Meet Melipona

 In Bees, Healthy eating, Travel

According to Urban Dictionary, a ‘Spirit Animal’ is “meant to be a representation of the traits and skills that you are supposed to learn or have. Online, saying something or someone is your spirit animal is a statement that said person or thing is a representation of you or what you want to be.”

In that case, I suppose that as someone who both keeps bees and teaches people about fermented foods, I have finally encountered my spirit animal: Melipona, a species of tiny stingless honeybee that ferments honey and pollen within its hive.

Inside the hive

According to the editors (Vit, Pedro and Roubik) of the book Pot-Honey: A legacy of stingless bees, these bees “are an ancient source of sweetness and medicine for many indigenous people in the tropics, from the nomadic hunters and gatherers of northern Australia to the mighty Mayan empire of Central America.”

And so it is fitting that several of the “mighty Maya” introduced me to the Meliponini at the magical Casa Itzamná near the ruins of Cobá on the Yucatán Peninsula. I was so in awe of these bees and the stewardship work being done on their behalf by the Casa Itzamná staff that I wanted to share my experience with all of you!

Exploring a simulated trunk hive

Exploring a simulated trunk hive

I have been to this region several times in the past couple of years and, during each of those visits, I tried desperately to find a way to meet the Melipona and their keepers, but with no luck. These beekeepers tend to be a somewhat secretive lot and are very protective of their bees. So, when on our most recent visit in May, we discovered that the resort where we were staying—the implausibly beautiful Rosewood Mayakoba—had just started working with an ecotourism outfit to visit the bees, we signed up immediately. The resort staff didn’t yet know much about the experience as it was so new and asked if we would report back when we returned. And my response was something like: “Wait, you want me to give you my feedback and opinions? Try and stop me. I SHARE THEREFORE I AM. Um, I’m a blogger.”

During our visit, we learned not only about the bees but also about the traditional plants most important to the Mayan people for food, ritual, and healing purposes—many of which are pollinated by the Melipona bees. (I’ll cover more on these topics in future posts so that I can focus on the bees here.)

Casa Itzamná keeps five varieties of the Melipona and teaches travelers and locals about sustainable beekeeping practices and the importance of the Melipona to the region. For instance, people used to go into the jungle, find a beehive in the trunk of a tree and cut out the section of the trunk housing the hive. Harvesting honey from this type of hive required smashing the pots and brood comb (the hive infrastructure), rendering the log unusable. Instead, Itzamná’s staff is exploring the use of small box hives (although not all Melipona adapt to the box hive) and gentler harvesting practices.

Home of the tiniest bees that live at Casa Itzamná

Home of the tiniest bees that live at Casa Itzamná

Since I have recently come into possession of a nearly-700 page book on the topic (see Pot-Honey cited above), it is hard for me to know where to start (or stop) so I’m going to list a few fascinating facts for your consideration:

  • Mexican stingless bees played–and continue to play–a significant role in the traditional practices of the Mayans. Mayans have used Melipona honey as a sweetener, antibiotic, and an ingredient of “balché”, a culturally important fermented drink still consumed today (more on this later!).
  • Stingless bees and their products are used for diverse purposes, including managed pollination, folk medicine, art, as well as for honey, cerumen (a blend of wax and resins that form the honey pots) and pollen extraction.
  • “In Mexico, stingless bees represent a relatively small portion (2.6%) of the highly diverse bee fauna of the country, but the economic, social, and cultural impacts they have are like no other in the world. A large percentage (41.3%) of the comparatively small Mexican stingless bee fauna has been used since pre-Colombian times when compared to other countries with more diverse meliponine faunas.” From Pot-Honey by Vit, Pedro and Roubik

But for me, the most fascinating facts have to do with the way that the bees use bacteria and yeasts for… WAIT FOR IT… fermentation. By taking advantage of the enzymes secreted by specific bacteria and yeasts, these fierce little fermenters make the end products (honey and pollen) more nourishing and beneficial for the colony as well as humans. Which is why, as written in Pot-Honey, “It is no wonder stingless bees were important, regarded as gifts from the gods, handled with care, or even considered as gods outright, such as ‘ah-muzen- cab’ one of the Mayan gods of bees and honey usually appearing landing or taking off in ceremonial temples in the Yucatán Peninsula.”

Ah-muzen-kab

Ah-muzen-kab

I could go into endless detail here (this is such an exercise in restraint and moderation for me) but, instead, I will again provide a list of interesting facts for you concerning fermentation in the hive:

  • The most common and always present bacteria are from the Bacillus. Some Bacillus DNA has been found in a fossilized bee 20 million years in age suggesting a very old relationship between bees and these bacteria. These microorganisms seem to play an important role by secreting enzymes that have two main functions: pre-digestion of the pollen (much in the way that vegetables are pre-digested through fermentation) and protecting the stored pollen from the proliferation of harmful microorganisms.
  • There is also strong evidence that Bacillus species secrete antibiotics that protect the hive from disease.
  • The other genus of bacteria recently found in the hives of stingless bee colonies is the Streptomyces, a genus well known for secreting antibiotics.
  • The significance of yeasts and their potential roles to meliponine colonies are similar to the bacterial roles: they secrete enzymes, which convert substances from stored food and help to conserve it. Alcoholic fermentation is also initiated with yeast and some honey pots can be seen bubbling with alcoholic fermentation. It is unclear how yeasts influence bee nutrition, but the changes seen within stored pollen are said to be striking.
Melipona_Bees_009

Fermented pollen (it was quite sour)

In short, Melipona ferment for the same reasons we humans have fermented foods since the dawn of time: to biochemically alter foods in a manner that makes them more nutritious, prevents spoilage, enhances digestibility, and, in some cases, allows us to get a buzz on. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: ALL HAIL BACTERIA (and, to a lesser extent, yeast)!

I want to end with a note of thanks to the entire staff of Casa Itzamná, the staff of Rosewood Mayakoba, Angie of I Like Mexico (the extraordinary, knowledgeable, and generous guide who accompanied us on this excursion), and my husband, Kevin Barber, who made all of these beautiful pictures possible. Besos y miel, mi amor!

Honey pots in the hive

Honey pots in the hive

Brood/egg structure

Brood/egg structure

 

Hermalinda with hive

Hermalinda with hive

 

Tiny, gentle Melipona

Tiny, gentle Melipona

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Showing 12 comments
  • Alexandra Fitchener
    Reply

    Wow what a wonderful experience. Prior to reading this I had never heard of either stingless bees or fermented pollen & honey. Did you have a chance to try the honey these bees produce? PS These photos are gorgeous!

    • Stacey Clinesmith
      Reply

      Yes, Alexandra, I got to try both honey and pollen. The honey is more watery than that of European honeybees but very tropical and complex. Tasty stuff! I’ll pass on your appreciative comment to the photographer! Thank you.

  • Ceri Jones
    Reply

    What an incredible experience, the photos really bring your piece alive. I’d love to go visit there one day – or even a bee farm in the UK – there are lots of them about. Such wonderful insects providing glorious nectar!

    • Stacey Clinesmith
      Reply

      Ceri, yes, it was truly incredible! If you ever find yourself in Northern California, let me know and I’ll happily introduce you the girls in my hives!

  • Edie [eats]
    Reply

    Oh wow! What a beautiful bees and pics!
    Reminds me of a tiny bee and honey museum in Spain where the bees could make their own hive, not hindered by any human framing. They had their little ‘room’ with all windows in the museum and could freely fly in and out. Was stunning to see what they made. But those were just ‘ordinary’ bees, your spiritual animal really is something special. I actually had never heard of them. Thanks for teaching.

    • Stacey Clinesmith
      Reply

      Edie, Yes, they are amazing and I’m so happy that you and others have been so enthusiastic about these bees! Sounds like I might need to plan a trip to Spain to see the museum you’re referring to… it sounds beautiful.

      • Edie [eats]
        Reply

        Well, the rest of the museum is not worth the trip (Spain itself of course is), but I can show you the photos of the bees’ structures if you’d like!

  • Ray Clare
    Reply

    The American anthropologist who initially advanced the fantastic archaeology idea of a Mayan bee god in the ruins of Tulum eighty-three years ago left “the puzzling (complex metaphor) name” “ah-muzen-cab” untranslated. The dark loam of “ah-muzen-cab” is the intervening, shamanic mediating focal point of a stingless beekeeping grounded neo-tribe codified in oral Yucatan Mayan prophecies. This sociology of tourism insight, or bottom-up conception of sociation, has not been integrated by modern Western entomologists who have promulgated the top-down dated, Western anthropology essentialized concept of a Mayan bee god (Roys, 1933) without resolving what “ah-muzen-cab” means (Vit, Pedro and Roubik, 2013: 138; cf. Ott, 1998: 264). En passant, eastern Yucatan’s Mayan prophecized __California actualized__foreign traveling, interculturating neo-tribe has not been culturally factored in eastern Yucatan, Mexico by sociologists Virgilio Gomez Morales and Michel Maffesoli.

  • Ray Clare
    Reply

    It’s not feasible for me to work with the Beechey bee in California. If I were to recite fulfilled arcane Mayan prophecies of the bee here in California to Yucatec Mayan immigrants from a town in Yucatan (not noted for beekeeping), they would be astonished to learn the advances a native Californian has made in literate shamanism on the secret history of their village founded in the 16th century by exile Mayan scribes to close a magic circle. “True, for successful excavations a plan is needed. Yet no less indispensable is the cautious probing of the spade in the dark loam, and it is to cheat oneself of the richest prize to preserve as a record merely the inventory of one’s discoveries, and not this dark chance of the place finding itself in its well-founded, tried and tested writing.” Walter Benjamin, EinbahnstraBe, 1928.

    As a health food fan partial to kefir, I was amazed at how good fermented pollen tasted when I sampled it in 1982. In Costa Rica, the same Melipona beecheii bee pollen is thrown away.

  • Harvey Lemelin
    Reply

    If I wanted to take this tour, I would I go about doing so?

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