The importance of melipona bees for gastronomy, traditional medicine and Mexican cultures

We can assure you that we have all cured ourselves more than once with honey, we love its taste, but few of us know that there are thousands of species of bees and that each one of them has different objectives in nature, medicine and gastronomy. Let’s take a tour of the characteristics of the Mexican Melipona bees.

What distinguishes melipona bees

melipona bees

melipona bees

stingless bee visits basil inflorescence / Photo: Lázaro Arroyo

According to Lázaro Arroyo, Meliponiculture Project Coordinator of the Abejas Team of Ecosur (School of La Frontera Sur), San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas:

“Around 20,000 species of bees are known worldwide, among which 550 melipona or stingless species stand out.

In Mexico we have approximately 2,000 species, of which 46 have no stinger.

All these native bees are distributed throughout the country. For example, in Yucatán, the Melipona beecheiiknown as the sacred Mayan bee or xunaan kaab.

These stingless species have been cultivated for hundreds of years by native peoples, who considered them sacred for the healing properties of their honey.

Such was the importance of bees that our pre-Hispanic ancestors performed between four and six ceremonies a year in their honor and used their honey to pay tribute.

And what makes meliponas different?

melipona bees

melipona bees

Melipona beecheiivisiting inflorescence of Vernonia spp. / Photo: Lázaro Arroyo

Melipona bees produce pollen, wax, propolis and pollinate, but only they make a liter and a half of honey a year, compared to European bees, which produce up to 30 liters.

“This is due to the size of the populations that can be found in a melipona hive, for example, in the case of Melipona beecheiioscillates between 1000 and 3,000 individuals in the hive”.

“While an Apis mellifera hive can have between 20,000 and up to 60,000 individuals,” explains Luis Martínez, Doctoral student in Sciences, specializing in Ecology, at the Institute of Ecology, AC (INECOL) campus Bajio Regional Centerand CEO of Wild Bee Project.

Although the production of melipona honey is lower, which considerably increases its costs, its medicinal properties have been used since ancient times.

The diversity of Melipona bees in Mexico

melipona bees

melipona bees

Mexican Scaptotriogone visiting coffee inflorescence (arabic coffee) / Photo: Lázaro Arroyo

In Mexico there is a large number of species of melipona bees. Among the most used are the Tetragonisca angustulaalso known as maiden, the melipona solanithe Scaptotrigona hellwegeri and the Mexican Scaptotrigonain Puebla, the Yucatan melipona, in Yucatan; the melipona fasciatain Oaxaca, or in Puebla, and the Melipona beecheii in Campeche.

The best known and managed species in Mexico are Melipona beecheii, Melipona yucatanica, Y Mexican Scaptotrigona.

The sensory and chemical characteristics of their honeys have to do with the type of flora of their regions.

If we talk about the sensory characteristics that will differentiate one honey from another:

“We could say, for example, that the honey of the Melipona beecheii is sweeter, while Mexican Scaptotrigona and the melipona solaniThey tend to be a bit more acidic.

In terms of colors there is a great diversity, precisely because of the vegetation, the species of bee and the amount of moisture present in each type of honey.

There are also biological characteristics of each bee that add particularities to each type of honey, in addition to certain symbiotic relationships that bees have with some microorganisms that benefit the stability and nutritional characteristics of honey.

Medicinal uses of melipona honey

melipona bees

melipona bees

View of brood cells, stingless bee Pisilnekmej (Scaptotrigona mexicana) / Photo: Lázaro Arroyo

The use of melipona honey is embodied in two very important books for the Mayan culture: the Chilam Balam of Chumayel Y The Ritual of the Bacabesboth Mayan texts written after the conquest, in which he has found abundant information on the uses of honey.

These honeys are used, mainly in traditional medicine, to heal some ailments, such as eye problems, remove carnoses, dry eyes and cataracts.

They also help wound healing, inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria, for pregnant women and after giving birth, because they provide energy.

A couple of remedies that have transcended in the Mexican culture in general, is to use honey to alleviate gastritis problems, fasting, a tablespoon twice a day.

Or as a remedy for throat diseases, since it helps expel phlegm when combined with lemon.

They also serve to alleviate diseases of the ears, skin, mouth and internal organs, calm fevers and bites of insects and poisonous animals such as lizards and snakes.

The recipes contained in El Ritual de los Bacabes also reveal that the Mayans used honey for disorders of the respiratory, digestive, circulatory and immune systems.

Some gastronomic uses of melipona honey

melipona bees

melipona bees

One of the tonics in trophology is the combination of ginger, honey and lemon. // Photo: Special.

Just to give an example of the tradition of consuming Melipona honey, in Yucatan saká is prepared, which means corn in Mayan, a preparation of nixtamalized corn with water.

This drink used to have a ritual character and was dedicated to Chaak, god of rain, so that he favored the fields with rain, and it is still prepared in the Mayan communities, at planting times.

Other recipes that we see on a daily basis throughout the country are the amaranth alegrías from Tlaxcala, the chileatole from Michoacán or the buñuelos from Veracruz.

It is also present in ancestral dishes and drinks that continue to be prepared in certain areas.

They highlight the Atlaquetzalliwith cocoa, the so chucuawith corn and cocoa or the nugget atole, all from the Valley of Mexico, so they come from Mexicas and Teotihuacanos.

melipona bees

melipona bees

Isabel taking samples of honey from a rustic colony with meliponiculturists from Chiapas / Photo: Lázaro Arroyo

The work team that Lázaro coordinates is in charge of training the meliponiculturists to know the honeys, their properties. They have been working with indigenous cooperatives for 20 years.

Lázaro tells us: “In this accompaniment we also have the opportunity to study the characteristics of each type of honey, how they change by region, by bee species and by blooms, as well as the subtle peculiarities that are occurring due to the effects of climate change. ”.

Lázaro and Isabel are part of the honey, diversity and taxonomy, pollination, monitoring and analysis team, within a multidisciplinary team of approximately 25 people.

In addition to doing science, they have to bring information functional to the communities through training processes in organic agriculture and ecological culture.

“It’s not just about teaching them about bees, but rather starting from what people know in their communities, recognizing their knowledge and working from there.”

Dissemination of the work of the Bees Team of Ecosur in the cooperatives

melipona bees

melipona bees

Luis Raúl Martínez García / Photo: Luis Martínez

It is evident that disseminating this work is not as simple in these communities as it could be in cities with more infrastructure.

This work is carried out by students like Luis Martínez, to spread knowledge about native bees, their management, ecology, and science among the Abejas Team and the cooperatives.

Luis adds: “As this is emerging, we are connecting with many more people who generate proposals. It is important that the general public knows about the existence of these bees”.

“The management of territories and agriculture are decisive to ensure the survival of native bees in Mexico. We need to make noise to ensure conservation,” she assures.

Bees are involved in (almost) everything we eat

melipona bees

melipona bees

Frames and honeycombs of Apis mellifera bees / Photo: Luis Martínez

Bees pollinate and in Mexico they are benefiting up to 85% of the fruits and seeds that we eat in the country, since up to 90% of wild flowers depend on pollination.

It is known that for tropical crops, up to 70% depend entirely on it, such as pumpkin, watermelon, melon, vanilla, passion fruit, macadamia nut.

Chewing gum, avocado or apple can have bee-assisted pollination dependencies of up to 90%.

Others such as coffee, strawberries, guava, nopal, mustard, cotton and soybeans depend only between 10% and 39%.

Although in these latter crops the dependence on pollinators is not as high, the quality, number of fruits and their size is superior to those without insect-assisted pollination.

Bee is not equal to honey, bee is equal to the territory

melipona bees

melipona bees

Shades of honey from stingless bees from left to right: Melipona yucatanica (Guatemala), Melipona fasciata (Oaxaca), Melipona solani (Chiapas), Melipona beecheii (Quintana Roo), Scaptotrigona pectoralis (Chiapas), Scaptotrigona mexicana (Puebla), Frieseomelitta nigra (Veracruz), Nannotrigona perilampoides (Chiapas), Tetragonisca angustula (Chiapas) / Photo: Daniela Gallardo

Luis concludes: “We must consider that the equation is not bees equal to honey, but rather, the management of melipona bees, and other solitary native bees result in territorial management.”

“By focusing on melipona bees, we also study the geographic expression, vegetation, culture, lhe typical dishes and medicines from each region, beyond honey as a product”.

If you want to learn more about melipona bees and other pollinators, attend this weekend the Forum Celebrating Our Pollinators 2022, in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán.

And if you want to learn more about the types of honey produced in Mexico, stop by here.

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