|Two copies of bee images -- one of which may be in front of a hive -- |
in the Madrid Codex,taken from "Animal Figures in the Maya
Codices" (1910) with modification by the author.
That's right, the ancient Maya kept bees too! But they didn't keep honeybees, which belong to the genus Apis. Instead, the Maya back then raised one (or perhaps more) bees from the Melipona genus -- made up of "stingless" bees, or bees without stingers that work. The history of this activity kept on even past the Conquest and into today -- its modern name is meliponiculture.
So far, it looks like the specific part of the Preclassic Period called the Late Preclassic is the oldest time that archaeologists know there were beekeepers among the ancient Maya. As to where it began in the Maya area, one possibility is a smaller area that included a part of Guatemala, Mexico and Belize. Another source states that the first Maya keepers of stingless bees came from the Yucatan Peninsula.
As you read, the Maya kept at least one kind of stingless bee, these kinds of bees being species that cannot sting. The particular species that we know the ancient Maya kept from was Melipona beecheii. (They may have kept others species. In fact, one book used as a reference for this article said that they also raised species of the genus Trigona.)
Two common names and some spellings for M. beecheii are xunan kab/xunaan kaab/xunan cab and colelcab/kolil kab, which you may see translated as "royal lady bee," "lady bee," or other similar terms. For making hives, xunan kab only pick trees that have become hollow -- and the space in a tree has to be at least 12 inches or so across. They're known to be good pollinators of certain plants including vanilla, though they don't pollinate as many flowers when they're out and about as other bees in the same genus.
From what's understood, the ancient Maya kept their bees in hives that were hollowed out logs -- though some used other things, like limestone -- with the sides plugged up and with a hole on one long side as an entrance/exit. Archaeologists have found disks made of stone that they think were plugs for hives' short sides-- they've found this kind of disk in the Postclassic, Preclassic and Classic Periods.
The ancient Maya took both honey and cerumen -- or wax -- from their bees. The ancient Maya used xunan kab wax as a sort of lighter fluid for their torches. However, this wax not only spits but smokes when you light it, so when it comes to burning solid pieces of wax, honeybee wax is better for burning.
As for the honey, it has a texture that is thinner than honey from honeybees (of which a popular variety is Apis mellifera.) Its color is also darker, and the flavor of it is not the same as honeybee honey. One way the ancient Maya used it was in their cooking, using it, for example, as an ingredient in chocolate drinks. Another way they used honey was for religious purposes: as an ingredient in a drink used in rituals called balche -- a fermented mixture of honey, balche/balché (Lonchocarpus longistylus) bark, and water -- and as an offering to gods. A third way they used honey was in medicinal practices -- like honeybee honey, xunan kab honey's chemical makeup includes hydrogen peroxide, which can kill bacteria.
It seems that the ancient Maya had more than one god of bees. But one that we know about is Ah Mucen Kab. (You may also see other spellings, such as "Mucen" given instead as "Mucan," "Musen," or "Muzen.") the Madrid Codex, you can see pictures of bees, hives and gods next to beehives -- such as Itzamná (god D) -- in pages that you may see called the bee almanac. Archaeologists think they've found examples of beehives and an image of Ah Mucen Kab as parts of the design of an incense burner/icensario/censer (from Cozumel) that may have been made around 1450 AD.
On a related note, there's a theory that says the ancient Maya thought of one of the Hero Twins, Xbalanque (also known as Yax Balam) had a connection with bees.
Here's a 2011 video on the xunan kab (that I've also used as a reference) -- it includes some of what life is like for them and Maya beekeepers in modern times:
"University of Michigan Undergraduate Research Jounral" Volume 7: "Ancient Maya Beekeeping (ca. 1000 - 1520 CE)" Dylan M. Imre; 2010
"Pot-Honey: A legacy of stingless bees"; Patricia Vit, Silvia R.M. Pedro, David Roubik (editors); 2013
Stanford University: "Cultural Factors in the Survival ofStingless Bee Domestication (Meliponiculture)among the Yucatec Maya"; Genevieve Dezso"; June 2014