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The Ladies of Honey: Protecting Bees and Preserving Tradition

Ledy Pech with the Ladies of Honey

May 10, 2021

Bees play a critical role in the health of our ecosystems and the economic welfare of people around the world. Though many species of bees are at risk of becoming endangered, countless apiculturists are fighting to save them. Among them are the Ladies of Honey, a collective of Indigenous Mayan beekeepers in Mexico dedicated to protecting their local land, wildlife, and cultural traditions.

The Power of Bees

There are over 20,000 species of bees in the world—and all of them are vital to our ecosystems and global food supply. Roughly 75% of the world’s flowering plants and 35% of the world’s crops rely on animal pollination to reproduce. Successful pollination improves the quality of crops and increases the amount of produce crops can generate, in turn helping sustainable farmers maintain their businesses. In fact, between $200 and $600 billion worth of annual global food production depends on pollinators.

Bees are particularly adept pollinators, since they spend their days flying long distances to cross-pollinate plants and flowers. Without different species of bees pollinating the planet’s crops and wild plants, food sources would dwindle and ecosystems would become unbalanced.

Xunan Kab bees (Melipona beecheii)

The Risks Bees Face

Bee colonies across the world are suffering from the effects of climate change and urban development. Not only does extreme weather disrupt bees’ seasonal behaviors and pollination schedules, but bees are also losing their natural habitats as a result of deforestation, construction, and invasive farming practices. The increasing use of pesticides on crops has also contributed to the decline of bee health and longevity.

Corporate practices are another threat to bee survival. Bee colonies are at greater risk when oil companies and agribusinesses take over local communities. One such example is Monsanto (now owned by Bayer). In 2012, aided by the Mexican government, the agrochemical company began clearing forests and planting genetically modified soybeans in the Yucatán Peninsula, contaminating the local honey and jeopardizing the area’s food supply.

2020 Goldman Prize winner for Mexico Leydy Pech, surrounded by flor de tajonal, a source of nectar and pollen for bees and other pollinating insects in the region.

Mayan Beekeeping Culture: Preserving an Ancient Tradition

Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula is home to hundreds of thousands of Indigenous Mayans, many of whom have spent their lives preserving a 3,000-year-old cultural and religious tradition: beekeeping. They’ve focused mainly on domesticating colonies of Melipona beecheii, a native stingless bee species that pollinates the Yucatán forests and is essential to the area’s food supply.

Today, Mexico is the sixth largest producer of honey in the world, and 40% of the country’s honey comes from the Yucatán Peninsula. Over 25,000 families in the Yucatán state of Campeche, many of whom are Mayan, depend on honey to earn a living.

Though beekeeping has historically been a man’s job, the all-female Colectivo de los Mayas is setting a powerful example of both cultural preservation and environmental activism.

Marrying Beekeeping with Activism

One of the collective’s most prominent members is Leydy Pech (Mexico, 2020), a Mayan beekeeper born and raised in Hopelchén, Mexico. As a member of Koolel-Kab/Muuchkambal—an organic farming and agroforestry cooperative made up of Mayan women—Leydy is a fierce advocate for sustainable development in the local Mayan communities.

When she first saw the effects of Monsanto’s genetically modified soybeans on her homeland and local honey production, Leydy mobilized the Colectivo de los Mayas to file a lawsuit against the Mexican government. The group organized protests, rallied local communities to sign petitions, and pushed academic institutions to study the harmful effects of the soybeans.

Due to the coalition’s efforts, Monsanto’s permits were revoked and the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that the government must consult Indigenous communities before planting on their land. The victory was monumental, not just for the Ladies of Honey and their communities, but for the rare and important bees they work so hard to protect.

Leydy Pech and members of Muuch Kambal making soap from honey and milk.

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