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Meliponiculture, the connection of a people with divinity

Meliponiculture, the connection of a people with divinity


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Honey bees (Apis mellifera) did not exist on the American continent before they were introduced by Europeans, so stingless or melipona bees were the only known source of wax and honey. Although it is possible that the hunting of mountain honey existed, the breeding of stingless bees has and has had an important presence; Since pre-Hispanic times, traces of meliponiculture can be found in almost the entire continent, from Mexico and Central America, to Brazil and Paraguay, in South America.

The place where meniponiculture was most deeply rooted and developed was in Mesoamerica, a cultural region of the American continent that includes the southern half of Mexico, the territories of Guatemala, El Salvador and Belize, as well as western Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Delicious. National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (CONABIO)

In Mesoamerica, the relationship between people and stingless bees has had an important value in social, economic and religious aspects. Since ancient times, honey and wax have been used as medicine and as objects of trade and tribute. They were also used in ceremonies and rituals, and some peoples integrated them into their worldview. The stingless bees were conceived as sacred beings to which the beekeeper offered his service, since they represented a link through which they connected their people with divinity, being an important element in their conception of reality. To the north and south of Mesoamerica, pre-Hispanic meliponiculture also existed, however, it was less common, with fewer hives and less integration into local life and customs.

Meliponiculture is believed to have started in the Yucatan peninsula some 2,000 to 3,000 years ago. The first step towards the domestication of some species was probably the care of wild nests in the forest, as is still done today in some regions. The next step could be to move the nest closer to the house, cutting the piece of the tree that contains the colony. A subsequent stage was the development of colony management techniques and the manufacture of artificial hives.

Although it is very common to find original log hives (trunks with nests brought from the forest) arranged horizontally in meliponaria, the different artificial hives created by humans to house stingless bees are very diverse. In the northeastern region of Puebla and Totonacapan, clay pots are customary. Although also ancient records of hollowed trunks in Nayarit and Jalisco.

Much of what we currently know about the meliponiculture of the ancient Maya is thanks to the codices written by them, mainly the Madrid or Tro-Cortesiano codex, which López Maldonado deciphered in the section related to beekeeping. Unfortunately, not in all the towns that developed the breeding of stingless bees there is a written legacy to know more about their experience; although many of these legacies remain in the memory and in the current practices of the native peoples.

“The results obtained in the decoding or translation of this section demonstrate the greatness and progress achieved by the Mayan civilization in meliponiculture”. López Maldonado

Meliponiculture suffered a great decline after the introduction of honey bees and the cultivation of sugar cane, also much knowledge of this activity was lost; However, in recent years it has been observed that in several states of Mexico (as well as in other Central and South American countries) there is a trend towards the recovery and strengthening of the cultural legacy and traditional knowledge about beekeeping without sting, along with contemporary ventures and innovations. Remarkable efforts are being made in the dissemination, training and support of this movement. For their part, meliponiculturists are continuously experimenting with technical practices, which are the basis for promoting the activity.

In Puebla, in the Northeastern Sierra, the cultivation of the “Scaptotrigona mexicana” or “Pisilnekmej” as the Nahuas of the region call it, who know that its breeding is an inheritance from their ancestors preserved through centuries and that forms an important part of its biocultural heritage. This melipona bee is native to the tropical forests of Mexico, measures 5 to 5.5 millimeters, is black in color, has powerful jaws that can bite, and has a social behavior.

In 2011 Cuetzalan del Progreso, Puebla, received the designation of “Pisilnekmej bee sanctuary” for preserving the tradition of harvesting honey as a cultural heritage that has endured through the centuries. Of the 30 producers who started in 2003 with an average of 60 years. Today there are more than 300 meliponiculturists of different ages. Of the 44 localities with which they started, today they work with more than 6 municipalities of the Northeastern Sierra, with the determined participation around the Tosepan Titataniske Cooperative.

The Cuetzaltecs developed an ingenious way of raising stingless bees, which consists of two clay pots joined at the mouths with mud or ash (called “nekomit” in Nahuatl and “dumbbell” in Spanish) placed one above the other on shelves attached to the walls under the eaves of houses. The care of the bees consists of cleaning the site and supplying water in small containers in the hot season; The dumbbells are also temperature regulated: they are covered with plastic on cold nights and moistened on dry days.

The Nahuas assure that to live with the pisilnekmej a stable environment is required, where there are no lawsuits, problems or vices. Hence, over time, the pisilnekmej have helped to maintain family unity and community identity.

The organization of the meliponas is different from the bees with stings, the pisilnekmej queen, who has already been fertilized by the drone, governs along with 4 or 5 “maidens”, who, when the queen is big and no longer able to continue to produce eggs, they will be the ones who make the nuptial flight until finally one of them stays with the hive. In the hive there are also the drones, the worker bee, the soldiers that are at the foot of the door taking care of their predators. The main enemy is a fly called “tzonteskatl” (Pseudohypocera kerteszi, Diptera, Phoridae).

The products
Since ancient times, honey from the pisilnekmej has been used as a remedy and/or ingredient in the traditional pharmacopoeia of Cuetzalan, based on the idea that honey is curative because the bee feeds on some medicinal plants. Honey is ingested or applied directly to treat eleven ailments: stomach pain and coldness, sore mouth (lip sore), cough, cold throat, fleshy eyes, stomach ulcers, wounds and skin ulcerations (sores), infertility in women and cancer.

The wax or cerumen is used to make figure candles and to glue the feathers to the plume used in religious celebrations.

Pollen is the protein food of bees, female bees collect it from flowers, thus exchanging flowers for vital pollination. The pollen is transported with their corbicles to the hive where they add enzymes and store it in earwax jars, which are their food reserve and contain moist pollen from different blooms and, therefore, have a diversity of colors.

Propolis or “takahuil” is a term used to describe the resinous and balsamic material collected and processed by bees, used as a poultice to heal wounds.

Harvest Rituals
The honey harvest is done with the full moon from April to June, when there are not many larvae. It is done on sunny days once the dew has evaporated and is finished at sunset for the bees to return to their hives. Only full dumbbells are harvested, for which they are weighed. The “nekomit” is placed on a table to separate the two pots with the help of a knife or machete. The products of the pot “from above” are used. The honey or pollen jars are separated from the brood combs for harvesting; those of honey are punctured with a clean orange thorn (Citrus sinensis) or else they are squeezed. The honey drains through a blanket and strainer into a clean plastic container. The wax is separated and placed in another container. The pollen jars are separated, deposited in a clean plastic and covered so that they are not attacked by their predators.

Many times, during the harvest, a small portion of honey, wax and propolis is burned as a thank you to the pisilnekmej, while driving them away from the hive.

The harvest is given through rituals, for example, before starting they perform a thank you with incense and a prayer; when the pots are opened they take a walk to receive the sun’s rays, and while that happens the attendees say a prayer so that the bees are not mistreated; In addition, life is thanked because the harvester is removing the product that they have already worked. It is also said that bees are energetic, and that they can see the balance that exists inside a house, and perceive the bad air (which is when there is a dead person nearby) so a cross should be made with ash, or with lime.

Some data

  • The harvest per year is between 2 and 4 thousand liters.
  • Work is done with more than 6 municipalities in the Sierra Nororiental de Puebla.
  • Today there are more than 300 meliponiculturists.
  • From 30 to 450 pots per producer.
  • Production per pot ranges from half to one liter.

However, and despite the importance of meliponiculture for Cuetzalan, its inhabitants have made public their concern about the disappearance of this practice in their region, due to the concession of territorial space to large transnationals, open pit mines , hydroelectric dams, which apply “fracking” (it is a technique to enable or increase the extraction of gas and oil from the subsoil) as a method of hydrocarbon extraction. “In the face of this situation we have created a resistance because for us these spaces are spaces of life, and there is no better resistance than to continue being what we are,” said María Luisa Albores, adviser and partner of the Tosepan Pisilnekmej group.

It is necessary to control the negative effects that the reduction of natural resources and certain agricultural practices cause on native bees, so that it is possible to conserve and sustainably use this highly promising resource that we have, without losing sight of the fact that conservation and sustainable use of native bees plays a fundamental role in maintaining food security and biodiversity in Latin America.

Tosepan Titaniske Cooperative
Juárez and Galeana S/N, Centro, 73560
Cuetzalan, Puebla, Mexico
Tel. +52 (233) 331 0053
Facebook: @Tosepan Titataniske