Stingless Bees on Roatán

Tropical species on Roatán has hidden Mayan past

BY JEFF STRATTON

swarming meliponines outside of West End, 3 March 2011

Brion James is aware of the tiny stingless bees that can be found in the wild here on Roatán. “They make really good honey,” he says. “If you can get to it.”

The bees are smaller than houseflies or honeybees, black with yellow stripes. They almost certainly belong to the tribe meliponini and are probably Melipona beecheii, called el jicote on the mainland . There about 500 species of stingless bees in the tropics, but not nearly as many in Honduras.

Bees constructing tube of wax, 12 March 2011

Swarming about in clouds, they find small cracks in cement (that’s what they’ve done in the series of photographs presented here) or might set up shop in a hollow log.

As it turns out, these little bees are almost certainly related to bees that the Maya considered sacred, kept as pets, and cultivated by hand for centuries. They’re hugely endangered now, and their future is very much in jeopardy.

Stingless bees building wax tube

In fact, the entire cultural tradition of keeping these bees and harvesting their honey is disappearing. Deforestation is taking away their habitat, Africanized honeybees are kicking their sting-less asses in the honey-production department, and old folks who know how to raise the bees are dying without passing on the knowledge.

Meloponines guarding entrance to the hive

In Mayan culture, the god Ah Muzen Cab symbolized honeybees and honey, which was used in sacred rituals. On the mainland, the bees make hives in hollow logs, which are “robbed” twice a year by someone who knows what they’re doing. Some of those hives have been going for 80 years or more.

As fate would have it, there are some plants, flowers and trees that only meloponines will visit. Here on Roatán, they’re mostly left alone — which is probably the way they like it.

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