agroecology orientations in environmental stewardship and inter-generational relationships, based upon a feminist ethic of inter-species care. This case illustrates the complex interactions of indigenous-led and grassroots approaches with biodiversity losses and ecosystem protection, and advances insights into the interdependencies and complexities involved in cultivating vital inter-species relationships.

Keywords: Mexico, Melipona, indigenous, biodiversity, feminism, agroecology

How to cite this article:
Bratman EZ. Saving the Other Bees: The Resurgence of Stingless Beekeeping in the Zona Maya. Conservat Soc 2020;18:387-98

How to cite this URL:
Bratman EZ. Saving the Other Bees: The Resurgence of Stingless Beekeeping in the Zona Maya. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2020 [cited 2021 Mar 5];18:387-98. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2020/18/4/387/296995

   Introduction Top

The global loss of insects is already so severe that entomologists refer to it as an ”insect apocalypse” in peer-reviewed papers (Cardoso and Leather 2019; Goulson 2019). Amidst the feared collapse of insect populations worldwide, pollinators are on the frontlines both of scientific study and public awareness. Globally, over 40% of wild pollinators are at risk of extinction (IPBES 2016). Aside from honeybees, bee populations have declined all over the world, with losses more prevalent in some regions than others.

Relative to native bees or other pollinating insects, European honeybees (Apis mellifera) receive significantly more media attention, highly disproportionate to their ecological utility as pollinators (Smith and Saunders 2016). European honeybees are kept all over the world, including throughout Latin America. Bringing attention to the conservation of their stingless native bee cousins remains a challenge of biodiversity conservation work and for environmental educators concerned with accurately conveying the significance of biodiversity losses (Hutton et al. 2005; Crist et al. 2017).

The research presented here reveals some of the functional strategies and the frictions involved with cultivating inter-species relational ethics, led largely by indigenous and non-extractive models of ecological practise. Using the framework of political ecology, and a case study of the resurgence of Melipona beecheii (melipona) beekeeping, this work highlights some of the specific ways in which inter-species relationships are experienced and reproduced, ultimately benefitting bees, their keepers, and their habitats, more broadly. Through the practices of stingless beekeeping, land management practices, economic arrangements, and norms are transformed, while people engage within an applied approach to biodiversity protection.

Today, a number of signs point to a rebound in keeping stingless bees, with far more colonies and meliponists than thirty years ago (Villanueva-Gutiérrez et al. 2013). At present, agricultural extension agents and training courses have popularised Melipona beekeeping among young and old alike, stingless bee honey is being sold by a number of cooperatives, and the population of Melipona bees has rebounded (Ayala et al. 2013a). Below, I detail the history and reasons behind the resurgence in keeping stingless bees in the Yucatan Peninsula, and the socio-cultural and biodiversity conservation dimensions of the melipona bee revitalisation.

Rescuing Conservation amidst a Biodiversity Crisis

Adopting a trans-species relationality (c.f. Haraway 2007; Kohn 2013; Tsing 2015), theorists urge kinship-making and embracing expansive, entangled world views within a realm of moral theorisation. This vein of scholarship is especially excited about possibilities of exploring the spaces and forms of new life in the Anthropocene era, wherein alien and invasive species may flourish amidst the ruins of the capitalist system (Tsing 2015). The argument for a more ”convivial conservation” approach to biodiversity pushes environmental scholars and conservation biology practitioners to engage politically across disciplines, with special attention to the dialectics of socially constructed natures, values, and the unevenness of conservation's benefits across space and society (Büscher and Fletcher 2020). Given the Anthropocene's challenges, scholars urge us to ”learn to pay due attention to the entanglements, uncanny symbioses and novel interconnections that mediate and intersperse between ourselves and the world.” (Carstens 2016: 271). Paul Wapner (2014b) argues that environmentalism itself may be renewed by adopting a ”politics of ambiguity,” which does not necessitate conflict between two dichotomous views of the human and non-human. Rather, moral action requires acknowledging a hybrid, more-than-human world, in which expanded notions of kinship, time horizons, and geographic sensibilities will lead to protecting ecological health and fighting injustice. The result, he posits, will lead scholars, environmentalists, and individuals alike toward ”understanding the co-constitutive character of all life and working on its behalf” (Wapner 2014a: 37). A related scholarly turn concerning the epistemologies and practices of a pluriversal world is largely inspired by indigenous movements from Latin America, especially the Zapatista notion of fostering a ”world in which many worlds fit.” (De la Cadena and Blaser 2018).

A second theoretical underpinning of the research presented here rests upon the affective turn in political ecology that emphasises the importance of thinking, feeling, and caring as a part of conservation practice (Singh 2018). Ecofeminist perspectives are built upon viewing nature within an ethics of care, collaboration, and sacredness, among other values of historical matristic cultures (Maturana and Verden-Zöller 2008). Emotions play an important mediating role in struggles over natural resources and in environmentalism (Nightingale 2011; Singh 2015; Sultana 2015), and at least in part, they co-produce people and place in conservation efforts (Sultana 2011). Arturo Escobar notes that it is imperative to usher in a politics for a different civilisation, one that ”respects, and builds on, the interconnectedness of all life, based on a spirituality of the Earth, and that nourishes community because it acknowledges that love and emotion are important elements of knowledge and of all life.” (2018: 12). In this vision, historically matristic cultures are the reference point for illustrating love relationships with the natural world. They give rise to future possibilities in which an ethics of care for the more-than-human world can be practiced and carried into political and collective endeavours, and into caring about issues and Earth beings beyond the realm of human actions (Cadena 2015; Bellacasa 2017). Feminist scholarship has a long history of care theorisation, more recently calling for re-situating the ethics of nonhuman life within human ethical frameworks, and human ethics within broader ecological spheres (Tronto and Fisher 1990; Plumwood 1993). Contemporary scholarship emphasises the importance of recognising love, respect, care, and enchantment as important dimensions that move toward an alternative socio-ecological future in the Anthropocene, and away from instrumental environmentalism and neoliberal individualisation of responsibility (Bennett 2010; Gibson-Graham 2014; Bellacasa 2017; Angé 2018).

This case study of the Melipona resurgence offers a necessary historical and ethnographic grounding for such largely abstract environmental theories. Moreover, it contributes a corrective to the literature surrounding bee conservation, which is frequently stymied in the mire of utilitarian ethics that underpin the commonly taken conservation and livelihoods approaches (McShane and Wells 2004; Turner et al. 2012). In this case, women are central participants and champions of stingless beekeeping, and they blend ancestral traditions with contemporary scientific knowledge to revitalise the meaning and value of the practice in the present. They articulate love and other positive feelings for bees, while practicing inter-species care that seek to foster a life-renewing model, more broadly. These practices represent embraces of indigenous beekeeping traditions in hybrid forms, alongside modern animal husbandry.

   Methodology Top

This research is based on ethnographic interviews and site visits that took place primarily in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico in September 2019. Eleven interviews with stingless beekeepers were recorded, translated into English, and transcribed, and nine site visits took place at meliponarios (locations where stingless beehives are managed). At the meliponarios, beekeepers explained their practices and histories, and opened multiple hives. To gain broader perspectives on stingless beekeeping and the Mexican honey market, additional interviews and participant-observation were conducted at the Apimondia conference in September 2019. In addition to participant-observation in approximately two dozen conference sessions related to such topics, five additional interviews in both English and Spanish were conducted with stingless bee researchers. In bringing the voices and stories of individuals from the Zona Maya into the centre of this analysis, this work builds upon feminist epistemological traditions that situate knowledge within the subjectivity of individual experience, oral traditions, and place-based relations (Code 2006, 2012).

   Background Top

The Sacred (Other) Bees

Inland from the beaches and hotel strips of the Yucatan Peninsula's sand and sun resorts, the Zona Maya region encompasses parts of Mexico's Yucatan, Campeche, and Quintana Roo states. The region has a predominantly indigenous Mayan population, many archaeological sites, and is home to 152 different bee species, both native and non-native. Today's Melipona beekeepers in the Zona Maya are young and old, men and women alike, most of whom live in rural towns and villages. Stingless bees are kept in cooperative meliponarios and at universities, but mostly takes place in solares, or backyard garden areas, alongside chickens and vegetable beds.

Melipona beecheii are a species of native stingless bees distributed throughout the Yucatan peninsula as well as points further south (Yurrita et al. 2017). Though they are found in the wild, M. beecheii are semi-domesticated, having been managed by Mayans since pre-Hispanic times (Crane 1999). There are 19 known native bees in the Yucatan Peninsula, and approximately 400 native stingless bee species in the neotropics (Vásquez et al. 2016; Quezada-Euán 2018). Like honeybees, bees in the Meliponini tribe are eusocial (living as a superorganism in colonies), and honey-producing. In addition to Melipona beecheii, which is the most widely kept of the stingless bees, several other species of stingless bees are also frequently managed. Notably, these include the endemic Melipona yucatanica, and Trigona fulviventris, Nannotrigona perilampoides, and Cephalotrigona zexmeniae, for example. Some solitary bees, including Megachile rotundata, Nomia melanderi and Osmia lignaria are also kept. Native bees play a central role in pollination, which is critical to food production, seed quality, fruit abundance, and human nutrition (Garibaldi et al. 2013; Chaplin-Kramer et al. 2014; Smith et al. 2015). Like bumblebees, the bees in the Melipona genus are buzz pollinators, meaning that they have evolved distinctive strategies for dislodging pollen from plants like tomatoes and peppers.

The cultural value of Melipona bees in Mexico and Central America ”cannot be overstated” (Robinson 2018), and they play a formidable role in Mayan history and culture. In Mayan, twenty-two local names are ascribed to this species, but the bees are generally called xunaan kaab, meaning ”Royal lady” bee. Xunaan kaab are considered gifts from the gods to humanity in the Mayan tradition. They were historically reared with extreme care, given their sacred status and the high commercial value of their hive products (Echazarreta et al. 1997; Quezada Euán 2018). Stingless bees were kept in both rural villages and urban centres among the ancient Mayans (Paris et al. 2018).

It is worth noting a few basic details about the biology and management of Melipona beecheii. Traditionally kept in jobones, or hollow log hives, they are horizontally stacked above ground. Honey is historically extracted twice a year, usually involving a ceremony led by a shaman. Multiple colonies of stingless bees will be kept in a meliponario. Unlike a typical honeybee yard, this is a structure for housing bees that looks like a modified palapa: the meliponarios tend to have a palm-thatched roof and open-walls, with shelves for the hive boxes and loghives, with a small, water-filled moat surroundingthe circumference.1 Most contemporary meliponarios host between thirty and one hundred colonies of stingless bees within a variety of square and rectangular boxes made of cut wood. Melipona bees raise their brood in horizontal layers, with honey stored nearby in separate bulbous pot-like structures ([Figure 1]a and [Figure 1]b). In addition to collecting and storing pollen and honey, the species also produces bounteous quantities of a resin and wax mixture called propolis. Propolis not only seals the hive, but is also the building material for the honey pots and the hive entry tunnels(Martínez-Fortún et al. 2018).
Figure 1: (a) Overhead view of a typical M. beecheii colony; (b) Standard hive from the Melipona Maya Foundation; (c) Assortment of hive types, including jobones and ”modern” hives; (d) Mayan Codex illustrations on one of Carlos' log hives

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Honey from stingless bees has been used by Mayan traditional healers for thousands of years in remedies to treat diverse diseases of supernatural origin. Melipona honey is considered both a sacred energetic and healing food, and is the central ingredient in the alcoholic drink balché (Rosales 2013). Honey from stingless bees continues to be important in Mayan rituals and culture, and is commonly used as a medicine to treat eye infections and cataracts, for dermatological and gastrointestinal ailments and post-partum recovery, among many other contemporary pharmacological applications (Rosales 2013; Rao et al. 2016). Around the world, stingless bee honeys are occasionally used as a highly-prized sweetener, and collected pollen, propolis and resin are widely used.2 There is budding interest, too, in generating tourism from the meliponiculture resurgence in Mexico (Bellows 2012; Lemelin 2019), and in using the hive products in cosmetics. Because of its different compositional properties, stingless bee honey is precious, valued much more highly than honey from honeybees. Commercial prices for Melipona honey range between $25-$40 per kilo, compared to $12-15 for the same amount of honeybee honey. The price differential is also due to stingless bee honey's scarcity; in modern practices, it is extracted by syringe from the hives. Melipona bees will produce only 1-3 litres of honey (1.4 – 4.2 kg or 3.17 lbs) per year, whereas by comparison, well-managed honeybees in the tropics tend to average around 40 litres (58 kg or 126.8 lbs) of honey. Studies on stingless bee honey are few, and there are almost no national or international food regulations to establish unique quality control standards for it.3 As a result, in most countries, stingless bee honey is not yet commercially differentiated from that of traditional (Apis) honey. Consequently, the international commercialisation and distribution of stingless bee honey currently is rare (Vásquez et al. 2016).

Below, I describe the history of contemporary meliponiculture in the Zona Maya, highlighting some of the factors that underpin stingless beekeeping's rebound: agroecology orientations in environmental stewardship and education, and cooperative relationships based upon an ethics of inter-species and inter-generational care.

The Decline of Melipona Beekeeping

Early Amerindians practiced honey hunting from stingless bees. By around 300 BC, the Mayans in the Yucatan kept Melipona beecheii in hives, achieving the highest levels of stingless beekeeping practices in the world (Crane 1998). Early Mayan beekeepers kept over 300 hives in meliponarios, and hives were passed down in wills as part of inter-generational inheritances. But between 1981 and 2004, surveys indicated that the number of M. beecheii colonies in the Zona Maya declined by over 93%. A seminal 2005 report indicated that if the declining rates of Melipona beekeeping continued, ”by 2008 there will be no domesticated colonies at all” (Villanueva-G et al. 2005b). Another study called for rapid recovery measures for Melipona bees following a survey that identified massive losses of feral colonies, and likely subsequent loss of managed colonies (Quezada-Euán et al. 2001).

The loss of M. beecheii in some respects mirrors the crisis facing other native bee species. Stress factors for bee populations around the world include habitat loss, poor nutrition, pesticides and fungicides, parasitic pests, pathogens and diseases. Climate change can detrimentally affect the health and nutritional availability for pollinators, and extreme weather events such as hurricanes may decimate bee colonies. Melipona beecheii are no strangers to such problems. In addition, the population faced unique threats, including competition from honeybee populations for forage and for beekeepers' attention and care. In the mid-1980s many meliponists turned to the more productive honeybee (Apis mellifera) for their livelihoods (Villanueva-G et al. 2005a). When the genetically more swarm-prone and defensive Apis mellifera scutelatta were introduced in Mexico around 1986, these so called ”Africanised” bees outcompeted M. beecheii for nesting sites in the wild (Cairns 2005; Villanueva-G et al. 2005b).

While Melipona suffered, Apis bees flourished. Mexico arose as a major player in the international honey market in the late 1980s, with the Yucatan Peninsula becoming Mexico's leading region for honey production. Today, it is among the most honeybee dense region in the world, at 17 colonies per km 2 (Quezada Euán 2018).4 The urbanisation trends of the mid-1980s led to a rural exodus (Fawcett 2016), and coincided with a cultural trend devaluing rural lifestyles. Melipona beekeeping became perceived as old-fashioned, and technical know-how for colony propagation waned (Villanueva-G et al. 2005b). Deforestation, a lack of adequate management, flowering changes from climate change, and little economic interest in meliponiculture further compounded the threats to M. beecheii survival. Both wild and managed colonies were unable to access adequate nutrition or fight off invasive pests (Quezada-Euán et al. 2001; Cairns 2005; Villanueva-G et al. 2005b).

   Argument Top

Multi-pronged, Grassroots Biodiversity Conservation

A conjoining of civil society efforts, governmental funding, cooperative-based initiatives, and university support fostered efforts to bring Melipona back from the brink of extinction. Women have been at the forefront of the resurgence of this inter-species caretaking. The rise in Melipona beekeeping has been rapid and widely popularised. One researcher suspects that the new threat to Melipona bees is ill-equipped beekeepers and inexperienced trainers, whose colonies may perish due to their inadequate knowledge (Quezada Euán 2018).

”No one had bees. Everyone would say that their fathers or grandfathers had bees, but they did not exist physically. They weren't there. It took me two years to find one [hive]” recalled the founder of the Melipona Maya Foundation, Stephane Palmieri, who started keeping Melipona beecheii in 2010. Today, his Tulum-based meliponario, located at the back of the hotel he owns, has over 100 colonies, with at least six different species of native stingless bees. Melipona bees in the Zona Maya are kept today by a wide range of individuals. Unlike Palmieri, who is a French-born, urban resident, most Melipona beekeeping is done by rural Mayans. Often, collective labour groups manage hives and commercialise their products, which are sold in tourist-oriented crafts markets and rural pueblos alike. Further, museum content discusses the importance of stingless beekeeping in Mayan culture, while local universities train the next generation of stingless beekeepers.

Although meliponiculture traditionally is considered a male activity (Villanueva-Gutiérrez et al. 2013; Muñoz 2016), there is some evidence for women keeping stingless bees in ancient Mayan texts and wills (Bianco 2014). While newer (and more frequently female) beekeepers tend to experience greater losses of hives (Villanueva-Gutiérrez et al. 2013), being a meliponista goes beyond 'another backyard job.' Given the attention it requires, its income-generating potential, and sacred connection to Mayan culture, Mayan women have attained greater participation levels, and express pride for the work (Pérez 2018). An extension agent related the gender differences in Melipona beekeeping to me: ”In keeping honeybees (apiculture) there are more men than women. On the other hand, in Meliponabeekeeping there was a shift toward more women's involvement…this has created balance and adjustment in the activities that men and women are taking as beekeepers.” Through cooperatives and increased women's participation as meliponists, women's traditional activities are gaining prominence while simultaneously generating income.

The resurgence of stingless beekeeping in the Yucatan Peninsula began with the 1999 Seminario Nacional de Abejas Sin Aguijón, now Congreso Mesoamericano de Abejas Nativas, which was the brainchild of researcher Margarita Medina and other enthusiasts. After the conference, researchers strove to develop techniques for modern stingless beekeeping including experimentation with hive designs and designing pest traps. The researchers also developed a ”central bank” of stingless bee colonies, and conducted surveys of stingless beekeepers in order to assess baselines and measure change over time (González-Acereto et al. 2006; Quezada Euán 2018). A team from the Chetumal-based Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR) also worked for over a decade with two Mayan technicians doing meliponiculture outreach and technical training. In addition to conducting workshops in Mayan, the team published a booklet in both Spanish and Mayan which was the first of its kind addressing the problems and opportunities in Melipona beekeeping (Villanueva-G et al. 2005a). During the course of the decade, interest grew beyond researchers and into more public-facing meliponiculture projects (Vienne 2017: 40).

Among the earliest formal projects spurring the resurgence, foundation-supported cooperatives sought to commercialise Melipona honey into sustainable supply chains. These cooperatives are typically women-led, which is significant since for decades women were side-lined to the margins of their husband's honeybee keeping enterprises. Illustrative is Melitz'aak, founded in 2009 and based in Felipe Carrillo Puerto. The group was initially supported by the UN Foundation and had 14 founding women. Today the eight-person women's group sells dozens of honey-based pomades, soaps, shampoos, candies, and nutritional supplements, from both stingless and honeybees – and envisions a future where they obtain national and even international market reach.

Another highly successful model in the Melipona resurgence is based on broader training efforts and a hive-on-loan approach. This model is used by the Melipona Maya Foundation, some university-led extension programmes, and it is also a long-standing strategy of the non-governmental organisation Heifer International. In the model, the ancestral tradition of animal husbandry is expanded by building on another tradition: loans in the form of animals, which are later paid back once the animals have successfully reproduced (Woods 2015). Given adequate technical support, the model assumes that the number of colonies will annually double (at minimum), with new beekeepers increasingly able to work autonomously to manage their colonies. The extent and success rates of such work are not precisely gauged in any comprehensive survey, but some data points are illustrative: between 2003 and 2006, researchers from the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán conducted extension courses and worked to support three agroecological farms. They loaned 37 colonies of stingless bees to recently trained beekeepers (González-Acereto et al. 2006). Heifer International and the agroecological community U Yits Ka'an initiated a meliponario in 2010. They have since connected 13 communities to care for Melipona bees, involving over 300 beekeepers in programmes. In Quintana Roo, eleven expert-led workshops trained 30 Mayan-speaking ”capacity trainers,” who went on to conduct over 80 technical and theory-practice workshops for meliponists in their own communities. The project distributed 200 nucleus colonies between 2017 and 2018, and reported in 2019 that ”these nucleus colonies were the product of divisions that today are in a good condition, strong and without pests.” (Aroche et al. 2018: 3).

There are certainly notable elements in the story of the resurgence of stingless beekeeping that suggest the serendipitous convening of the right people at the right time. Stephane Palmieri, who directs the Melipona Maya Foundation, described the origins of his engagement with Melipona beecheii in conjunction with many Tulum-based events about the eschatological meaning of the end of the Mayan calendar around December 21, 2012. Palmieri reflected that the timing was opportune for renewal in the world of the stingless bees: ”while it wasn't the end of the world, we knew it was going to be a cycle change where a cycle ends and the new one starts. The k'atun [time unit, equivalent to 7,200 days] from the Mayan culture… we can also do that with the sacred bees.” Seizing the opportune moment and widespread public attention, Palmieri invited leaders and shamans from local pueblos to Tulum-based events, and organised a group visit to his meliponario. He recalled:

Once we opened the [hive] box for the first time, these grandfathers were able to see the pyramids, the queen, and they went crazy. They started praying, talking, invoking [deities], singing, there was a lot of emotion and we were in awe because something happened. It was funny because despite all the events that took place that day, we were on the front pages of the newspaper because the journalists felt emotionally touched…during this time no one talked about them [the bees]. No one.

Soon after the 2012 encounter with the Mayan dignitaries, he initiated the Melipona Maya Foundation, relying heavily on outreach and trainings in the pueblos to establish more Melipona beecheii hives. Atilano Ceballos Loeza, a priest who established a community non-profit agroecological school called U Yits Ka'an in 1992 also noted the significance of the timing in relation to inter-generational knowledge: ”People have vague recollections of their grandparents tending to the bees or seeing them in the tree trunks… The knowledge is there. The memory is in the heart of the people. How do we cultivate that memory?” (Woods 2015). The importance of such timing notwithstanding, the revitalisation of Melipona bees is ultimately less about coincidence and much more about socio-culturally attuned community engagement. Workshops and outreach gave value both to the biology and science of managing Melipona bees alongside the cultural traditions surrounding them.

The region's universities played important roles in supporting and institutionalising the practice of keeping stingless bees, frequently with funding from state and federal governments, and foundations. Their methods and approaches often differ from more mainstream universities, however, insofar as they actively embrace agroecology, traditional knowledge, and community-based engagements. The Intercultural University of Quintana Roo (UIMQRoo), for example, is among a network of a dozen higher education institutions in Mexico offering an indigenous-centred curriculum and bilingual Spanish / Mayan education. The campus includes two meliponarios and extensive agroecology gardens, and the university offers degrees in agroecology, community-based and traditional medicine, and Mayan arts and culture. Community-based agroecological schools are also important in these endeavours, with stingless bees integrated into crop and livestock production on university-supported ecological farms (González-Acereto et al. 2006). Training courses also target Mayan speakers, to help them become rural extension agents for Melipona beecheii and work in the pueblos across the Yucatan Peninsula (Aroche et al. 2018). A trainer I spoke with reflected that probably 350 people participated in their workshops, and over four years, resulting in three strong groups with around 60 committed meliponists. Similar initiatives exist at universities throughout the region, including ECOSUR and the Instituto Tecnológico Superior de Felipe Carrillo Puerto.

Even as the resurgence in keeping stingless bees suggests novel and successful place-based, indigenous-centred ecological engagements, at times, beekeepers (of all stripes) in the Yucatan Peninsula are working against the grain of export-oriented agriculture and biotechnology, their own educational institutions, and even other non-governmental organisations. Acknowledging such struggles helps illuminate the broader political context of the region, and the significance of the Melipona resurgence as a conservation success story. The most well-documented struggle is the lawsuit launched by beekeepers and their allies in 2012, which successfully challenged Monsanto. The National Supreme Court of Justice's findings were seen by close observers as a seminal David and Goliath victory by beekeepers against the biotech giant (González 2016; Starobin 2018). Despite the ruling, little enforcement exists. Genetically modified soybeans continue to be grown in the region in conjunction with aerial pesticide spraying (Strochlic 2019). In addition to their human health hazards, pesticide poisonings are also problematic for local bees (Arreola 2018; Yucatan Times 2019). Finally, suspicions and in-fighting among stingless beekeepers also present challenges. Stephane Palmieri from the Melipona Maya Foundation was denounced for biopiracy by a Mayan assembly (Múuch 'Xíinbal). He was accused of trafficking Melipona honey to a French cosmetics company,5 in violation of the Nagoya Protocol (Riviera Maya Times 2018). The case was never officially investigated, but left the Foundation severely weakened and financially paralysed.

Such conflicts notwithstanding, the place of meliponiculture in the Yucatan has moved into a more stable phase, in which the negative perception of meliponiculture as ”old fashioned” has certainly transformed into something instead perceived as desirable and praiseworthy. Indigenous cultural heritage, broader environmental consciousness about pesticides and forest conservation, and youth engagement are widely acknowledged as being in a direct relationship with the practice of keeping Melipona bees. Below, the socio-cultural dimensions of this resurgence are detailed to help explain such successes. Using agroecological approaches to environmental stewardship and extending inter-generational care ethics to other species are two predominant dimensions of such work.

Agroecological Environmental Stewardship

Carlos' meliponario is a large palapa, bordered by forest and corn, bean, and fruit tree plantings. It contains dozens of stingless beehives in boxes, as well as several jobones. Carlos' meliponario has well over fifty hives, but he is more interested in speaking about the diversity of bees than the scale of his operations. He hosts eight different species of stingless bees, each with unique characteristics: ”I like these because they store interesting and strange odours. Many types of propolis and resins. In fact, the producers say that this honey is used for asthma.” With another colony, he explains, ”This one, when it gets dark, it closes its entrance. Every night.” At another, he relates the Mayan names to their characteristics: ”This one they call Chac Chic.Chac means white, and Chic is like wings. So, the edges of the wings are white, and many people say that Chic is like a little wing.” Carlos explains that genetic diversity is central to his beekeeping practices, trading and buying hives from others around the region in order to strengthen the colonies' genetics. In all the meliponarios I visited, traditional log hives were kept side-by-side with stingless bees in a variety of box designs ([Figure 1]c). Carlos' meliponario is enhanced by stingless bee art, too: two jobones are illustrated with the Mayan Codex ([Figure 1]d). Carlos' engagements illustrate agroecological stewardship in the sense that his beekeeping centres upon interconnected relationships between forest conservation, traditional knowledge, and species diversity.

One of the fundamental elements of agroecology is the co-creation and sharing of knowledge (Altieri 1987; Thomas and Kevan 1993; Rosset and Altieri 2017). Only one manual for stingless beekeeping in the Mayan language exists (Villanueva-G et al. 2005a); the revitalisation of the species crucially relied upon stories, verbal traditions, and inter-personal relationships. Stephane Palmieri explained: ”In Mayan there is a word: cicbal zicbal and that is the knowledge base of learning by doing. There is no theory - we learn it by doing it. We know that in indigenous culture that is the basis for learning; the academic theory is Occidental. We are 100% cicbal, learning by doing, not much theory.” This notion is also central to Carlos' beekeeping practice. He described doing an experimental hive division with a mentor from a neighbouring town, in which one mother hive in a log yielded not one but two daughter colonies. The basis for his success as a meliponists comes not only through his individual acquired knowledge, but also through his relationships and willingness to experiment. Despite the fact that many non-Mayans led efforts in the scientific study of Melipona beecheii and other bees in the Meliponini tribe – including the scientific name given to the species being in recognition of British captain Frederik William Beechey (1796–1856) – studying stingless bees in Mexico and in the neotropics now holistically integrates scientific understandings with economic, cultural, symbolic, and cognitive approaches (Quintal and Roubik 2013).

A broader concern with forest preservation is articulated by Lenny, who draws upon the agroecology principle of situating agricultural interventions within broader challenges of forest protection and habitat protection. Lenny describes hollow log hives and the colony splits derived from them that are growing in artificial hive boxes:

Those jobones are ancient and from those we used to breed mother colonies because from those we can extract daughter colonies. …When people come, they are aware and ask to buy a colony or for us to prepare a colony for them…I can prepare that colony for them, but it will have to be in a wooden box. In this way, we try to help prevent people from buying from men that go to the cornfields or other places to get the bees, because these men only cut off the habitats of the bees. This causes a lot of waste.

A recognition of the cultural significance of the Melipona bees was also fostered by the box hive technology, illustrating a merging of modern techniques co-existing with traditional beekeeping. The milled-wood plank hives do offer a value beyond the traditional approach to stingless beekeeping, because the square and rectangular hives, with their removable lids, allow beekeepers to see down into the structure of the hive more clearly. In contrast, aflashlight is usually required to view only the profile of the hive in a jobon. The modern design also facilitates interventions in hive management, such as making colony divisions and adding nutritional supplements to the colony. [Figure 1]c portrays the differences between such hives. Not only are the hive designs a significant part of the revitalisation of stingless beekeeping, but so too are the ethnobiological dimensions of the uses of stingless bees for pollination, medicinal uses, and crafts, which have been innovated and transformed over time as part of keeping such traditional knowledge alive (Ayala et al. 2013b).

Agroecology is also centrally concerned with bringing healthy food production and consumption together with culinary traditions and a sense of place (FAO 2018). Certainly, the consumption and production of stingless bee honey coincides with this element of agroecology, though the question of commercialising honey from M. beecheii is controversial. Some producers, such as Luis, who lives in Mamá, Yucutan and keeps approximately 200 stingless beehives, hopes that Melipona honey will soon become designated as a food product that is differentiated from honeybee honey. He currently sells stingless bee honey on the local market, as a supplementary income to his commercial apiary. Although Luis aspires to someday export Melipona honey, he also keeps a number of species of native stingless bees in his meliponario, including those he brought in from the wild, and solitary metallic green orchid bees that are kept in wooden boxes only slightly larger than a matchbox. Many honey industry professionals and researchers express hopes that stingless bee honey will become more widely recognised for its epicurean and medicinal qualities. The potential exists for stingless bee honey to become an internationally prized superfood, following the trajectory of New Zealand's manuka honey.

Others, however, take a different approach. At the Escuela de Agricultura Ecológica U Yits Ka'an, the 2019 third annual xunaan kaab festival adopted the slogan: ”the honey from xunaan kaab is not for business, but to nourish our daughters and sons!” Other meliponists I spoke with expressed concerns over approaching stingless beekeeping with a productive and commodification-oriented logic. Buying hives without adequate training and attention to management caused their population declines in the first place, along with the productive logic that led to so much honeybee keeping, and concurrent Melipona beecheii losses, they explained. These sentiments echo a broader agroecological critique against neoliberal privatisation and private capital accumulation, which often come at the expense of peasants and indigenous peoples (Rosset and Altieri 2017).

”Bees are allergic to greed,” quipped one person at a beekeeping for development workshop at the Apimondia international conference on beekeeping. Another stingless beekeeper said that when working with the bees, you should ”Be happy when you see them. Have a good aura… they will leave if people fight—they are sad because they understand.” (Woods 2015) As such quotes make clear, the rationale for relating to bees extends beyond the utilitarian rationale of wanting to keep bees alive and healthy, and into a more mutually supportive relationship of care. Such orientations are well-aligned with feminist political scholarship, as well as the anthropological literature that gives nuance to our understanding of domestication by highlighting the entangled relationships between humans and the non-human others (Swanson et al. 2018).

Toward an Ethics of Intergenerational and Inter-species Care

A feminist ethics of care hinges upon social relationships of mutuality and interdependence, in which trust, affective relationships of concern and connection, and emotion are valued as a part of a broader recognition of how power is embedded in those social (or socio-ecological) relations (Lawson 2007). As Bennett (2010) describes, stepping toward deeper ecological sensibilities in care ethics involves fostering kinship, and looking horizontally, across space and time, at webs of densely-connected networks of relationships. Politics and power are of course also brought to bear through such views, given that attentiveness to care necessitates examining how public resources are allocated, and how notions of rights, responsibilities, justice, and equality are lived out (Klinenberg 2002). These values are also echoed in the commitments of the indigenous-led Zapatista movement to defend land and act as guardians of Mother Earth (EZLN 2020), and in indigenous land ethics more broadly (Momaday 1997).

Intergenerational work is a conscious part of stingless beekeeping's revitalisation; this was articulated by men and women alike during the research presented here. Lenny, a twenty-four-year-old woman who started a women's cooperative meliponario in her parent's solar, explained the significance of Melipona beecheii in relation to her Mayan heritage. She narrated while checking hives alongside her three nieces, all under the age of ten:

If you see here…their history is that the Mayans based their archaeological designs from these beehives. It is known that Mayans used this structure, with observation from the bees showing how to design and make their pyramids, just like the bees.

In addition to such hands-on experiences of teaching the next generation about beekeeping through an ancestral lens, children's books and drawings, too, complement the educational efforts aimed at inspiring youth to become engaged in protecting and keeping xunaan kaab.

A different approach to youth engagement is based on using the Abejas Mayas app, which is available both Spanish and Mayan. The app uses virtual and augmented reality, allowing users to explore a meliponario from the inside, build a jobon, extract honey, and learn basic facts about the Melipona bee biology. The app's content is remarkably silent on the more spiritual and contemporary dimensions of Mayan Melipona beekeeping. It portrays, for example, the cross often found above the jobon hive entrance as a mark for easier identification of the bees' entryway, while eliding its importance as an ancient directional symbol with sacred meaning. At the same time, it portrays only the traditional jobon hives and traditional honey extraction methods (using a stick to puncture the wax pots rather than a syringe) in its interactive components, with no mention of newer hive box models. It asks users: ”Do you want become a prosperous Mayan meliponist?”

For others, working in the meliponario is associated with memories of their elders, although hive management practices are new, and the hive structures themselves are of a different style. Elvira, for example, remembers being in her grandmother's meliponario as a child, and seeing her grandmother and uncle working with bees. The practice was lost with her parents' generation, until she attended a workshop in 2011 and subsequently became a meliponista. Now seventy-one years old, her meliponario is in her family's solar, and her sister, daughter and grandchildren help with the bee work, carrying the tradition forward. She points out the tree whose resin is used, in combination with Melipona honey, to make the traditional drink balché, and she makes sacramental offerings before harvesting honey, although she admits not remembering the full Mayan prayer that is recited during the offering. Lenny hangs crosses of leaves all sides of the fence surrounding the meliponario. She says she does not actually believe that they ward off ”bad vibes” and protect the meliponario, but nevertheless sees practice as a way of honouring her parents and brother, who do still hold this belief and live nearby.

The emotional values that are present as people relate to stingless bees are also articulated as centrally important to today's stingless beekeepers. Lenny, who has a tattoo of a Melipona bee on her back, described her feelings while checking hives:

Once I started to take care of them, you fall in love with them. There is no remedy for that love. It occurs to me that many farmers laugh at me for what I do, but I tell them I love my bees. In fact, when I visit them, I talk to them. Just as if they were a part of me. But the farmers see me as crazy for doing what I do. But I know that the bees feel my presence. I know they understand what I communicate with them. Every time that I arrive at my garden, I feel the presence of many people--it is a very special way that I feel.

She continued:

I feel a chord connection with them, and I just feel it. Likewise, during the harvest season. Even the Apis [honeybee], I never take away all their food because I know that it is their food, too… Like I said, they work a lot. So, what can we do for them? And I say, I take good care of them, and I become very emotionally attached to them.

Falling in love with bees is part of Lenny's vision for what it means to be their caretaker. She expresses an emotional connection that is engaged in a dialogue, an inter-species communication, not only rooted in the relational connection to bees, but also made to ”many people;” a broader human and more-than-human web of relations. Cultivating these views was also part of the Melipona Maya Foundation's strategy to begin revitalising M. beecheii. Stephane Palmieri recalled: ”From the beginning the idea was for people to fall in love with bees and they would be part of the family and culture a holistic vision: that's why we have to protect the environment, stop fumigating, using dangerous chemicals. We have to take care of everything because it is part of the ecosystem.” In practice, this emotional experience of loving bees is articulated within a broader politics of forest conservation and environmental protection.

Artistic interventions also serve to remind the population of the importance of bees and the human relationships with myriad other species as something rooted in Mayan traditions, as shown in the murals of [Figure 2]. The mural portrayed in [Figure 2]a reads ”The Zona Maya is not an ethnographic museum; it is a people on the march.” In the bottom right corner is a letter lambasting neoliberalism's influence in the region:
Figure 2: (a) Mural in the centre of Felipe Carrillo Puerto; (b) Mural on an academic building at UIMQRoo, depicting inter-species relationships in Mayan cosmology; (c) Mural featuring inter-species and pollinator relations in plaza of Polyuc, Quintana Roo

Click here to view

In recent years, indigenous peoples have faced a force that is more threatening than ever: neoliberalism. This barely conceals its desire to eliminate us, through policies that undermine our socioeconomic livelihood, territoriality, organisation, internal unity and ways of life. For neoliberal plans, marching townspeople are a hindrance. This war will not be lost, here on this earth, because this land will be born again.

In addition to such depictions, and others found in prominent public spaces, Melipona and cultural heritage festivals where traditional Mayan foods and offerings are made feature prominently in the work of the agroecological schools and the intercultural universities. Such events honour the cultural importance and the broader relevance of the revitalisation taking place through celebrating and strengthening indigenous, place-based heritage for an indigenous Mayan audience.

   Conclusion Top

This case adds supporting social and cultural perspectives to explain how adoption of insect husbandry practices has bolstered the Melipona beecheii population. While other researchers demonstrate with rigorous quantitative data and long-term surveys that Melipona beecheii is rebounding (Villanueva-Gutiérrez et al. 2013), this research shifts the focus from technical management issues and instead suggests that critically important dimensions of the resurgence of Melipona beekeeping derive from rooting such practices in traditional knowledge, mentorship, collaborations, cooperative arrangements, and inter-species care ethics. The resurgence of stingless beekeeping in the Zona Maya represents an alternative model for conservation work, in which a pluralistic conceptualisation of kinship and emotive ethical frameworks meet with modern scientific practices of hive management and agroecology.

It is well-established that there are a number of challenges in conducting biodiversity protection because of conflicts and problematic trade-offs that underpin integrated conservation and development projects (McShane and Wells 2004). In the Mayan areas of Guatemala, for example, conservation efforts backed by the government dispossessed the Q'eqchi' Mayans of their lands (Ybarra 2017). While the resurgence of Melipona beekeeping is not decolonising in the material sense of returning land to indigenous populations, the case offers substantive evidence for how conservation efforts may coexist with and even uplift indigenous heritage. Some scholars argue that modern science, linked to capitalist, nature-separating patriarchies and modernist institutions causes destructive human-earth relationships (Berry 1988; Shiva 1993; von Werlhof 2013). In contrast, this case illustrates the complex interactions of indigenous-led, anti-capitalist re-imaginations amidst hybrid institutional forms and relationships to science. Women's roles as beekeepers, moreover, assert resistances to the vestiges of masculine domination that are present in Mayan culture, creating more open places for gendered participation within communal and political life, not unlike the struggle for indigenous women's rights in Mexico more broadly (c.f. Blackwell 2012).

The practices of reinvigorating stingless beekeeping offer an illustrative window into what scholars recognise as actions and practices that allow a ”pluriverse” cosmology to become possible (De la Cadena and Blaser 2018; Escobar 2018; Kothari et al. 2019). Certainly, the question of Melipona honey commercialisation is a looming one that will be especially challenging to the anti-capitalist frameworks embraced by some in the Melipona pluriverse. It is presently too early to tell: without more research and standardisation, international commercialisation remains unlikely (Moo-Huchin et al. 2015; Vásquez et al. 2016; Rattanawannee and Duangphakdee 2019). While keeping stingless bees is rapidly rising in Mexico, South East Asia, and elsewhere, navigating how such market expansions will protect cultural heritage and foster fair economic relationships remains a concern for the future.

Despite the enormity of the broader challenges of salvaging biodiversity in the Anthropocene, the stingless bees and their caretakers in the Zona Maya offer some room for hope. Emotional components, traditional practices, and youth engagement may all be brought to bear upon conservation efforts in ways that uplift and recognise indigenous traditions, underpinned by agroecology and feminist practices that ultimately foster interspecies kin-making. Such efforts offer a window into how biodiversity conservation may be reimagined, challenged from within, and strengthened.

Funding: This research did not receive any specific grant from funding agencies in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.

   Notes Top

  1. This moat is aimed to prevent invasive army ants (Eciton burchellii), which can devastate stingless beehives. Other natural threats include raiding by ”Nenem” phorid flies (Pseudohypocera kertezi), and attacks from tayras (Eira barbara).
  2. The propolis from stingless bees, for example, is traditionally used as the mechanism to adjust the pitch and sound from the marimba percussion instrument, and is also the traditional substance used to make an airtight seal on the mouthpiece of the Aboriginal digeridoo. (Ayala et al. 2013a).
  3. The sole exception is stingless bee honey in Brazil, which was allowed for domestic sale in 2019. Propolis from stingless bees is also a strong emerging market. For more, see (Salatino et al. 2019) and (Marcondes 2019).
  4. http://www.worldstopexports.com/natural-honey-exporters/.
  5. At issue was the MELIPONA® line of facial serum from Ballot-Flurin. For details, see: https://www.ballot-flurin.com/blog/2014/11/10/melipona-la-beaute-par-les-abeilles/.

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