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MEXICO: The Treasure of Bumblebees in Chiapas

Updated: May 7, 2022


“I thought I would work with jaguars.”

Oscar Gustavo Martínez López started working with bumblebees with his cousin, Marvin Escobar, an agronomist who approached him and said “have you ever thought about raising bumblebees?”

A far cry from the sleek, spotted jaguar of Guatemala, where Oscar and his cousin were living; the bumble bee is more the teddy bear of the bee world - chubby, personable, fuzzy, and easily identified by children the world over.

Not having given them too much attention previously, I knew some of the basics: bumblebees belong to the Bombus genus; they nest underground in small colonies of a hundred or so; they make great pollinators of tomatoes as they vibrate open the tomato flowers that need some agitation to pollinate; and yes, they also make honey, but not much.

But talking with Oscar, I’ve sorta fallen in love with bumblebees, as Oscar has waxed poetic about being in a good relationship with these fuzzy gems.

(Above L-R: Oscar Martinez, the outside of the ECOSUR Bee Lab, and the bumblebee room)

Earlier in the day, I had been in a red-lit bumblebee breeding room at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR) in the bee lab in San Cristobal de las Casa, where I was gaining a new perspective on bumblebees.

Dozen of chunky bumblebees were in cage akin to a parrot cage, buzzing around on a the steel mesh near one white light. Unlike male apis honeybees which die in the sky upon mating, bumble bee drones are able to mate several times with several queens.

In the cage, queens were walking around the screen sides with lazy male bumbles on their backs, all waiting for the perfect moment. It was quite the show.

Oscar and his cousin had taken a similar approach in rearing queen bumblebees. “We decided to rear bumblebees, and it took two years for our process to work perfectly,” he said. “Bumblebees know when to do pollination. They know at hundred percent - perfectly. You can put them in a greenhouse and they know exactly what to do.”

Oscar heard about ECOSUR’s work rearing bumblebees, and in In 2012, the Second World Conference in Organic Apiculture was in Chiapas[1], so Oscar took the opportunity to meet with the head of the ECOSUR bee lab, Rémy Vandame. “I came right up to Remy and told him about what I was doing with bumblebee rearing. He asked ‘who taught you how to do this?’ And when I said I had taught myself he asked for me to stay and learn more from his team. I stayed for one month and came in love with the city. In 2013 I went with the team to catch bumble bees in what is the biggest project of collecting bumble bees in Mexico, and of course I learned more about bumble bees,” said Oscar. Like everyone I have met at ECOSUR, he shared this with a mix of pride and humility, recognizing his skills in this area, and also maintaining a learner’s mindset of being on a lifelong path to understand bumblebees.

Bumblebees in northern latitudes have an annual life cycle, which is important to know when figuring out how to rear queens. In the spring the queen emerges from her hibernation underground. Alone, she will forage for nectar and pollen, and then when ready to start laying eggs, she’ll identify the perfect spot for her nest. She will lay eggs which become female workers, and they make a small storage of nectar and honey. In late summer the queen is laying only male drones and creating more queens, which will mate and reproduce before going to hibernation. Before winter, the drones die and the queens hibernate until the next spring, when it all begins again. In the tropics of Mexico and Guatemala, bumblebees don’t hibernate. Oscar is inquiring “Is it a faculty that they have but don’t use, or is it not a biological possibility for tropical bumblebees to hibernate?”

Oscar join ECOSUR full time in 2016 when he came to study more about genetics and research of bumble bee species – like the question of hibernation and the interaction of bumblebees with their larger surroundings. Now his work as a PhD candidate in Ecology and Sustainable Development is on the conservation status of bees from a regional data perspective compared to a local social perspective. This work builds on other data modeling he did for his Master's, mainly on how climate change will impact the distribution of bumblebees in Central America. “I modeled 18 species of the bumblebee, and the resulting distribution changes a bit depending on which climate change model you use.” Shifting to a serious tone, Oscar stated that “For all models, the outcome is not good.” Oscar, an affable and sensible 30-something with salt-and-pepper hair and did not seem to be prone to hyperbole.

He explained to me that one of the richest places in the world for bumble bees are the cool Himalayan mountains of Tibet[2]. They love cold temperatures. Oscar shared that Paul Williams of the British National History Museum found that bumblebees can still be effective pollinators at -5°C, and that their cool habitat in the Himalayas is reducing rapidly.

Oscar explained what that means for bumblebee distribution and survival: “For most species adapting to climate change, we find that species are all moving north towards cooler weather. For bumblebees that means they would move up the mountain until there is no more mountain for them to move up. They can’t cross large areas, so their changing distribution is up, not over. At some point they will not be able to move up further into the temperatures they need for survival.”

In hopes of preservation of bumbles in Mesoamerica, Oscar is working with the Mam people, an indigenous people of the western highlands of Guatemala, extending north into Southern Chiapas. “Because I am from Guatemala City but my scholarship is from Mexico, working with the Mam community was a way for me to connect to my home and also to give back to understanding of bees in Mexico.” There are slightly more than 865,000 Mam people in Mexico and Guatemala. Different Mayan groups make up more than half of the population of Guatemala, and the Mam are one of them.

(ABOVE: Mam community meeting in Cabrican, as published by Cultural Survival Magazine)

The Mam word for bees is ‘onon’. “It is the buzzing sound that bees make: onononononon. Other Mayan ethnic groups also have similar names, like gonon or honon. If you have a community meeting and everybody is talking themselves the leader might say ‘what are you? onon?’ to get people to quiet down.” Oscar chuckles, as if he is remembering the same admonishment to himself once upon a time.

I’m slightly enamored with all the ways that Oscar thinks about bumblebees – their biology, their distribution, their cultural relevance, and now, their production of honey.

“There are two recorded communities that consume bumblebee honey- the Nordic countries of Norway, Finland, and Sweden[3], and Chile[4]. And now here in Mexico, the Mam. It is a new fresh documentation. This is one of the more important things I’m going to document,” he says, and I can feel that this is a real contribution to world understanding of Mayan bee culture.

“If you ask a Mam elder, adult or youth how you go to the field and find a nest, they all tell the same story. They all know how to do it. But only the girls and boys are searching actively for honey. The adults say we don’t do it because we don’t have time anymore. But kids are actively trying to find the treasure. As a kid you learn how to find those nest, and as an adult you are treasuring the memory. When you ask the elders about bumblebee honey their faces are shining.”

I think about my own first impressions of bees, and bumblebees are part of that. I remember the fat bumblebees visiting the spring crabapple blossoms in the tree that I used to climb as kid, sitting for hours in the crook of the branches at the corner of our front yard in Virginia. I watched that tree host bumblebees in the white-pink spring flowers, fireflies in the warm summer nights, and the horizontal lines on its bark provided a firm grip for the singing cicadas every few years. I am imagining kids rooting around for bumblebee nest treasures, and it feels very nostalgic to me. Isn’t there a word for that – anemoia, nostalgia for something that you haven’t yourself experienced?[5] I wish I could ask my grandfather if he ever ate bumblebee honey in Sweden as a child.

Oscar, too, approaches bumblebee honey with due reverence. When I ask him how it tastes, he becomes a bit bashful. “I am waiting for the right moment to try bumblebee honey. I want to go with somebody, and we will dig the honey together and taste it. It has to be the right moment. Bumblebee honey is a special gift.” I feel like I have asked him a deeply intimate question.

But Oscar doesn’t shy away. “I love philosophy. The question ‘what is nature’, it is so old. But in 2020 now there is new conversations about what is nature. I think about the interests of mine and the bumblebee species I love and together everything is related to conservation of nature. When I talk with people about how they perceive bumblebees it is an indirect way of how people perceive nature.”

And here he merges his researcher’s mindset with his inner poet. “I ask people ‘are bumblebees part of nature’ and they say ‘yes, of course’. And then I ask people ‘are humans part of nature’ and they agree. Then I asked people ‘are bumblebees more or less important than humans?’ and they answer in a different way. The Mam talk about what it is like to have a good or bad relationship with bumblebees.

In a bad relationship, the people are clearing the land for planting and then they are stung by a bumblebee on the ground. They light a fire to kill the nest. This is a bad relationship.

But if they clear the land and are stung and then cover the bumblebee nest with soil, it allows time for the farmers to clear the land without killing the bees and it allows the bumblebees to re-emerge from their nests in some time. They acknowledge that covering the nest gives them time as farmers for the work that they do on the land. And they also know that the bumblebees have work to do. So in that way bumblebees are not more or less important than humans, but they both have work to do. That is a good relationship with the bees.”

(Above: bumblebee nest in the ECOSUR bumble bee rearing lab, as seen through a plastic cover)

[1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

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