An ancient honey bee practice saving Melipona beecheii

The reverence for our honey bees in ancient times is well recorded in archaeological sciences and culture, in literature and in iconography showing them to be an important part of our ancient civilisations – the Sumerians, Hittites, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Indians, Babylonians and Assyrians.  Indeed to this day ancient techniques of beekeeping are practiced by the Mayan’s, whose conservation efforts have taken dedication and balance to hold.  Before we explore the Mayan journey, did you know that in Egypt, “one of the earliest titles for the pharaoh was that of “Bee King” and honey bees and honey were widely considered to be sacred and related to the gods? Even the sanctuary of Osiris was known as the Mansion of the Bee”. Or that in ancient Greece “according to Greek mythology, Aristaios, son of Apollo, was taught the art of beekeeping by the Nymphs of Mount Pelion. Aristaios then taught the Greeks how to maintain bee hives and harvest honey, earning him the appellation of patron god of beekeeping.” ¹ 

Our honey bees have stood the test of time and in 2017 scientists found preserved honey bees and honey bee products and the charred remains of 2500 year old honeycombs on the floor of a workshop at an Etruscan trade center in Milan, Italy, at the ancient site of Forcello, near Bagnolo San Vito in the Mantua province. Lorenzo Castellano, a graduate at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University and his colleagues at the University of Milan are dating them to “around 510 B.C. to 495 B.C.; the building had been destroyed by a violent fire and was later sealed by a layer of clay so it could be built over. The findings are therefore preserved in situ, albeit heavily fragmented and often warped by the heat of fire,” reports Castellano and his team in the Journal of Archaeological Science. ²

Reports LiveScience “This find is amazing in that it revealed “unique aspects about the Etruscan beekeeping…indicating that the “pollen composition showed that honeybees were feeding on plants, including grapevines and fringed water lily, from an aquatic landscape, some of which weren’t known to grow in the area. Such a scenario would have been possible with beekeepers who collected bees along a river while aboard a boat, bringing the bees and their hives to workshops to extract the honey and beeswax. Indeed, the finding confirms what Roman scholar Pliny the Elder wrote more than four centuries later about the town of Ostiglia, some 20 miles (32 kilometers) from the site. According to Pliny, the Ostiglia villagers simply placed the hives on boats and carried them 5 miles (8 km) upstream at night. “At dawn, the bees come out and feed, returning every day to the boats, which change their position until, when they have sunk low in the water under the mere weight, it is understood that the hives are full, and then they are taken back and the honey is extracted,” Pliny wrote. “It also provides unique information on the ancient Po Plain environment [a geographical feature in northern Italy] and on honeybees’ behavior in a pre-modern landscape,” Castellano and colleagues conclude.” ²

For the Mayans holding on to their practice of ancient techniques in beekeeping has not been without serious challenges as they strive to maintain their unique populations of the stingless honey bees.

In 2005 the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute published a research paper addressing the imminent demise of this beekeeping in the Yucatan, a result of cultural change and habitat loss, which reported then that in the 80’s there were an estimated 1000 hives, by 1990 only 400 and by 2004, only 90. 

There were expectations that by 2008 beekeeping would at that rate disappear from the Yucatan.  “David Roubik, once dubbed “The Bee Man” in a National Geographic special about his work on Africanized bees states: “For thousands of years, Mayans were expert practitioners of bee husbandry, and honey was an essential forest resource…as a sweetener, as an antibiotic and as an ingredient in the Mayan version of mead. The Mayans, like other tropical forest cultures, worked with large-bodied meliponine bees that produce a variety of honeys. Their favorite, and one of the most productive species, has been Melipona beecheii, ‘Xunan kab’, which means, literally, ‘royal lady’. “Of the 500 or so species of stingless bees in the tropical world Melipona beecheii is unique in that it was routinely propagated. Mayan bee keepers divided existing hives in order to increase the number of hives and honey production. “That technology is all but lost, but we’d like to see it turned around, not only to ensure the survival of meliponiculture as a way of life, but also to build up breeding stock to be re-introduced into the wild where bees play an important role as pollinators.”

Melipona beecheii, called Xunan-Kab in the Yucatec Maya language, is one of 16 stingless bee species native to the rainforests of the Yucatán Peninsula in southern Mexico. Xunan-Kab, like other stingless bees, is a prolific rainforest pollinator critical to the local ecosystem, but deforestation is gravely impacting wild populations. Local beekeepers have kept domesticated colonies of Xunan-Kab for at least 3,000 years, but the practice declined strikingly in recent decades. Today, however, traditional Xunan-Kab husbandry is experiencing a modest revival, offering hope for Mayan communities and rainforests of the Yucatán Peninsula.  Source: Mongabay Series: Indigenous Peoples and Conservation

A decade or so on, in 2016, Christina Selby of EarthWatch reported their progress “on the eastern side of the Yucatan Peninsula, where large swaths of native forests are still intact, scientists interested in restoring that function are working with Mayan farmers to revive traditional beekeeping. The researchers’ long-term studies of bee populations and surveys of beekeepers in remote Mayan villages showed that the practice is no longer being passed down through families. To help preserve a tradition they saw as essential to preventing local extinction of these stingless bees Buchmann, Roubik, Villanueva-Gutiérrez and other colleagues from the University of Yucatan started annual workshops to train a new generation of beekeepers.”

“We train and work with Mayan technicians to give courses and workshops on how to manage and protect the Melipona bee. We supply colonies to people that are just starting and build bee houses, called meliponaries, which have all the characteristics of the traditional Mayan meliponaries,” says Villanueva-Gutiérrez. Buchmann, Roubik and Villanueva-Gutiérrez, reports Earthwatch, have also published a stingless beekeeping guide in Spanish and Mayan and a video on Mayan beekeeping.”  Their hope at the time was that “skilled beekeepers will increase the number of colonies by dividing them”. ³

Watch this amazing 7 min doci about the ancient practice of beekeeping by the Mayans, their wonderful stingless Royal Lady and role these honey bees play in maintaining the rainforests. #WorthWatching

The story of the revival of the Mayan beekeeping culture is one that demonstrates the dedication of all involved.  With reports this year bearing out the spectacular results in conserving the interplay between the forests, the communities and the honey bees.

“In order to keep the bees, you have to keep the forest…in order to keep the forest, you have to keep the bees. The bees can’t live without the forest. The forest can’t live without the bees.” Villanueva Gutiérrez told authors Jennifer Kennedy and Richard Arghiris in an article not to be missed, Maya revive native bees and ancient beekeeping, and take an indepth look into the Mayan history of honey bees, the roll out of the conservation program as it stand this year, and explorations into the lives it touches, the characters, the environment – it is rich with detail and beautifully written as we experience through their words a culture. With fascinating information like the deciphering of “parts of the Madrid Codex — one of just three surviving Mayan codices — to gain fresh insights into traditional Mayan bee husbandry.” and how “The school also uses the Tzolkin, the Mayan lunar calendar, which states that hive division should be timed with lunar phases. “With respect to Melipona bees and division, we do it near to a full moon…the Maya have a belief that the full moon is like the sun. It produces energy. So when there is a division, it helps the bees make the most of this energy and they are more active”; it is an article that leaves one with a sense that yesterday is not lost.

Indeed all is not lost, the Mayans are saving their Royal Ladies, and their traditional, viable and valuable beekeeping techniques of ancient days.

In India references to honey bees can be found in a variety of Buddhist scriptures as well as poems, songs, and art. In almost every reference from ancient India, honey is used in connection to love. In yogic meditation, the buzzing sound of the bee is often used to realign the heart chakra and in Vedic chants it was known as the sound that represents all life in the universe. ¹

References: ¹ Paper by Jason McCorkle ² Live Science ³Christina Selby Earthwatch report 4 January, 2019, Jennifer Kennedy and Richard Arghiris have much to report : Maya revive native bees and ancient beekeeping  Richard Arghiris is a British freelance writer and journalist based in the indigenous Mayan town of Felipe Carrillo Puerto in the Yucatán Peninsula. He has a Certificate of Higher Education in Environment from The Open University. See his work at Jennifer Kennedy is a freelance journalist currently based in southern Mexico. She has an M.A. in Latin American Studies from University College London and writes about human rights, development and environmental issues in the Americas, and sometimes beyond. See her work at

Blog image copyright: Yucatan Living /

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