Mayan Bee Sanctuary: Cozumel’s Treasure Trove of Bees

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Sweet Treasure in the Heart of Mexico’s Largest Island

By Bel Woodhouse

Mayan Bee Sanctuary sign on Cozumel
Mayan Bee Sanctuary sign on the main transversal road through the island.

Deep in the heart of Mexico’s largest island densest jungle lies a treasure. Liquid gold. Honey. But not just any honey, potent healing honey used for centuries by the Maya as a cure-all.

For hundreds of years before the first Europeans set foot in Central America, it fueled Mayan armies. As well as all internal and external healing and preventative medicines.

Everything from healing a woman’s cesarean scar after childbirth through to internal preventative practices managing diabetes, cholesterol, and blood pressure.

In the middle of Cozumel Island, off the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula is where today’s Mayan descendants have built the Mayan Bee Sanctuary.

It’s fitting. They’d want the most special honey close by as its customary to lay flowers and honey at the feet of Ixchel, the island’s goddess as an offering.

The Journey to Find Honey

Before you can enter the jungle sanctuary, first you must be purified by a local shaman.

This washes away any ill will, negativity, nervousness, or harmful intent you may consciously or subconsciously have against the bees. This sanctuary is a peaceful place.

You can watch a quick video of the ceremony here.

Only then, after the thick plumes of incensed cleansing copal smoke washed over me was I allowed to enter onto the path into the jungle. Its rich earthy pine odor is soothing and said to be the scent most pleasing to the gods.

Rules of the house sign at the Mayan Bee Sanctuary
Rules of the house sign.

Entering onto the light limestone pathway leading to the jungle hives it crunches slightly under my feet.

Somehow that crunch has a subtle feeling of sharpness, like a warning for those who enter that nature will fight back if you harm the bees.

That is reinforced with a polite sign showing appropriate etiquette near the entrance. You are entering the house of the Melipona and should be respectful.

Russel, my guide, pointed out medicinal plants along the way explaining their uses as I took it all in. Then I knew we were getting close.

A slight breeze ruffled my hair as the canopy opened overhead. Orchids’ subtle and delicate perfume hung in the air.

Entwined around the trees surrounding a small open cenote, these are the source of life for one of the Maya’s greatest treasures. Tiny stingless bees, called Melipona.

Meet the Mighty Melipona

In the local Mayan dialect, her name is Xunán Kab, the Royal Lady Bee. Her sacred relationship with the Maya was revered.

As precious as the freshwater of the cenote, giver of life in the jungle. Or, the sweet pollen and nectar from the huge arched plumes of orchids and bromeliads draping down from the trees around me.

Small open cenote, the bees year-round water source.
Small open cenote, the bees year-round water source.

Learning about ‘the lady’ as they affectionately call the Melipona is one experience I’ll never forget.

This sanctuary touched my heart in such a profound way learning all about the honored bond between Maya and Melipona.

A special relationship that is sacred, spiritual, and sanctified with such deep-seated respect of the natural world it touched my nature lover’s heart deeply.

Talking with the beekeepers and immersing myself in the world of the Melipona has changed me forever.

Not something I thought I would ever have said about meeting a tiny 0.27-inch (7mm) bee.

But this little lady packs a punch.

Harvesting honey - credit: Mayan Bee Sanctuary
Harvesting honey – credit: Mayan Bee Sanctuary

Powerful Healing Honey

As treasured as if it were liquid gold, the dark amber jungle honey is said to have three times the healing power of commercial Apis honeybee species. That is the kind you buy at the supermarket.

Russel a guide at the Center
Russel a guide at the Center.

At least that is what Russel says. He also credits it as a holistic measure in cancer prevention. Although no matter how sincere his belief was, I couldn’t find any medical evidence to back it up.

Having said that, I don’t see too many sick Mayan descendants wandering around.

What amazed me was the glorious deep color. Even in full sun, I could feel the potency radiating from its earthy sienna glow.

It was hypnotic, not like normal honey’s happy golden sunshine-in-a-bottle color.

It drew me into the auburn bronzed depths. Then the best part. The tasting.

Tasting the Jungle

There’s no other way to say it. Melipona’s potent jungle honey has an unusual taste.

Nowhere near as sweet as the commercial honey I was used to from European Apis bee species, this had tang. A little zip mixed in with slight sweetness.

Add in orchids, bromeliads, and a canopy full of native flowering trees, and the only way I can describe the taste is to say it tastes like the jungle itself.

All morning, breathing in the fresh jungle air there was a faint taste in the back of my throat.

At first, I didn’t even realize it, it had been there for hours. Not until the honey hit my tongue did clarity hit as well.

Mayan symbol for Xunán Kab, the Melipona bee at the Mayan Bee Sanctuary.
Mayan symbol for Xunán Kab, the Melipona bee at the Mayan Bee Sanctuary.

This is what the jungle tastes like. I know it sounds crazy but you can taste it. Like tasting the earth, plants, and everything around you in all in one.

A connectivity to the surrounding natural world in a wonderful way.

After, when I tasted the Apis honey it was sickly sweet. It also made me wonder how the Mayan soldiers used to feel about their drinking chocolate each morning.

Tiny but Mighty Melipona’s Fueled Armies

Russel explained that during the height of the Mayan empire huge apiaries of 1,000 – 2,000 hives were kept.

Because the Melipona’s yield is so low they needed these vast apiaries spread throughout the jungle to provide enough for their soldiers.

A healthy, happy Melipona beehive only produces about one-thirtieth of the European beehives. Perhaps that’s why it is so potent. Condensed and concentrated somehow.

Melipona apiary at a citrus farm - credit: Mayan Bee Sanctuary
Melipona apiary at a citrus farm – credit: Mayan Bee Sanctuary

One cup of hot drinking chocolate, a mix of hand-ground high-cacao roasted beans and honey, was said to hold enough energy to keep a soldier going all day. I tend to believe this because cacao is rich in energy, antioxidants and the Melipona’s honey is a powerhouse.

Bo'ol in hive. Queen clearly visible on top of the brood comb (just below the centre of the picture)
Bo’ol in the hive. Queen clearly visible on top of the brood comb (just below the center of the picture)

Now I don’t know if you have ever tried cacao but it’s bitter. Very bitter.

I’ve tried the natural drinking chocolate of the Aztec (pre-dated the Maya in the Yucatan) and Maya and let me tell you it was a bitter surprise.  But my trusty guide and Melipona mentor Russel likes it.

Just as Russel’s ancestors, the Maya of the Yucatan, drank it so do their descendants today.

It’s an acquired taste and usually made for celebrations, holidays, and festivals but he says it’s a way to stay connected to his heritage.

It was at this tasting that Russel tells me “we were the first”. Meaning his ancestors the Maya, or maybe even the Aztecs before them, were the first people to keep bees.

That would make it the oldest relationship between man and nature, or in this case, man and Melipona in recorded history. Centuries before Europeans started domestic hives.

Left to right: propolis pearls, Apis honey, pollen and Melipona honey. You can see the colour difference in the honey.
Left to right: propolis pearls, Apis honey, pollen, and Melipona honey. You can see the color difference in the honey.

So it stands to reason that they’ve got it down to a fine art. Every part of the hive is used.

Honey, propolis, wax, and even pollen. The best part is that I got to try them all. My favorite was the propolis pearls.

If you’ve never heard of propolis don’t worry. I hadn’t either. So imagine my surprise while thoroughly enjoying a honey and eucalyptus propolis pearl I was told that it is basically bee spit mixed with some wax and flower goop and tree sap.

I’ll be honest, it tasted so good there was no way I was going to spit it out. I even bought a jar to take home.

I don’t care if they’re bee spit, they’re delicious. And apparently when enjoyed daily, prevent respiratory problems.

Propolis pearls are used as a tasty preventative medicine for respiratory problems.

Keeping the Lady Happy

The most beautiful thing about this Maya Melipona relationship is the patience, understanding and symbiotic symmetry the Maya have with the natural world.

All environmental factors are taken into consideration before placing a hive. The earth’s cardinal points plus the availability to the healing waters of the cenote system and even the gods that dwell in them.

A hives placement has to slip into the natural world with minimal impact to the surrounding jungle.

That keeps the cheeky little jungle spirits, the Alux (pronounced a-loosh) happy so they leave the beekeepers alone. Otherwise, they play tricks and throw stones.

There are stories of Alux luring children into the jungle to play before returning them the next day.

This is why even now, in traditional Mayan townships and farms you will find little altars where they leave some food to appease the Alux.

Alux alter in the jungle.
Alux altar in the jungle.

It also keeps the Melipona happy so they produce optimum honey yields.

As the shaman explained “Happy lady, happy me. If I keep the lady happy she blesses me with honey and health” so it’s all about keeping the lady happy.

Working with nature in a natural environment. Just as the ancestors have always done.

Listening to him, being in that moment, in the jungles natural space I felt a connection to the Maya.

Like my heart spanned centuries and connected to the intimate relationship and deep-seated respect they have with nature. With the lady, the Melipona.

Their core beliefs matched my own and it was in that moment everything changed. It sparked a love affair with the Melipona. One I’m sure will last a lifetime.

Those Potent Healing Waters

Curiosity got the better of me and so I asked “do the gods give the lady’s honey such healing power?”.

The four types of cenotes.
The four types of cenotes.

Yes. The gods, plus the special water found in the cenotes where gods live. The old Maya believed that a cenote was the gateway to the underworld. Therefore gods lived in them. This in turn gives them special healing properties. Small animals were regularly sacrificed and thrown into cenotes to appease the gods.

This belief holds true today. Ask any Mayan descendant and they all believe cenotes hold a special power. There aren’t any more animal sacrifices, but the core belief remains. I tend to agree. Being a cenote lover I have spent many hours swimming in them and they do hold a special power.

What’s a Cenote?

A cenote is a natural sinkhole found where the limestone ground has collapsed into the underground river system.

Being that cenotes are the only source of freshwater throughout the jungles of the Yucatan, it makes the Melipona honey extraordinary. Drinking cenote water is thought to infuse their honey with exceptional healing properties.

There are over 6,000 cenotes spread throughout the Yucatan. Created as the extreme heat of a great meteor impact rippled through the earth. It’s hypothesized that it’s the meteor impact that caused the extinction-level event wiping out the dinosaurs.

Jungle education center
Russel at the jungle education centre.

So perhaps they do hold special powers. Like Spiderman with his radioactive spider. Perhaps the Melipona honey is infused with ancient meteor energy carried through deep space. That would be one theory as to how its honey holds almost magical qualities.

All I know is that the Melipona is the true treasure in the heart of Mexico’s largest island. Its potent jungle honey is now a part of my daily life. I think of the lady each morning as a propolis pearl is popped in my mouth.

My connection to the lady, to these tiny bees, has been life-altering. Thankful, I’m all the better for it and feel a deep-rooted connection to the jungle around me.

Bel WoodhouseBel Woodhouseis a fun-loving Australian travel writer, photographer, and videographer based in the Mexican Caribbean. Head honcho at The Travel Bag and author of ’21 Reasons to Visit …” travel guide series, nothing is safe from her curiosity. Nature, eco-travel, spiritual travel, and immersing herself in different cultures are what she’s passionate about.