This is the eighteenth 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.)
Yesterday I wrote about the beginning of our stingless bee workshop, which was largely spent getting the kids - the workshop attendees were secondary school students and their teachers, ages 11 and up - excited about the topic. But once that was done, Raquel, who led the workshop, got into the meat of the topic. How does one care for a stingless bee and harvest its honey? And how is stingless bee honey used medicinally? Raquel was very hands on and she had the kids each make a spray for sore throats and a gel to apply to skin infections with the honey.
After the kids finished their skits, Raquel said, "The powers that be put an enormous amount of resources into dominating the planet, all the way down to little insects." She said that here, the native bees pollinate over half the plants in the zone, including trees and food crops, like rambutan and coffee. Meliponas are very important pollinators. She added "We know that people burn bees and chop them with machetes, but it's against indigenous customs to hurt the environment. We sometimes do it to eat, but we don't do just destroy things."
With that, Raquel got into the details of beekeeping. She started by going down the kids' list of questions:
Q: What do meliponas eat?
They eat nectar and pollen from flowers. The nectar is their carbohydrate, and the pollen is their protein. They eat these fresh but they also store them as honey and bee pollen, respectively. She noted here how the bees pollinate flowers as they go about nectar and pollen collection, but did not mention that meliponas use a different type of pollination than European honeybees. Meliponas do buzz pollination, just like bumblebees. Since several New World crops like tomatoes co-evolved with New World bees, they respond well to buzz pollination.
Raquel explained that humans are only interested in eating nectar and pollen that have been gathered by bees. Bee pollen, like you buy in health food stores, has been processed by the bee's saliva already. It's a very nutritious food, and it differs based on which type of flower it's from.
There are bees at the door of the hive that collect the pollen from each bee that comes in. Then the bee puts the nectar she has collected into the honey container by herself. One way to collect bee pollen is to put a trap on the door to the hive that wipes the pollen off the bee as each bee enters, dropping it into a collection container. However, Raquel emphasized, we should ONLY do this during high flowering periods, because otherwise we will kill the bees (since we're stealing their food).
I believe it was here in the workshop when we had our big discussion about pollination. If you can imagine how much an average 11 year old knows about flower anatomy and pollination, well... we had to cover all of that to make sure that everyone was on the same page. Raquel asked the kids what part of the flower the pollen was (comparing it to human reproduction), and she got the kids totally giggling by telling them it's the semen. Then Peter said, "Ask them how to say it in Ch'ol [their language]. Then they'll never forget it!" So someone asked them, and the kids got all embarrassed and wouldn't tell us. "Now we'll tell the whole world that the Ch'oles have no semen!" Peter joked, and the kids laughed even more.
Q: What kinds of bees are in the hive?
For social bees in general (not just meliponas), there is a queen, workers, and drones. A queen lives about five years, and she is five times bigger than the workers. The difference between the queen and the workers is food, since the queen eats royal jelly (which is full of vitamins, protein, and hormones). The worker bees are all girls, all sisters.
The male bees are drones, and they do not do much. They eat and they screw. Once in a very long while, the queen emerges from the hive and goes on a "nuptial flight." During this flight, the drones all compete and try to mate with her. Then she goes back to the hive and lays eggs, which is her main job. The only other thing the drones really do is help maintain the temperature of the hive.
Q: How long do bees live?
As noted above, the queen lives 5 to 7 years. Worker bees live 3 months, according to Raquel. This might be a specific number to meliponas, because I've heard a few different estimates on worker bee lifespan for European honeybees. Recently, a U.S. beekeeper told me that worker bees (European honeybees) live 42 days, although beekeepers fear that lifespan has declined down to 30 days recently. Drones, according to Raquel, live 4 months. (Again, this might be meliponas only.) Raquel added that workers eat honey, larvae eat honey and pollen, and the queen eats royal jelly.
Remember "Kings Play Chess On Fancy Green Silk"? The taxonomic order that bees are in includes bees, wasps, and ants. Below that, the family that all bees are in is Apidae, which includes all types of bees. There are some 20,000 species of bees, according to Raquel. Within that family, there is a "Tribe" that includes all stingless bees, Meliponini.
Meliponini includes a large number of genera (plural of genus), but we were focusing on only two: Melipona and Trigona. And within that, we were focusing on two species, Melipona beecheii and Trigona mexicana. These two species are domesticated, whereas the others aren't.
In Mexico, there are 46 species of Melipona and Trigona. Of these, 33 species are present in Chiapas. This is in large part because Chiapas has a mountain range running down its middle, dividing the state into a zillion peaks and valleys and, with them, microclimates. Meliponas and trigonas live, by and large, in tropical zones, although some live in the subtropics.
Q: What Makes a Bee Social?
Only 5% of all bee species are social. There are 3 criteria that define a bee as social:
1. Stores food.
2. Shares work.
3. All bees care for all the young in the hive.
Q: Why are Meliponas and Trigonas different from honeybees?
There are a few major differences between Meliponas and Trigonas compared to honeybees. First of all, they have more than one queen, whereas a colony of honeybees will only have one queen. In a Melipona hive, there might be 100 queens - but only one is fertile. The rest are virgins, and they are ready to form new hives. When there are many flowers, a virgin queen might fly off and mate with the drones of many hives (not just her own) and then form a new colony.
Second, honeybees store brood and honey in the same place (cells of the honeycomb). Meliponas do not. They store their honey in little honeypots, each about the size of the top joint of your thumb.
A hive of honeybees make much more honey that can be harvested each year. You can harvest some 35 liters of honey from a honeybee hive, but only 1/2 liter per year from a melipona hive.
And, between melipona and trigona, meliponas are fatter.
At this point, Raquel gave a number of warnings to the kids:
Paint the hive
Make the hive too big
Harvest honey in the middle of the day
Use a machete to cut open the hive
Leave the top of the hive open
Break the honey pots
Take all of the honey, leaving the bees with nothing
Harvest honey during a time of year with no flowers
Harvest all of the beeswax
DO: Harvest in April and May
(Later, when we made plans to come back and establish the first Melipona colony, we set the date for April, when there will be the most flowers. "We are asking the bees to change their home," Raquel told the kids, explaining why we needed to be very gentle and to do it at a time when it would be easiest for the bees to gather their food.)
At some point, during the workshop, a tom turkey wandered into our classroom, feathers puffed up, and strutted around for about a half an hour, despite several attempts to shoo him. A few chickens, meanwhile, quietly sat under the table I was at. And we could hear howler monkeys in the background. It was quite surreal.
Our friend, the turkey
In following the kids' normal school day schedule, we took a break around 11am while the students began preparing the evening meal (they only ate 2 meals a day, which is understandable when you consider how much dang work it is to build a wood fire and then make dried beans and tortillas from scratch). For breakfast, they had beans, tortillas, pasta, and sweetened herbal tea. For lunch, they had beans, tortillas, and rice. Lunch was served around 1pm, and then the kids went to the river to bathe, swim, and do laundry from about 2-3pm. I spent most of this time in my hammock, reading, and hanging out with friends.
Making the fire to cook lunch
Our room, with hammocks hung everywhere
The duck nesting in the room where we stayed
Melipona Honey as Medicine
When we came back together, the herbal medicine experts in our group presented their material. (The turkey, naturally, reported back for class.) Melipona honey is highly antibiotic. It can be used for cataracts, eye infections (like pinkeye), coughs, colds, and various skin infections. The kids made 2 different medicines with melipona honey.
Pomade: To make this, melt beeswax with oil in a double boiler, and add a bit of melipona honey. I would use perhaps 1/8th cup of beeswax, 1/2 cup of oil (olive oil, avocado oil, jojoba oil, coconut oil... take your pick), and I'm not sure how much honey. Once you've melted the wax and mixed everything together, put it in a container (like a glass jar) and let it cool. Use this on cuts/wounds, skin infections, and infected pimples by spreading it on your skin daily.
Throat Rinse: For this, mix melipona honey, water, and mint. (I need to get the proportions for each, and I will add them here once I do.) Then use it for throat infections, sore throats, and a cough with phlegm by rinsing your mouth with it and swallowing it every 4 hours.
The next day, we would go with a small group of students to actually see a melipona hive.