Ancient Maya Beekeeping

The Stingless Bee in Pre-Columbian America

Stingless Bees (Tetragonisca angustula) in Cockscomb Wildlife Sanctuary, Belize.
American stingless bees (Tetragonisca angustula) in their hive in Cockscomb Wildlife Sanctuary, Belize. Bernard DuPont

Beekeeping—providing a safe residence for bees in order to exploit them—is an ancient technology in both the Old and New Worlds. The oldest known Old World beehives are from Tel Rehov, in what is today Israel, about 900 B.C.E.; the oldest known in the Americas is from the Late Preclassic or Protoclassic period Maya site of Nakum, in the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico, between 300 B.C.E.–200/250 C.E.

American Bees

Before the Spanish colonial period and long before the introduction of European honeybees in the 19th century, several Mesoamerican societies including Aztec and Maya kept hives of stingless American bees. There are about 15 different bee species native to the Americas, most of which live in humid tropical and subtropical forests. In the Maya region, the bee of choice was Melipona beecheii, called xuna'an kab or colel-kab ("royal lady") in the Maya language.

As you might guess from the name, American bees don't sting—but they will bite with their mouths to defend their hives. Wild stingless bees live in hollow trees; they don't make honeycombs but rather store their honey in round sacks of wax. They make less honey than European bees, but American bee honey is said to be sweeter.

Precolumbian Uses of Bees

The products of bees—honey, wax, and royal jelly—were used in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica for religious ceremonies, medicinal purposes, as a sweetener, and to make the hallucinogenic honey mead called balche. In his 16th century text Relacion de las Cosas Yucatán, Spanish bishop Diego de Landa reported that indigenous people traded beeswax and honey for cacao seeds (chocolate) and precious stones.

After the conquest, tax tributes of honey and wax went to the Spanish, who also used beeswax in religious activities. In 1549, over 150 Maya villages paid 3 metric tons of honey and 281 metric tons of wax in tax to the Spanish. Honey was eventually replaced as a sweetener by sugar cane, but stingless bee wax continued in importance all through the colonial period.

Modern Maya Beekeeping

Indigenous Yucatec and Chol in the Yucatan peninsula today still practice beekeeping on communal lands, using modified traditional techniques. Bees are kept in hollow tree sections called jobón, with the two ends closed by a stone or ceramic plug and a central hole through which bees can enter. The jobón are stored in a horizontal position and the honey and wax is retrieved a couple times a year by removing the end plugs, called panuchos.

Typically the average length of the modern Maya jobon is between 50-60 centimeters (20-24 inches) long, with a diameter of about 30 cm (12 in) and walls more than 4 cm (1.5 in thick). The hole for the bee entryway is typically less than 1.5 cm (.6 in) in diameter.  At the Maya site of Nakum, and in a context firmly dated to the late preclassic period between 300 B.C.E.–C.E. 200, was found a ceramic jobon (or quite possibly an effigy).

Archaeology of Maya Beekeeping

The jobon from the Nakum site is smaller than modern ones, measuring only 30.7 cm long (12 in), with a maximum diameter of 18 cm (7 in) and an entry hole only 3 cm (1.2 in) in diameter. The external walls are covered with striated designs. It has removable ceramic panuchos at each end, with diameters of 16.7 and 17 cm (about 6.5 in). The difference is size may be a result of the different bee species being taken care of and protected. 

The labor associated with beekeeping is mostly protection and custodial duties; keeping the hives away from animals (mostly armadillos and raccoons) and the weather. That is achieved by stacking the hives in an A-shaped frame and building a thatch-roofed palapa or lean-to over the whole: beehives are typically found in small groups near residences. 

Maya Bee Symbolism

Because most of the materials used to make beehives—wood, wax, and honey—are organic, archaeologists have identified the presence of beekeeping at pre-Columbian sites by the recovery of paired panuchos. Artifacts such as incense burners in the shapes of beehives, and images of the so-called Diving God, likely a representation of the bee god Ah Mucen Cab, have been found on the walls of temples at Sayil and other Maya sites.

The Madrid Codex (known to scholars as the Troano or Tro-Cortesianus Codex) is one of the few surviving books of the ancient Maya. Among its illustrated pages are male and female deities harvesting and collecting honey, and conducting various rituals associated with beekeeping.

The Aztec Mendoza Codex shows images of towns giving jars of honey to the Aztecs for tribute. 

Current Status of American Bees

While beekeeping is still a practice by Maya farmers, because of the introduction of the more productive European honeybee, the loss of forest habitat, the Africanization of honey bees in the 1990s, and even climate change bringing destructive storms into the Yucatan, stingless beekeeping has been severely reduced. Most of the bees farmed today are European honey bees. 

Those European honey bees (Apis mellifera) were introduced in the Yucatan in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. Modern apiculture with bees and using moveable frames began to be practiced after the 1920s and making Apis honey became a principal economic activity for the rural Maya area by the 1960s and 1970s. In 1992, Mexico was the fourth largest honey producer in the world, with an average annual production of 60,000 metric tons of honey and 4,200 metric tons of beeswax. A total of 80% of the beehives in Mexico are kept by small farmers as a subsidiary or hobby crop.

Although stingless bee farming was not actively pursued for decades, today there is a regrowth in interest and a sustained effort by enthusiasts and indigenous farmers who are beginning to restore the practice of stingless bee farming to the Yucatan

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Ancient Maya Beekeeping." ThoughtCo, May. 22, 2018, thoughtco.com/ancient-maya-beekeeping-169364. Hirst, K. Kris. (2018, May 22). Ancient Maya Beekeeping. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/ancient-maya-beekeeping-169364 Hirst, K. Kris. "Ancient Maya Beekeeping." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/ancient-maya-beekeeping-169364 (accessed May 25, 2018).