Abstract

This article examines the role of the stingless bee Melipona beecheii in beekeeping practices in the Yucatán Peninsula, México, in the nineteenth century. Native to Yucatán, the Melipona bee is capable of producing large amounts of honey and has been bred by Maya communities for over three thousand years. In the twentieth century, the Melipona population declined with the implementation of modern apiculture, a system designed to maximize the production of honey and wax with the European native honeybee, Apis mellifera. Previous scholarship on beekeeping has labeled the development of modern apiculture and the systematic expansion of the European honeybee across the Americas as a success story. However, these studies do not consider the cultural, economic, and social transformations brought by the introduction of Apis mellifera in environments that were already rich in bee biodiversity. In order to provide some clues about the impact of—and responses to—modern apiculture, this article focuses on the moment before this process occurred in the Yucatán Peninsula, when Melipona was still environmentally, culturally, and economically significant. The author argues that, far from being an unchanging cultural practice doomed to be superseded by modern apiculture, Melipona beekeeping continued to adapt in sophisticated ways to a modernizing world. During a period of upheaval, extraction of natural resources, environmental exploitation, violence, and Indigenous peoples’ defense of their land, the Melipona continued to be the only domesticated bee species used for beeswax and honey extraction in the entire peninsula during the nineteenth century.

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