This is the seventeenth diary in a series about my recent trip to Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state, to meet with and learn about the Zapatistas, an indigenous insurgent movement made up of several ethnic groups, and their food and agriculture. On our seventh day, a few members of our group led a beekeeping workshop focused on a few species of tropical stingless bees that are native to this part of Mexico. The bees, Meliponas and Trigonas, are declining in numbers, but their honey is highly medicinal. Mayans traditionally kept these bees and used their honey, but those traditions are being lost.
(I went with the group Schools for Chiapas, an organization that works with and provides aid to the Zapatistas. Check out their website if you are interested in either traveling with them to Chiapas yourself, or simply buying some artisanal goods or coffee produced by Zapatistas. Aside from the obvious politics involved in supporting Zapatistas, you are supporting human beings who live in extreme poverty and work their asses off to educate themselves and their children and provide for basic needs like water and health care.)
I had enjoyed visiting the fields of sunflowers in Nuevo San Gregorio, and bathing in a river surrounded by tropical forest and waterfalls in Roberto Barrios, but the beekeeping workshop was hands down the best part of the entire trip. I had heard of these native, stingless bees when I was in the Amazon. There, they have a few species of Meliponas they call "senorita" bees. (According to Peter, who led the trip to Chiapas, in nearly every language they are called "women's bees" because the hives were often tended by women.)
The beekeeping workshop actually started on the evening of our sixth day. Raquel, who led it, started by telling the kids - our audience was mostly kids, ages 11 and up - that she had a dream. She described the end goal of this project, which includes a vibrant population of meliponas and/or trigonas (two related genera of native stingless bees) that the students would tend and harvest honey from. The honey is both delicious and medicinal.
Raquel produced a large container of melipona honey (maybe a liter), which she said cost 700 pesos to buy (about $60 with current exchange rates). She passed around a small quantity of it and encouraged everyone to dab a finger in it and taste it, and then dab another finger in it and put the honey in their eyes. Yes, their eyes. One of the medicinal uses of this honey is treating eye infections. (I met a dog in Nuevo San Gregorio who had been successfully treated for an eye infection with melipona honey. His eyes were fine when I met him.)
The honey was much more liquidy than normal honey. I had been told that in advance, but it still took me by surprise when I stuck a finger in it and it didn't act like, well, honey. It tasted sweet and delicious, although slightly different from European honeybee honey. And when I put it in my eye, it stung. I teared up and the pain went away.
After explaining what she hoped to gain from this workshop, Raquel threw the question out to the kids. The attendees of our workshop included the entire secondary school, plus all of their instructors, and the director of the school. The kids' answers were quite interesting. Some kids wanted to learn about the bees because their ancestors and grandparents kept these bees. Others gave environmental reasons, and some simply said they wanted the honey.
But perhaps most interesting was the answer "Because these bees are just like us." Both the indigenous people and the indigenous bees were invaded by Europeans and their very existence was threatened as a result. The kids saw the parallel and they wanted to help their fellow indigenous critters. (Meliponas aren't threatened by European honeybees; they are threatened by people who ruin their habitat.)
Raquel asked the kids to think about which questions they had about the bees, and she gave them homework. When we met again at 7:30am, the kids would need to put on three 5-minute skits: one showing the bees in the past, one showing the present, and one depicting how the "capitalists" would treat the bees. (What Raquel was trying to drive home with this was the idea that we were not aiming to exploit these bees, merely co-exist with them in a mutually beneficial relationship.)
When we left that night, it was quite late. I was DONE, mentally and physically. But the kids, somehow, between late that night and early the next morning, put together some incredible skits.
First, a group showed how meliponas and trigonas were treated in the past. They cut out and drew masks depicting the Mayan bee gods and enlisted some of the small children (a few of the "education promoters" had kids) to wear the masks and play the bee gods. The kids showed a Mayan bee ceremony, which is traditionally practiced during the honey harvest.
The bee god masks
One kid dressed up as an old man with a white beard and a cane, and another played a grandma with a shawl. They lit a candle before the bee gods, and they used an old log as a prop for their beehive. During the skit, Peter leaned over to me and said that the kids had likely never actually seen a Mayan bee ceremony, so they were making it up - but they were doing a darn good job of it. He added that one reason why we know as much as we do about melipona honey in the past is because it was used for tax payments and records were kept, particularly in payments from the Mayans to the Aztecs.
(Unlike the kids, we have YouTube, and we can see the traditional Mayan bee ceremony.)
The second skit showed the "capitalists." In this skit, two businessmen found the bees and made a deal to export the bees and use lots of agrochemicals. One man used a backpack sprayer (used in Mexico to spray pesticides) to spray the bees, and another made a call on a cell phone and talked about getting rich by using the bees to pollinate crops. Then they caught the bees (played by the other kids in the skit) with ropes and shipped them to an orchard in the U.S.
The third skit showed the present. Men with machetes and Coca-Cola bottles were out in the jungle, and they came upon a hive of bees. They made a fire to drive the bees away, and then they hit the hive with their machetes. At that point, the bees drove them off (I guess they didn't know the bees couldn't sting). Then, a third kid approached them, saying he had attended a workshop about beekeeping and suggesting that they work together with the bees. So with that, they all decided to learn more about the bees and to treat them better in the future.
It could not have been a better segway into the content of the workshop. I also want to add how impressed I was with the kids props. The props were so realistic, from the log used as a beehive, to the backpack pesticide sprayer. And when they used fire, they actually lit fires. I thought as I watched that an adult in the U.S. would probably have a fit if the teenagers they were supervising decided to carry real machetes and light a real fire as props for a skit, but these kids have to light fires every single day to cook their food over wood stoves. They know how to handle fire, probably better than I do. Ditto on the machetes.
The next thing Raquel did was pass around several different beehives. She had the kids get into groups, and each group got one hive to look at. She asked them what they thought the different sections of the hive were for.
The same hive, with its lid on
Here, I cheated. Peter had already told me how the hives were used. Trigonas are smaller than Meliponas, so their hives are smaller as well. Otherwise, the hives are more or less identical. Both types of bees can live in horizontal or vertical hives like the ones shown here.
There are a few important needs that these hives meet. One is to minimize the bees' exposure to a type of parasitic fly that can get into a hive, lay eggs, and basically wipe out the entire colony. Second, when you harvest the honey, you don't want to take much. So the hives are set up to allow the beekeeper to open just a small part of the hive and quickly harvest the honey without allowing any parasites to get in.
In the vertical hive, the beekeeper uses a small knife to cut off the lid (which the bees will have fastened with propolis) and then does the same thing with the top segment of the hive. The beekeeper removes the top segment of the hive, and then puts the lid on top of the segment below it to keep the bees safe. Then, the beekeeper can take his or her time to harvest the honey from the small segment removed from the hive before putting it back. The entire bottom of the hive is filled with brood (bee eggs and larvae) and honey that the bees are allowed to keep. I assume the horizontal hives are used similarly, with the small compartment harvested for honey and the larger compartment left for the bees to do their thing.
To be continued in Part 2...