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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Honey, I’m Home

Local musician finds sweet gig on the side

BY JEFF STRATTON

Helping Roatán's flora and fauna, one bee at a time

Brion James, usually seen with a Stratocaster slung on a strap around his neck, has a new outfit: a white bee-keeper’s suit. What’s up with that?

Minding their own beeswax: Nicole and Brion

“I love honey,” he says. “About two years ago I started YouTubing, learning everything I possibly could.”

He bought the equipment he needed – but his first attempt, an extraction-removal-relocation, went horribly awry.

“I didn’t get the bees,” he sighs. “And I got stung. And worse – no honey. A complete disaster.”

He persevered, and now Brion James is known as the man to call when you’ve got a bee problem. Call 3388-6021 if you’ve got bees in or around your house, making you uncomfortable. Bee stings are no fun. And if you’re allergic to bee stings, it’s worse than no fun.

In the meantime, Brion and his beloved, Nicole, have put together a sweet little operation called BeeLoved, which gives folks access to honey made by hard-working local bees. The pair are also selling lip balm and beeswax candles.

"It bees the best honey on the island!"

Although hummingbirds do help, Roatán’s flowers and fruits depend greatly upon honeybees to pollinate them. When mango flowers bloom, bees are instrumental — they pollinate when they visit them looking for nectar.

Try to imagine Roatán without hibiscus blossoms or fruit trees and you start to understand why stories about colonies collapsing and bees dying out worldwide aren’t just Chicken Little tales. Honeybee populations everywhere in the world are declining.

We depend on the insects more than we realize, and life with no mangos would barely be worth living, eh?

More about Roatán bees in the next post, but it’s safe to say that Brion’s doing as much as anyone trying to save the bees of Roatan.

“I’ll come and remove them and relocate them in a brand new bee condo,” Brion says in a recent internet pitch. “Please do not kill or spray them! Bees are one of the reasons that this island is so beautiful with flora! “