Bee experts in Mexico focus on thoughtfully re-establishing a traditionally vital practice: stingless beekeeping
Flying under the radar of the United States National Highway System is a parallel yet equally intricate and perilous transport network, one focused on the humble honey bee.
Every February, hundreds of thousands of domesticated honey bee (Apis mellifera) colonies are shuttled on flatbed trucks from the Northern Great Plains, an area stretching from Minnesota to Montana, to California. After the bees pollinate key crops like almonds, they get sent back up North to access high-quality forage for the summer. Pre-pandemic, the honey bee pollination industry was an annual 300 million USD business, nearly as much as the honey industry; however, during an average winter, around one out of every three of these colonies will entirely die off. Why?
Maggie Shanahan, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota, may have learned part of the answer: She published a paper in January 2022 citing industrial agriculture as “the root cause of many health problems that honey bees face”.
During an average winter, around one out of every three domesticated honey bee colonies will entirely die off. Why?
In certain parts of California, hundreds of acres of almond plants sprawl with little else in sight. While this approach to growing crops maximizes profit, it leaves the fields these bees pollinate largely homogenous. The most recent California Almond Grower Survey Report showed that while 92% of surveyed almond growers rent honeybees, fewer than one-fifth of them adopt practices to attract and retain diverse pollinators, such as planting cover crops, which produce different flowers that also attract bees.
While the report found that most producers were uncertain about the benefits and potential drawbacks of adopting practices to attract and retain diverse pollinators, it also found that some producers had concerns about associated space constraints, a potential influx of weeds, and possible increased farm investment. However, the monocultural, insecticide-heavy approach of U.S. industrial agriculture to farming often limits the bees’ access to varied nutritional sources, which can influence bees’ genetic profiles and gut microbiomes — lowering their disease defenses on all fronts.
Such dietary limitations can further inhibit the bees’ ability to make propolis, the vital resin that helps them with nest construction and fending off hive invaders. Propolis can have antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal properties, depending on which species is churning it out, and what kind of environment they’re producing it in. Honeybee propolis has had medicinal uses since ancient Egypt, and the resin of the countless wild bee species remains vital in various cultural contexts today.
Beekeepers and entomologists in the United States have spent much energy researching and innovating ways to keep domestic bees productive in this monoculture context. And while U.S. entomologists have done a lot of research into bee health, it has not effectively disrupted the industrial agriculture paradigm, according to Shanahan. Here in the U.S., we appear to have lopsided priorities when it comes to our relationship with bees.
Social insects, political lessons
Shanahan’s passion for bees radiates off her. “Have you ever opened a beehive? It’s this super organism that you can see into and work with,” she says. In her third year in college, she took a semester off to immerse herself in the world of beekeeping across the globe. Through that experience, Shanahan connected with the variety of ways beekeepers interact with their bees, as well as with the ecological and agricultural systems surrounding them.
While in graduate school, Shanahan pursued entomology with a particular interest in honey beekeeping. But the experience she had in college caused Shanahan to question whether her passion, domestic beekeeping, was always inherently good. As she began to contemplate the ethics swirling around the practice, she had what she calls an identity crisis. “Beekeeping being shaped by all the social and political structures within which it is situated — it makes sense. But that was a real pivotal point for me.”
As a white scientist doing stingless bee work in southern Mexico, I have to be prepared to ask myself the question of, ‘Is my work and presence having a positive impact?’ and I have to be open to the possibility that the answer is no. -- Maggie Shanahan, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Minnesota
Afterward, Shanahan realized she wanted to pursue new solutions for helping beekeepers better respect the integrity of their colonies against the backdrop of industrialized agriculture and all its pitfalls. “I wanted to work on it in community,” she says. “I believe in propolis but what can make a difference in the face of this wicked problem, which is the domination of industrial agriculture in the US and other spaces?” She says she wanted to talk to other beekeepers about how they handle such a reconciliation. “It seemed like something everyone knew and no one was talking about, which just made me want to dig deeper.”
Shanahan got a Fulbright Research Award to study organic honey beekeeping practices in Chiapas, Mexico, after she graduated from college. There, she encountered experts with cultural ties to stewarding the many species of wild, stingless bees — native bees that often rely on propolis as a primary defense mechanism in lieu of a stinger. Much of her Ph.D. has orbited around what she has learned from this brain trust, so Shanahan still grapples with her own role in beekeeping and colonization on a consistent basis. “As a white scientist doing stingless bee work in southern Mexico, I have to be prepared to ask myself the question of, ‘Is my work and presence having a positive impact?’ and I have to be open to the possibility that the answer is no,” she says.
Now, Shanahan is taking what she’s learning from experts in Mexico and focusing on capturing it in review papers to further an important, critical conversation going on amongst U.S.-based scientists. Instead of focusing on bee production over bee health in the Western world, Shanahan is proposing that we adopt the different, vital goals that she’s learning from experts in Chiapas: an emphasis on promoting bee health, prioritizing the preservation of a culturally important practice, and emulating the relationship-building skills that are so apparent in the lives of social insects.
The well-being of bees and humans is, after all, inextricably tied.
Bees, ethics, and food
Despite the number of resources spent on growing food, so many people in the United States remain improperly nourished: in 2020, about one out of ten Americans were food insecure, but households that are Indigenous ( about 25%), Black (21.7%), and Hispanic (17.2%) are much more vulnerable. What’s more, the very workers growing our food are so often exploited — a quandary at the center of Shanahan’s research. For her and the experts she has learned from, researching stingless bees represents a chance to rethink not only how we approach bee health, but also food politics, feeding people, and human health and well-being.
In 2020, about one out of ten Americans are food insecure, but households that are Indigenous ( about 25%), Black (21.7%), and Hispanic (17.2%) are much more vulnerable.
Stingless bees (Meliponini) are the largest group of social insects on earth. There are 476 species of these brilliant little buzzers in Mexico alone. Each has an important role in its particular region. Their pollination powers ecosystem health across contexts, not just for flowers or foods that are consumable to people, but also for other animals and beings. Some even regulate other bee populations.
The coordinated effort these social insects make to pursue communal health and safety is central to the work of researchers and stewards who care so deeply for them. Without stingers to defend themselves, stingless bees have become particularly adept at collectively concocting propolis to protect their colonies against invaders in a number of ways. Stingless bee resin can repel, entangle, and immobilize potential invaders, such as mites or viruses. Certain species even create a mini-boulder out of resin, rolling it into place to block the entrance of their colony when under attack.
Shanahan thinks critically assessing patterns in domestic bee research, domestic beekeeping, and entomology more widely in the United States is an essential first step to a wider, more productive conversation. “We [settler scientists] specialize, but our specialization should not protect us from contextualizing our work in broader socio-political, environmental, and economic spaces,” Shanahan says. “There is an important opportunity to partner with and follow the leadership of the stingless beekeepers, Indigenous communities, and stewards of local ecological knowledge that are deeply connected to stingless bees and the land that they inhabit.”
She published a review paper last year sharing what she has learned from Indigenous experts, researchers in Chiapas, and other community collaborators, with the goal of sharing insights on stingless bee resin use with her peers in the U.S. She says researchers in the U.S. so often think they are disseminating their findings “down” to Mexico, viewing it as a developing country. But, she says, experts in Mexico have so much to offer the limited U.S. perspective, particularly on stewarding bees to promote bee, human, and ecosystem health all at once.
There is an important opportunity to partner with and follow the leadership of the stingless beekeepers, Indigenous communities, and stewards of local ecological knowledge that are deeply connected to stingless bees and the land that they inhabit. -- Maggie Shanahan, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Minnesota
Still, while Shanahan wants to open up this crucial dialogue amongst her peers, she is quick to point to the progress she still wants to make in her own relationship with this work: “I'm nervous about being held up as any kind of example in terms of learning from Indigenous knowledge because I am such a beginner in this area, and I am sure there are contradictions within the work that I do.”
An ancient practice, a powerful collective
Experts at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR), a public scientific research center in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, have been mentoring Shanahan and others. The organization’s mission is “to contribute to the sustainable development of the southern border of Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean through obtained knowledge, the training of human resources and the link from the social and natural sciences.”
At ECOSUR, dozens of researchers, ecologists, and anthropologists on the bee team work under a shared mantra: “To be a beekeeper is to be political.” In Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico and home to one of the largest Indigenous populations in the country, scars of historical neglect and oppression by the Mexican federal government towards the ten recognized Indigenous Mayan ethnicities linger. The epicenter of the 1994 pro-Indigenous, pro-land Zapatista uprising — in direct response to NAFTA — San Cristóbal de las Casas is still dotted with “Zapaturismo” attractions. The team works in this context to conserve stingless beekeeping as a traditional practice with nearby Indigenous communities respectfully, bridging cultural knowledge, passed down from one generation to another for millennia, and academic science.
And the experts on meliponini are, undeniably, Indigenous communities throughout Mesoamerica. The honey stingless bees make is used in different ancestral medicines. Additionally, some Indigenous communities use stingless bee wax for candles and closing wounds. Stingless bee pollen is also an excellent source of protein that some communities incorporate into their foods and drinks. For many Indigenous communities across Central and South America, meliponiculture — the study of stingless bees — is integral to their culture.
“The origin of meliponiculture is an enigma,” says Lázaro Arroyo Rodriguez, a stingless bee expert at ECOSUR with deep cultural ties to the insects. “We do know there is a large amount of knowledge around bees in many Indigenous cultures, especially in Mayan culture. We mostly see a lot of it coming from the Yucatan peninsula and that general area of Mexico but there are certainly communities in other states — Chiapas, Oaxaca, Veracruz — where there is a lot of knowledge about bees.” But, Arroyo Rodriguez says, much information was lost during the Spanish conquest and ensuing colonization. “So, it’s difficult to place a time for when that started.”
Growing up in Cuetzalan, Puebla, and the son of Indigenous farmers, Arroyo Rodriguez began observing the teeny critters when he was just three years old. “I have always loved bees,” he says. “I enjoy the products I receive from my bees, but I also love witnessing the relationship between bees, and the ways bees have been able to bring me closer to my culture and community.”
Having such a deep connection and knowing of [stingless bees] is part of my identity, how I grew up, so it’s very important for me to share it with others. It’s just become a principle of life for me. -- Lázaro Arroyo Rodriguez, Stingless Bee Expert, ECOSUR
For five years, Arroyo Rodriguez has been collaborating with many Indigenous communities in the area, which has included facilitating the “Guardians of the Bees” program with members of the Pinabetal community in Guaquitepec, three hours outside San Cristóbal. He feels the most joy working with young people and tribal elders. “Having such a deep connection and knowing of [stingless bees] is part of my identity, how I grew up, so it’s very important for me to share it with others. It’s just become a principle of life for me.” And fortunately for Arroyo Rodriguez, so many of the communities he works with share his identity-based attachment to stingless bees. “They really consider products from bees — wax, honey, etc. — to be sacred medicine.”
The relationships Arroyo Rodriguez and his colleagues aim to build with the bees and their respective communities of stewards are intentional, delicate, and productive — not unlike bees themselves. The team prioritizes understanding the knowledge of the people in the communities they work with, discerning the bee diversity already present in their communities, and identifying which species the team can help re-introduce and manage. Then, they enact various environmentally sustainable and ethical techniques to procure the first nests.
The relationships Arroyo Rodriguez and his colleagues aim to build with the bees and their respective communities of stewards are intentional, delicate, and productive — not unlike bees themselves.
“We also do rounds in the field to observe [the bees’] defensive behaviors, morphology, and nesting habits so that we can further understand the bees’ biology and overall, recognize and value the bees’ diversity (solitary bees, parasitic bees, or social bees),” Arroyo Rodriguez explains, “which is to say, we try not to just center the bees that we use to obtain honey, wax, pollen, and propolis from. To achieve this, we dedicate ourselves to taking courses and workshops where we collaborate with specialists in taxonomy, biology, interrelations, honey, education, and more.”
Protecting bees from continued colonization
Shanahan notes that a stingless beekeeping “boom” has begun in non-Indigenous communities in Mexico within the last decade. This means that the impulse to apply domestic beekeeping practice to stingless bees has begun to rear its head. More and more beekeepers have become interested in propagating colonies in different ways to use stingless bees as pollinator units, rather than raising the bees to support the local ecosystem. That would mean using them as a tool instead of being their stewards — exactly what has poisoned Americans’ relationship with our domestic honeybees.
Shanahan can see the way appropriating stingless bees like this can cause harm — to both the bees and the people who traditionally steward them. “I can’t purport to have the answers on how to engage, even for other settler scientists, with stingless bees. I am just thinking about the ways that attention can negatively impact species and [culturally tied] communities.”
When it comes to the interface of the colonized world and stingless bees, Arroyo Rodriguez has his concerns, too. He says native bees in Mexico face various threats, including industrialized agriculture and the resulting use of uncontrolled pesticides and changes in the use of soil, as well as transgenics, moving species outside of their native habitats, and of course, the introduction of exotic species, such as Bombus terrestris, B. impatiens, which can transmit parasites and diseases, and displace native species.
Not only would losing stingless bees sever a millennia-old tie to fundamental cultural tradition but, Arroyo Rodriguez points out, “If we lose stingless bees, we lose the rich biology and pollinators in tropical and subtropical environments and this would cause some changes in these ecosystems.” He says the stingless bees most at risk are the species that are endemic, meaning specific to their given environment, since their populations are restricted to that area and changes in their environment would affect them drastically.
If we lose stingless bees, we lose the rich biology and pollinators in tropical and subtropical environments and this would cause some changes in these ecosystems. -- Lázaro Arroyo Rodriguez, Stingless Bee Expert, ECOSUR
Arroyo Rodriguez is invested in the wisdom of his ancestors and certainly does not want it erased when his team has put so much work into knowledge co-production. “There was a time that there was a decline in meliponiculture because knowledge was staying with elders,” he says. “A lot of children were starting to go off to college and study their own things and, not that it wasn’t important to them, things just went differently because of changing priorities. That’s why this initiative is so important. We want to just continue bringing knowledge to the forefront and continue sharing knowledge with the community as well.”
Shanahan does wonder, though, whether there is an opportunity for U.S.-based settler communities to instead direct their energies toward investigating the species in our immediate surroundings and understanding how we can better care for them. But to do that, scientists must acknowledge and integrate the socio-political context within which they are working. “I am really interested in engaging with other scientists with this,” says Shanahan. “In my experience, political ecology is not part of my formal education so these are analyses that you have to pick up on and integrate in any way you can. But there isn’t really a university structure holding space for that kind of transdisciplinary inquiry.”
Whether settlers are ready to acknowledge it or not, stingless bees and the people who steward them are out there offering an example of how having a healthy, symbiotic relationship brings about well-being for everyone involved — humans, plants, ecosystems, and bees alike.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture does fund a National Native Bee Monitoring Research Coordination Network (RCN), but out of the members spread across 25 states, none of them are identified as Indigenous on the RCN site. Hollis Woodard, an Assistant Professor of Entomology at the University of California, Riverside, and the lead Principal Investigator of the RCN, declined to be interviewed when contacted through email. However, she did note that the Network is in the process of uniting its efforts with a new IUCN wild bee effort, which has specific guidelines for incorporating Indigenous and local knowledge. Kyle Bobiwash, an Assistant Professor at the Department of Entomology of the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, and a member of the Anishinaabe-Ojibwe group of Indigenous peoples of Ontario, was unavailable for comment regarding other similar initiatives across North America.
Whether settlers are ready to acknowledge it or not, stingless bees and the people who steward them are out there offering an example of how having a healthy, symbiotic relationship brings about well-being for everyone involved — humans, plants, ecosystems, and bees alike. To Shanahan, the need for change has urgent ramifications — not only can we not afford to repeat mistakes of past and present, but to do it right this time we have to put Indigenous knowledge first.
“There can be a tendency in white science spaces to take the ecology and leave behind the rest of it,” she says. “Like, ‘Let’s take the bees and let’s leave the people.’ It’s great to talk about Indigenous knowledge but we also have to talk about Indigenous sovereignty. I’m fascinated with stingless bee biology and if I am working within the system. It’s also important that I am learning about understanding and aligning myself with the communities deeply tied to this organism and the demands they are making for basic rights and sovereignty,
“I am a very beginning learner on this, I have a lot of work to do.”