Ancient Maya Beekeeping

Ancient Maya Beekeeping

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5 September 2022

Beekeeping—providing a safe habitat for bees to exploit—is an ancient technology in both the Old and New Worlds. The oldest known Old World hives are from Tel Rehov, in what is today Israel, around 900 BC; The oldest known Late Preclassic or Protoclassic period in the Americas is from the Maya site Nacum, in the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico, between 300 BC–200/250 CE.

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American Bee

Before the Spanish colonial period and long before the introduction of European bees in the 19th century, many Mesoamerican societies, including the Aztecs and Maya, kept stingless American beehives. In the Maya region, the bee of choice was Melipona beechei, which in the Maya language is called Zuna Kaab or Kol-Kab (“royal lady”).

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

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Precolumbian Uses Of Bees

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

After the conquest, the tax tribute of honey and beeswax was passed to the Spaniards, who also used the wax in religious activities. In 1549, more than 150 Maya villages paid the Spanish 3 metric tons of honey and 281 metric tons of wax. Honey was eventually replaced by sugarcane as a sweetener, but non-stinging beeswax remained in importance throughout colonial times.

Modern Maya Beekeeping

Indigenous Yucatecs and Cholas in the Yucatán Peninsula still practice beekeeping on communal lands using modified traditional techniques. Bees are housed in hollow tree sections called jawbones, both ends of which are closed by a stone or ceramic plug and a central hole through which the bees can enter. Jawbones are stored in a horizontal position and the honey and wax are retrieved twice a year by removing the end plugs, which are called panuchos.

The modern Maya jawbone typically has an average length of between 50–60 cm (20–24 in), with a diameter of about 30 cm (12 in) and walls more than 4 cm (1.5 in thick). The hole for a bee entrance is usually less than 1.5 cm (.6 in) in diameter. at the Maya site of Nakum, and in one reference to 300 BCE-C.E. 200, a ceramic jawbone (or possibly an effigy) was found.

 

Archeology Of Maya Beekeeping

Jawbones from the Nakum site are smaller than modern ones, measuring only 30.7 cm (12 in) long, with a maximum diameter of 18 cm (7 in) and an entrance hole only 3 cm (1.2 in) in diameter. The outer walls are covered with striped designs. It has a removable ceramic panucho at each end with a diameter of between 16.7 and 17 cm (approximately 6.5 in). The difference is that size can be a result of the different bee species being cared for and protected.

The labor associated with beekeeping is mostly conservation and custody work; Keeping hives away from animals (mostly armadillos and raccoons) and the weather. This is achieved by stacking the hives in an A-shaped frame and building a thatched-roof palapa or lean-to over the whole: beehives are usually found in small groups near homes.

Maya Bee Symbolism

Since most of the materials used to make beeswax—wood, wax, and honey—are organic, archaeologists have identified the presence of beekeeping at pre-Columbian sites from the recovery of the paired panucho. Incense sticks in the shape of bees, and images of the so-called diving god, possibly a representation of the bee god Ah Muसेनen Cab, have been found on the walls of temples at Sel and other Maya sites.

The Madrid Codex (known to scholars as the Trono or Tro-Cortesianus Codex) is one of the few surviving books of the ancient Maya. In its illustrated pages male and female deities harvest and collect honey, and conduct various rituals associated with beekeeping.

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