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.
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!
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.
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.”
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.
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!