The practice of beekeeping is older than many people may realize, as bees were raised in the Americas and the middle east thousands of years ago. The oldest known man made beehives used for raising bees existed in Israel around 900 BCE, and the oldest beekeeping operations in the Americas dates back to 300 BCE. Most people are under the impression that Europeans introduced beekeeping to the Americas, but the Mayan civilization raised stingless American bees in the Yucatan Peninsula several centuries before Europeans arrived in the region. The Mayans raised bees in order to make use of their wax, honey and royal jelly. These bee products were used during religious ceremonies and for medicinal purposes. In fact, the Mayans raised bees in order to prepare a hallucinogenic form of honey called balche.

The Mayans raised a native bee species now known as Melipona beecheii. This bee species is unique for producing a citrus flavored honey. The Mayans used this honey as a sweetener in foods and drinks until the Europeans introduced sugarcane to the region during the 16th century. Melipona honey is rarely used as a sweetener today; instead Melipona honey is used for medicinal purposes. This honey is believed to be useful for treating cataracts, asthma, sore throat and it is purported to be useful as a childbirth aid.

Ancient Mayans also worshipped the honey during religious ceremonies. These ceremonies saw a priest preside over the harvesting of honey twice per year. These ceremonies are rarely practiced by modern inhabitants of the Yucatan Peninsula today, but a record of the bee’s religious importance is well documented in the Madrid Codex written by the Mayans 1,100 years ago. This codex contains detailed information concerning proper beekeeping practices and describes the Mayan bee god known as Ah Mucen Kab. Today the Melipona bee population in the Yucatan is dwindling rapidly, and many experts fear that they will soon become extinct. However, evidence suggests that Melipona bees are migrating to Cuba where conditions are more suitable for their survival.

Were you aware that bee honey was cultivated in America before Columbus discovered the New World?