MEXICO: For Every Stingless Bee, A Flower
Updated: May 27, 2022
Lazaro is driving. I’m behind him in the truck cab, looking into his straight black hair, thick with pomade, straining to hear the soft hush of his voice over the Toyota engine. When he looks in the rear-view mirror, his forehead is creased deeply between soft eyebrows as he concentrates on the mountainous switchbacks.
At 32, he has already worked deep lines of observation into his face.
We climb through pine forests and maize fields of the mountains outside San Cristobal de las Casas, passing gravel quarries, a scruffy dog with a broken his chain dangling around its neck, and signs for jugs of both Mexican and Guatemalan diesel for sale.
We’re driving in Chiapas, the Southernmost state in Mexico, home to one of the largest indigenous populations in the country. Just an hour away at the base of the mountain range, the air is humid and hot, but here in the mountains, the cool nights see households bringing in stacks of skinny firewood and covering up with wool blankets. There are ten recognized indigenous Mayan ethnicities from the land of Chiapas, mainly the Tzotzils and Tzeltals is where we drive today. The Mayan Tzotzils in the highlands have fronted fierce resistance to conquest since their first meeting with the Spanish in 1522, and the culture, language, and clothing of the Tzotzils is readily apparent in the small towns we are driving through.
It’s my sixth day of ten in San Cristobal de las Casas, which is also home of the pro-Indigenous, pro-land Zapatista movement. I have come to the colorful, charming town of San Cristobal - with its 127 churches and just as many cafes and art shops - to learn about various Mayan practices with native bees from the Bee Lab at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (Abejas ECOSUR).
Several people I have met this week tell me they came to Abejas ECOSUR for a week, came back for another month, and then here they are six years later. I can see the appeal of the open-air offices in cheerful orange buildings, with dozens of researchers, ecologists, anthropologists sharing and challenging each other, all in the backdrop of political and ecological advancement. A recent Dec 2021 Abejas ECOSUR's publication announces “To be a beekeeper is to be political.” The Friday mid-morning food sharing of tamales and chicharrones on the deck of the bee lab cements the team culture. These might be my people.
I was particularly interested to learn more about stingless bees (abejas sin aguijon), after seeing images of their beautiful brood comb, stacked like golden waxy plates, a bit nautilus-like. Lazaro, a collaborator working from the Bee Lab at ECOSUR, is the expert on stingless bees, as he has been observing them since he was three years old.
Stingless bees are a group of about 550 bee species, constituting the tribe “Meliponini.” There are around 500 species of Meliponini stingless bees in the Americas. Nearly 50 types live in Mexico, with the Melipona beecheii, known by the Mayans as Xunan Kab, the Regal Lady Bee, as the most famed across Mexico. They are exceedingly small, delicate, and instead of using their weakened and worthless stingers, they bite to defend their tiny hives. As such tiny bees, they make tiny amounts of highly-prized honey, stored in pots.
Lazaro fell in love with stingless bees at just three years old in his home of Cuetzalan, Puebla. Lazaro learned meliponiculture from his grandparents and from deep observation. “I didn’t know my birth grandparents, but I had neighbors who adopted me like grandparents, and they taught me from a very young age about meliponiculture.” It’s been his calling nearly ever since.
“My mother started to notice my interest in bees since I was always observing them. I came from a humble family so we didn’t have resources to get a hive. My mother traded a turkey for two stingless bee hives when I was 8 years old. When I was 11 years old, Margarita Medina gave a workshop about the biology of bees, and I was hooked,” he explained as we continued the drive up the mountain.
Medina's workshop, "Seminario mesoamericano sobre abejas nativas" (Mesoamerican seminar on native bees) is a cornerstone of science and advocacy for how to care for and conserve stingless and other native bees in Mexico. In the midst of hobbyists who have gravitated to stingless bees, separating the traditional and scientific practices from those of well-meaning enthusiasts has emerged as a real need in Mexico, particularly in the Yucatán, where conservation may be subjugated for commercial interest in stingless honey. Basically, not all engagement with stingless bees is helpful to the bees, and from a young age, Lazaro was raised in a meliponiculture focused on biological science, conservation, and tradition.
Andres Castro, a grad student at Abejas ECOSUR, is sitting next to Lazaro in the front seat, and he’s translating all of this between me and Lazaro. Andres pushes long strands of black hair from his face as the lowered windows sweep it forward. He’s patching up my miserable Spanish, offering better understanding among the three of us. Perhaps the foil to clean-shaven Lazaro, Andres dons aviator glasses on his thin nose, a black thick beard, steel 3-gauge hoop through one ear, and a pink t-shirt. They are both lovely, and I’m lucky to spend the day with them. Lazaro’s square palm smooths back the gear shift into second, and the truck lunges forward. In some forewarning, we pass “Casa del Clutch” auto repair.
For five years, Lazaro has been facilitating the “Guardians of the bees” program with members of the indigenous community Pinabetal in Guaquitepec, three hours northeast of San Cristobal. They are taking me today to meet Anna and Melchor, two Pinabetal young people who have been working with Lazaro since they were in high school.
“At the time when I was 15 myself, I was going to the field and was taking notes about what I was observing. I started to ask a lot of questions about more than just the management of hives. Little by little I started to learn. A famous meliponiculturist from Brazil ended up in my town of Cuetzalan. I was very little at that moment, but he gave me his book. It was in Portuguese, and I didn’t have access to internet. I mostly spoke Spanish, and I had teaching from the bilingual school to learn Nahuatl. But I went through that book anyway to figure out how to learn. When I was talking with people who were 50 or 60 years old, the challenge was to get them to believe that I had knowledge and get them to engage with me.”
The path of transferring knowledge now with the ECOSUR Bee team with the students is vastly different than Lazaro’s learning path. Hoping to transfer meliponiculture more directly to other young people, students from ECOSUR Bee team including Lazaro, began to build relationships with the Pinabetal families of the town of Guaquitepec. The community had a strong background in Apis beekeeping, but were not practicing meliponiculture. More deeply practiced by the Mayans of Yucatan, meliponiculture is not a tradition in Chiapas, but the environment is excellent for it and there are certainly native melipones in the area.
“People have knowledge of the products and not the knowledge of the management. They might not feel like they have the credibility to do it, so having a training can give them confidence to manage the stingless hives,” Lazaro explains.
The Pinabetal have a pluralistic and integral way of managing the environment with native plants and they know bees in the landscape. The first way ECOSUR Bee team built relationships with the Pinabetal community was to work together on the native plant projects that the community designed themselves. Next came melipona bee workshops, with a popular education approach, with Lazaro providing technical expertise on capture and breeding of melipona.
Beekeeper Miguel Guzman started stingless bee management in the Mexican coastal region 35 years ago with ECOSUR. He started a systemized approach to management of stingless hives that is shared widely, and that’s the basis of the teachings offered still today. “I don’t see myself as a teacher, but I see myself as a channel or bridge of knowledge. The people from the community don’t have access to the research papers on English, and I don’t speak English too but I have a translator. I know how the people live, and I know how the people of academia are. I know the ways to share that information,” says Lazaro.
I’m hearing all of this as we continue to climb through mountains for a third hour, the pine giving way to oak trees and banana plants.
Hillside houses are cinderblock and corrugated metal, and many are painted with get-out-the-vote slogans for last year’s election. Stacks of firewood and cabbages are by the front door, and we pass a man with a clean-cut mohawk and a black eye waiting for the bus. A taco shop offers pinball with cold Coca-Cola in glass bottles. Through San Juan Cancuc, women are wearing rough-woven white and blue cotton shifts, belted around their waists.
Finally we pull off from the main gravel road to a smaller one. A white brown puppy named Bronco greets our truck as we park against a gravel mound and stretch out from the truck ride.
Cousins Anna and Melchor greet Lazaro warmly, and invite us all to their home for tortillas, eggs and cool sugary coffee. It’s been a minute since I have been around chickens, dogs, and firewood stoves, and I want to linger in the hospitality of the small kitchen.
When I take my last bite of tortilla, it’s the cue for us all to walk to the small meliponaria. Melchor grabs his hive tool from a wood plank that also holds the family kitchen knives before we leave the house. He’s Anna’s cousin, but has a familiarity of this kitchen that says that most of his meals happen at this table, too.
In the meliponaria just a few hundred meters from the house, there are 14 delicate bee boxes on a wood ledge. On the wall behind the hives, Melchor and Anna have painted poetry to the bees, along with the name of their beekeeper collective, Tzumbal Lumantik.
The two cousins and their two younger brothers make up the collective. They used to be six, but two got married. While the little brothers are still studying or working, Anna and Melchor take the lead in activities of the collective.
As we sit near the hives to talk, small bees are flying in and out, going about their business of bringing in pollen and nectar through a tube entrance in the front face of the hive. The more defensive colonies of Tetragonisca angustula bees have guards hovering around the hive entrance, monitoring that neighbor bees don’t sneak in.
There are two other types of stingless bees here, in addition to the 10 boxes of Tetragonisca angustula bees. Some are captured wild, some rescued from development or ants, or some the result of splitting colonies in half to grow the hive numbers. For all, they have the same core elements of the hive.
Melchor opens a hive to show me how he inspects it, while Anna explains more about beekeeping: the double-decker wood box hives allow for the brood chamber below, with the honey super above. A thin line of masking tape prevents ants from entering the cracks and destroying the hive. A square of plastic sheeting above the top box, below the lid, increases the ease of removing sticky propolis, rather than scraping it off the grooves in a wood lid.
In all of these hives, there is an absolutely beautiful mix of elements, and I was finding myself nearly close to tears in seeing within these hives. Melchor delicately peels back the top layer of cerumen, a papery brown substance that reveals a gorgeous comb below. The top is shaped like an upside-down heart, and the brood stacked in centralized plates that extend all the way down to the bottom of the hive box. There is gooey propolis at the edges of the small box hive, glistening honey in pots on a few sides, some pollen stores, and those beautiful circles of yellow wax comb.
Anna is wearing the traditional dress she made -- a woven lacy shirt and a black cotton skirt, stiffened into shape with metallic pale purple gray ribbon – as she moves seamlessly from leaning on her cousin, to pointing out hive elements, to talking about ecology.
“Some colonies we got were donated by other people to them, and some were rescued. When we went for a walk we were observing the different kind of bees. We notice that these are in different places - some were even in the bathroom. We are trying to find materials that they like to make the box. We had trial and error on which kind of materials to manage the different kind of bees.”
Lazaro had shared that once the Pinabetal community was aware of the basic practices of melipona, then they started to innovate and modify. The ECOSUR Bee team workshops included the biology of the stingless bees, and then through understanding and observing how the different bees interact with the environment, the community was able to create their own understanding of what worked for hive management. For example, there were some parasitic flies that laid eggs in one of the bee hives, so the collective started to experiment on how to control the parasites. “With honeybees, sometimes beekeepers get so much into the management and don’t really know the biologies of the bees since they don’t always observe the interactions inside and outside of the nest. They might miss ways that the bee biology can be supported to make healthy colonies,” Lazaro said. As his students, Anna and Melchor have cultivated an observational approach in their own practice.
Anna shares how they adapted the hives to meet the needs of the bees they encountered. The last hive they show me is a log of Pectorales bees, the most defensive of the lot, with bees going into Anna’s and Melchor’s hair, as if the bees recognized who the intruder was. “Another guardian of the bees, my cousin Javi, rescued a colony that was in a tree. It was this log, and since the tree lost its top and bottom, we had to further adapt it and did some special handling. We cut the log, and placed a box hive on top to help thermoregulate the colony. Some species need more wood or others don’t need that much, but for this bee, it needed an extra place for air to vent.”
At first, trainings in this community weren’t widely embraced. With such small production of honey from the tiny stingless bees, the beekeepers didn’t see the results of their work right away.
Melchor reflected his own learning curve with the pace of getting to know how to work with the bees and the pace of adoption of meliponiculture within Guaquitepec.
“Sometimes when we started to work with the bees, we were trying to go fast and multiply hives. But then we know that I need to take some time to understand it. We really wanted to go fast with growing the hives to get honey. But one of the things that they learn from all the process is that you cannot go that fast. You need to learn to take your time. You are learning with patience; you don’t need to go fast. Take your time as you would in sharing your knowledge with the community. People don’t adapt fast, and so you work with the bees slowly, and you work with the community slowly so patience is important about anything. Beekeeping can translate those lessons in your living. Go delicate.”
As the Pinabetal community came to embrace meliponiculture and harvest the honey, they not only see value from the market price of this prized honey, but value in using a thousand-year-old heritage health approach. They slowly started to notice the benefits to their health from the honey. Then participation snowballed, as Pinabetal beekeepers started to invited family and friends to see what was happening with the bees. Going slowly turned into a sustained adoption.
Now, Anna can’t imagine not being with the bees.
“These bees get into your heart and it makes you feel like you want to take care of them. We have relations with the bees since they are part of the ecosystem for our important foods in Mexico - corn, coffee. They are part of our bio cultural practices. You want to be with them in your heart.”
For Lazaro, he still comes home to Puebla every year to harvest the honey. While not Catholic himself, his grandparents had always harvested the sacred honey on the 24th of the May, the day Puebla celebrates a festival of the miracle of the Virgin Mary to give a portion of honey as an offering of thanks.
Lazaro now has 300 hives of stingless bees, grown over a lifetime of living with them, in observation of their needs and their gifts.
Honey is harvested in two ways, either to prick the bulbs of honey and drain the hive intact, or to use a syringe to delicately extract the honey from each pot. The level of effort required sounds like both a meditative and frustrating process. I can imagine the desire to quickly crush the pots to squeeze out the honey, which no doubt someone with lesser respect for a colony and the effort to create the pots of honey might do. The honey, slightly citrus and lemony, is unlike anything I have tasted.
Finally, when we part from Anna and Melchor, starting our way back to San Cristobal, Lazaro looks proud of what he has shared with this community. The entire time we were with the cousins, Lazaro didn’t speak, letting Anna and Melchor show how they themselves are the new experts.
When we part at the ECOSUR campus, I fumble my apologies to Lazaro about not having enough words to ask him more about his bees and his history. I want to respect the edge of how much I can push to ask personal and cultural questions. In response, he kindly offers a message that makes me feel like Anna with bees in my heart: I hope you can return to Mexico and know my bees in Puebla.
Melchor's poetry on the wall of the meliponaria captures it all: For every flower a bee is a source of life, and for every bee a flower is a source of love.