Bees Cultured by the Maya Draw Renewed Attention

beesSince the discovery of ruined cities in the jungles of Central America in 1839, the mysterious and majestic ancient Maya has captured imaginations of people from all over the world: their elaborate cities, sophisticated written language, detailed calendar systems, advancement in astronomy and agriculture, just to name a few, are fascinating. Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed, the largest exhibition about the ancient Maya in U.S., is now in display in Denver Museum of Nature and Science, after premiered in The Science Museum of Minnesota last June. Visitors who have the chance to visit the exhibition may notice symbols of bees on subjects of religious ceremonies, as Mayan considered them scared. The native bee, Melipona beecheii, cultured by the Maya for thousands of years has been on rapid decline , but the good news is that it is gaining renewed attention among some beekeepers in Mexico.

Xunan kab, the traditional Mayan name for Melipona beecheii, means “royal lady.” It is one of the 500 species that are called stingless bees. It actually has stingers that are highly reduced and can’t be used for defense. With the arrival of European Honeybee in 1620, whose honey production capacity is about 20 times higher, most beekeepers made the switch and the knowledge of how to culture this native species was lost to history.

A group of women, led by Anseima Chaie Euan, in Yucatan, Mexico, is determined to revive the lost art of keeping Xunan kab, which as a forest bee is losing habitat fast due to heavy logging. Through trail and error, her group has made progress and doubled their number of hives. Although the scale is still small, these women have made a supplement income from keeping Xunan kab, renewing the attention in this native bee and continuing the century-old tradition started by the Maya.

Like Xunan kab in Mexico, the native bees in U.S. were the dominant pollinators before honeybees were brought to the east coast of North America in 1622. US has over 4000 species of native bees, with varying size, shape, color and lifestyles. Not all bees build hives as some dig underground tunnels, some utilize existing holes as nests and some burrow into wood to nest. Native bees are still very important pollinators for native plants today, as the honeybees do not know how to pollinate tomato or eggplant flowers and are poor pollinators for pumpkins, cherries, blueberries, cranberries and some other native plants. Fewer studies have been done to study native bees. Wild bee population has already been on a decline on the global scale due to habitat loss, pesticide use and diseases even before 2006, when the “Colony Collapse Disorder” (CCD) started to destroy commercial honeybee colonies in drastic numbers in U.S. and Europe. The disease has been under close study since then, due to the significant role these western honeybees play in the agriculture. Many crops rely heavily or even exclusively on honeybee and the still unsolved disease are now pushing the price higher, as farmers have to rent honeybees or pay for manual pollination.

The outbreak of CCD in the honeybee population poses a new concern to the survival of the native bees in affected regions. Small-scale studies have reported possible spillover of CCD from honeybee to native populations in the same forage area. A group of scientists, focusing on the infectious agents deformed wing virus (DWV) and the exotic parasite Nosema cerane, conducted research in large-scale in Great Britain to understand how bumblebees are affected and published their paper in Nature titled Disease Associations between Honeybees and Bumblebees as a Threat to Wild Pollinators. They showed that the DWV and the parasite honeybee colonies harbor are indeed affecting bumblebee within the pollinator territory. The authors said unmanaged and small populations of wild bees are particularly vulnerable when facing infectious agents spreading from honeybees. Previous studies have shown for vertebrates, emerging infectious diseases (EID) have pushed wild populations to extinction after repeated pathogen spillovers. The paper concluded stronger pathogen control on honeybees is needed to maintain the wild pollinator populations.

Bumblebee and honeybee are all in the Apidae family, the largest bee family. US has about 50 species of bumblebees. They are large, furry and mostly black with stripes of yellow, white, or even bright orange. They, like honeybees, are more sociable than most other native bees, forming colonies with one queen and many workers, and are generalists using pollen from a variety of flowers. But they are ground nesters and their colonies are never as big or as long lived as those of honeybees. The commercial use of bumblebees is in greenhouse for tomatoes. There are four species of bumblebees in US that are endangered. One possible cause is that fungal parasite infected bumblebees in commercial greenhouses escaped and contacted wild populations to spread the infection. The deepest concern is our knowledge of native bees is too limited to access population trends and discover the decline causes.

The Mayan Xunan kab is in the same bee family as bumblebee. Luckily, CCD has not affected its habitat. Its future is still grim, as it faces other usual threats including the loss of natural vegetation and the increase of fertilizers and pesticides on plants. The group of women in Yucatan, Mexico represented the renewed interests in Xunan kab, the scared bees cultured by the Maya, lending their help to keep this species going. In U.S., USDA in late Feb released a plan to provide close to $3 million US in technical and financial assistance, for interested landowners in five states in Midwest, to provide safe and diverse food for honeybees, in combating CCD. These are good news not only for the bees but also for the crops relying on them, and ultimately, for our health.

By Tina Zhang


Art Daily
The Christian Science Monitor
USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service

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