In Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, people say you have to talk sweetly to the bees, or they will fly away.
“The bees are very sensitive,” said Maria Torres Tzab, who shares backyard beekeeping duties with her daughter and husband, Nicolas Castillo Ucam, in the village of Mani.
Nicolas’ father warned him never to insult the bees.
“Be happy when you see them,” Nicolas said, surrounded by a handful of friends and family, all nodding in agreement. “Have a good aura. They will leave if people fight—they are sad because they understand.”
Sensitivity is just one characteristic that sets this particular genus of bee, Melipona, apart from the more well-known European honeybee (genus Apis). Melipona bees are commonly known as stingless bees for an obvious reason—they have no stingers. Additionally, Melipona honey is better than a trip to the pharmacy: proponents swear it cures coughs, sore throats, childhood asthma and poor body odor. Stingless bee pollen is good for anemia and natural energy, and eye drops clean and disinfect the eyes.
Melipona beekeeping has been a part of Mayan culture for thousands of years. But for the last 40 years, it has been rare to find the native bees in the Yucatan, due to the introduction of European bees, use of pesticides and deforestation. Today, most people in the Yucatan have never seen a bee without a stinger.
“People have vague recollections of their grandparents tending to the bees or seeing them in the tree trunks,” said Atilano Ceballos Loeza, director of the U Yits Ka’an school of ecological agriculture. “The knowledge is there. The memory is in the heart of the people.”
The reinvigoration of that cultural memory became the key component of a collaboration between U Yits Ka’an and Heifer International Mexico, a branch office of the international sustainable development nonprofit.
The project is called Kuxan Suum (“The Thread of Life”) after a Mayan legend of a rope that connected Mani and other communities. In this tradition, the project connects 13 communities through distribution of Melipona bees, which restore native biodiversity, promote pollination of local flora and recover Mayan culture.
As part of the cultural component, the project emphasizes the ceremonies that Mayans used to bless and protect the bees, and ask for rain to nourish bee-friendly plants.
Maria, like her husband, grew up hearing about Meliponas. Her father entertained her with old Mayan legends about the bees. But she never saw the sacred bees until a few years ago, when her daughter, Fatima Castillo Torres, now 26 years old, brought tree trunks of Meliponas home from U Yits Ka’an.
“My dad told me how nice they were,” Maria said, her face lighting up. “It made me happy when my daughter got interested in them.”
Now Maria, as well as her husband, friends and neighbors, carry on the tradition of their Mayan ancestors while bringing back an important part of the local ecosystem. And, of course, they all make sure to speak sweetly while doing so.