The Great Honey Debate

Honey and comb

Honey and comb

The ruckus started with my post May 31 on the use of honey to heal wounds. I assumed that since the Lower Pecos region of south Texas has abundant wild bees and flowers to feed them today that would have also been the case in the Archaic period, about 4000 years ago, plus or minus, and that therefore the ancient people of the area would have used honey in various ways.

Then Steve casually dropped a bomb–after I published the blog of course–saying he had always heard that there were no honey bees (Apis mellifera) in the Americas until the first Europeans arrived. Apparently  bees escaped from hives the colonists brought to become the honey bees most of us know today.

Well, that threw me into a tizzy. Not only would I have to correct my blog, which is no big deal, but more BeesandFlowersCommunicate050313drastically, since I had given honey a prominent role in several key chapters of the novel I am writing about the ancient people of the Lower Pecos, I would have to change that. And I am so close to having a completed first draft! Only one more chapter to go!

I’ve already spent more than a year on this novel, researching and writing an admittedly crude draft, about 80,000 words so far. I am really looking forward to revising during this next year, bringing the characters more to life and making the whole thing flow. Don’t tell me a key premise is wrong!  Although better to find out now than two or three years from now when the book is published, right?

Maya bee log

Maya bee log

Well it turns out there are thousands of kinds of bees, not just the European Apis mellifera. For example, the Maya raised bees and developed an extensive honey culture thousands of years ago in Yucatan, and still practice beekeeping today. The bees they preferred were stingless Meliponini bees, which include over 500 species and generally occur in the tropics.

These stingless bees are quite calm and are often tended by children among the Maya. They live in log hives and produce a thinner, more liquid honey than that of the Apis mellifera. The Maya even had a god of honey, Ah

Ah Mucen Cab, Maya bee god

Ah Mucen Cab, Maya bee god

Mucen Cab, which is depicted over a door way at the ancient site of Tulum.

The thing that puts my mind at rest, however, is a distribution map published this year (2013) by the Natural History Museum of London that shows Meliponini bees in south Texas!   So, as a novelist, I feel safe now that I can put a little beekeeping in the Lower Pecos Archaic. Especially since archeologists and other researchers have rarely had the time or money to identify any bee remains in their samples. Looking for insects was not really their goal in the past. Hopefully, that situation can be corrected soon and we can find out what type of bees made the honey  ancient people of the Lower Pecos used on their cuts and scrapes.

As Eva Crane said in her definitive book “The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting,” (1991),”it seems likely that many species [of bees] are now less widely distributed than when human populations were much smaller,” like in the Archaic period.

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*Stingless Bee Distribution Map  http://www.nhm.ac.uk/research-curation/research/projects/bombus/pic_apini.html

8 thoughts on “The Great Honey Debate

  1. Who would have thought? I figured honey bees had been around forever! Good job doing your job on making sure everything is correct. I cannot wait to hear more….

  2. saved by the Mayan gods yet again !!
    Mary the photo of the log bee hive is exactly what i just saw in Nepal villages recently. these also were tended by children.

  3. Fascinating post, and how amazing to think the melipona might have been in what is today Texas. I wonder if the indigenous peoples might not have also used boiled sap of some kind for treating wounds. P.S. For anyone interested in bees in the Chihuahuan desert you might enjoy my interview with bee expert Cynthia McAlister. Here’s that link: http://www.cmmayo.com/marfa/TRANSCRIPTS/5-BEES.html

    Many regards!

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