Melipona beecheii is one of several hundred bee species--almost all tropical meliponines--that produce abundant honey. This bee’s natural range extends from Mexico to Costa Rica. Originally a resident of tropical lowland forests, it was adapted to the variety and cycles of the forest resources, e.g., a major flowering period and honey storage phase during the dry season followed by a dearth of nectar and pollen during the wettest part of the year or during prolonged drought. Over the centuries, however, there has beeen extensive deforestation over much of its range and this bee now forages largely in second-growth habitats.
Because of its ease of management (the large forager size, long flight range, and numerous virgin queens for colony propagation are especially beneficial characteristics of Melipona for beekeepers) and excellent honey production, M. beecheii has been the preferred species for use by humans in its range. This species was apparently the only bee propagated using traditional husbandry techniques anywhere in the tropics. Rearing of M. beecheii was a culturally and economically important practice by the Mayans of the Yucatán peninsula long before the arrival of the Spanish in the New World and today beekeepers rearing these bees still keep them mainly in traditional log hives. Lopez-Maldonado (2005) explored the cultural significance of M. beecheii in the Mayan civilization.
Recent data indicate a radical decline in colonies kept by beekeepers and apparently in the wild as well. This bee appears to be threatened by both environmental changes and by inappropriate management and conservation efforts. These bees are very sensitive to pesticides (Valdovinos-Núñez et al. 2009). Overharvest and failure to transfer colonies to hives or divide them are apparently significant sources of problems for beekeepers keeping M. beecheii. Melipona beecheii is apparently rare in the wild, even in forested areas. It nests only in hollows within trees of ≥ 30 cm girth. Furthermore, the traditional practice of propagating domesticated colonies is not being taken up by younger generations of Maya.
There is substantial justification for serious concern about the status of M. beecheii. However, there is some hope that meliponiculture is poised for expansion in the New World and elsewhere, as suggested by these articles in the New York Times (Main 2012) and American Scientist (Youngsteadt 2012) and by recent efforts to improve and share methods for rearing meliponine bees (e.g., González-Acereto et al. 2006; Kwapong et al. 2010).
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