Thursday, October 9, 2014

Musings About Beekeeping in a Cemetery 03: Life and death among the tombs



A person probably normally thinks of a cemetery as a place of death. This is the last resting place of our loved ones. For the bees of Honduras it can be a place of life.


These graves often serve as an ideal nesting place for bees, from the ornery Africanized bees to the tiny stingless bees. They are able to live and thrive among the tombs and the dead.




I first really began to notice this on the day I had to help deal with a colony of Africanized bees that had moved into a mausoleum where someone needed to be buried (see the two previous blog entries). I don’t usually spend time in my town’s cemetery so I took advantage of being there to look around. 


It’s much different from the cemeteries of Wisconsin, where I grew up. Many of the people are buried in mausoleums build above ground, usually for six caskets. There were some graves just marked with a simple wooden cross but others were ornately decorated or surrounded by a small fence and bushes or flowers.


I wandered over to look at one ancient-looking mausoleum that was covered with interesting decorations. Right away I noticed the nest of small black stingless bees in the center of the structure.

The bees were lined up around the main entrance tube. Below that, however, were several structures that looked like “sacks.” Someone once suggested that maybe this was the way these bees would confuse predators with what the actual entrance tube would be.




I also had seen these same stingless bees in the walls that remained of an ancient church that was probably built some 300 years ago. Located in the middle of the small valley where I live in Honduras, I found several of these hives in the overgrown structure.




Unlike a normal honeybee, these girls don’t sting. Rather they try to bite (like an ant) or fly into your face and tangle in your hair. Annoying they are, but not dangerous.


Their normal nesting structure is also much different from the common honey bee. Their brood combs are much like a layered wedding cake. The combs lie horizontally and are separated by small pylons. The honey and pollen are stored around the brood comb in “honey pots,” round balls that the bees build and fill.


But these weren’t the only bees I found in the cemetery. Looking closely I began to see other colonies.


The smallest bee found was the “hemeritos o jimeritos” (tetragonisca angustula). In other parts they are known as mariolitas. Hondurans sometimes transfer these colonies into gourds or small boxes and hang them under the eaves of their house. They don’t make much honey but what they do produce is prized for its medicinal properties, especially for treating eye problems.


Their entrance is through a small tube they make. They will close it up at night to protect their colony


“Hemeritos o jimeritos” (tetragonisca angustula), that are also known as mariolitas. Their honey is prized for treating eye problems.


Other colonies were found of stingless bees whose names I don’t know. There are several hundred species around the world, many in tropical America.

One striking little bee was black except for its bright golden-yellow abdomen.  These may be what are called magwas (lestrimelitta) o limonete, according to José Martí Rosales Rodríguez, an expert on stingless bees from Nicaragua. He mentioned that these bees survive by raiding the nests of other species of bees, such as the jimeritos, to rob their honey and pollen.



This is possibly a colony of magwas (lestrimelitta) o limonete, stingless bees that survive by robbing the nest of other species of stingless bees.




An unknown species of stingless bees making their home in one of the graves.


The death associated with a cemetery was reflected in the status of the “royal Mayan bee” or Melipona beecheii. These stingless bees were not to be found, as is the case in most areas of Honduras. They are becoming more and more rare. All the other types of bees can adapt to living in the tombs but not the “white star bees,” which they are also called because of the structure they build around their entrance hole.



Colonies of Melipona beecheii, called the “royal Mayan bee” or “white star bee.” This colony was found hanging under the eaves of a farmer’s house. None were found in the cemetery since they normally only inhabit hollow logs. They are becoming extremely difficult to find in the wild due to deforestation.


Xunan kab, as they were called in the Mayan language, were considered sacred. They were actively kept by the Mayans, who used their honey in religious ceremonies and rituals. Their honey would be fermented into a mead-like drink.


They are kept the same way today as they were kept during the times of the Mayas—inside the hollow logs were they are naturally found. Most people will hang these hives underneath the eaves of their house. Either end of the trunk has a mud-covered plug which is removed to harvest the honey.




The mud-covered wooden plug that seals up the log containing a colony of Melipona beecheii. The owner of the colony will remove it to harvest the colony’s honey.


But today they are rare. It is difficult to find them in the wild. There is much deforestation due to agriculture and suitable hollow trees are hard to encounter.  Unlike other stingless bees, this is basically the only place where the “blanco estrellas” set up their colonies. 


During my 23 years of working with beekeeping in Honduras, I have never seen one of these hives in the wild. I have only seen what people have hanging below the eaves of their houses. I have always wanted to get some for myself but people are normally reluctant to part with them. Many times they are an heirloom, inherited from their father or grandfather. If they do decide they want to sell one, usually because they have an emergency and need some money, they ask too much. It is more than what I can usually afford.


This whole experience made me reflect a bit on my own death one day. When people comment that I am now a Honduran I always joke with them that I have already bought my plot in the town cemetery.  I think I might have to tell my wife or children to discretely leave a couple small entrances in my grave with the hope of a swarm moving in to keep me company. They can maybe make my final resting place a bit “sweeter.”

---Tom

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