As spring eases into summer, staff at Belmond Maroma Resort & Spa check in on their resident Melipona bee hives. With a crucial cultural and environmental significance, we explore the past, present and future of this charming stingless bee.
MELIPONA BEES are a Mexican miracle
Small and unassuming, this stingless apidae is a native to Central America and has been cultivated by the Mayan people for centuries. So important were they to local communities that the Melipona became a symbol of spiritual resonance, seen as a bestowment of the Mayan bee god Ah Muzen Cab. They were thought to be linked to the spirit world and made the star attraction of religious ceremonies across the region. To keep this sacred bee was believed to be a transcendental experience, and Melipona keepers were thought to be closer to god.
Not content with simply being cultural superstars, Melipona bees are also fundamentally important to the ecology of the Yucatan peninsula. As they gather pollen, they interact with many unique flowering plants and tall forest trees in the area, particularly those of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, making them the little golden protectors of the jungle canyons. Of particular note is the niche relationship Melipona has with the vanilla orchid. They are one of the flower’s very few pollinators, and are one of the reasons vanilla was cultivated exclusively in Mexico for centuries. Attempts at getting the orchid to produce fruit elsewhere initially proved unsuccessful. To this day, vanilla grown outside of Central America must be pollinated by hand, driving up the production costs by about 40%. Moreover, their diminutive size, stingless physiology and docile nature make them a beekeeper’s dream, with many valuing these little creatures as pets as well as resources.
But they are a vanishing breed. With so much to praise about them, what’s the catch? Melipona could be considered the artisanal craftsmen of the bee world. They work in smaller colonies, they are picky about which flowers they take pollen from, and they work for much shorter hours compared to their foreign peers. This means the honey they create is treasured around the world for its distinctive flavour, said to be sweeter with a defined sourness and a deliciously floral aftertaste. The plants they gather from are high in medical alkaloids, giving the honey a number of curative properties ranging from easing digestive disorders and respiratory problems to reducing fatigue and speeding up wound recovery.
Like true artisans, they cannot be rushed or overworked. A Melipona colony will usually only produce two or three litres of honey a year, whereas their more industrious European or African counterparts can often exceed 50 litres in the same timeframe. This means other species provide more desirable and bankable profits for keepers. The influx of their far-flung cousins mean that the little Melipona often have to compete for space, food and resources—a fight it rarely wins. Combine this with the growth of urbanisation and the diminishing specialised knowledge required to cultivate stingless bees, and suddenly the world seems too big, fast and competitive for these little workers to succeed in. The past 30 years have seen the number of bee hives decline by more than 90% in the Yucatan. But there is hope that Meliponas will make their comeback. Increased conservation efforts are happening across Quintana Roo, and there is hope that more keepers will soon return to raising these special little bees on their own merit.
Standing proud at the frontline of this effort are the staff at Belmond Maroma Resort & Spa in the Riviera Maya. The luxury resort is home to two Melipona hives which they are dedicated to caring for in a traditional way. They aim to raise awareness and to give these bees every fighting chance, such as using bee-friendly pesticide-free products throughout the lush gardens.
“From the moment these Royal Ladies joined our family, we have become fascinated with the minute details in their environment. It really inspires a love for all nature,” enthuses Cinthya Alva Flores, Spa Director at the resort’s Kinan Spa. “It’s an honour for us to have them here at Kinan Spa, and to share with our guests the importance of preserving this magical, local bee.” Cinthya has been personally keeping Melipona hives for many years. She hosts educational workshops on-site twice a week, sharing her passion as she talks about their history and medical uses. She also imparts top tips on honey-based natural remedies that guests can replicate at home. She uses the resort’s own Melipona honey in two soothing treatments that guests can enjoy—the Kinil Anti-Aging Facial uses the product to instantly hydrate the skin and eliminate wrinkles, while the honey is combined with sea salt in the Kinan Ritual to make a thoroughly detoxifying body scrub that is followed by a sensational four-hand massage.
Make a beeline for Mexico to pay tribute to this exceptional creature.
By Daniel Hayden