A Woman’s Journey to Save the Maya Tradition of Beekeeping

A honeybee on a white flower.

A good beekeeper must possess good management skills and stewardship, which take both time and knowledge. (Image: Kojihirano via Dreamstime)

There are instances of big NGOs and environmentalists locking horns with governments and corporate agencies to preserve the environment. You can find news on litigation filed by such nature-loving entities on the web, from time to time. However, it is quite rare to come across instances of small-time farmers or individuals without much fame or money taking a tough stance on these issues. The example of a Maya beekeeper who dared to confront a giant company Monsanto to save the Maya tradition of beekeeping made headlines. Leydy Pech became a hero in her community and she also received accolades from leading environmentalist entities.

She started a legal battle to safeguard the locals and protect the habitat of indigenous bees. The lady who is called “the guardian of bees” was given the 2020 Goldman Environmental Prize for her efforts. For the ancient Maya communities in Mexico, the Maya tradition of beekeeping is a holy practice and its roots can be traced to 3,000 years back. The Yucatan peninsula, thriving with flowering plants, is a haven for raising bees and making honey. 

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Leydy Pech and her roots in the Maya tradition of beekeeping

Pech had a deep bond with the bees from her childhood. She said: “My relationship with bees has been ancestral. My grandparents kept bees and they mostly took care of a bee called Melipona beecheii. But the bee hives were kept in the forest, a more natural way of beekeeping. In my municipality, most families are beekeepers, and a large part of the honey production is exported to Europe. So beekeeping is a patrimony for Indigenous communities, and honey provides an essential income for Maya families.” (The World).

For the Maya tribes, the bee species named Melipona beecheii is not just an insect, but has also been an object of worship for centuries. This native bee is stingless and smaller than the European honey bee, Apis mellifera. The honey generated by these bees is called Xunan kab. The tribes deem it a sacred drink and they have used it for getting relief from many ailments. 

Mayan tradition of beekeeping being kept alive by families in Mexico.
Leydy Pech demonstrating the process of gathering honey. (Image: Screenshot via Youtube)

Locals witness losses

The company Monsanto got approval from the Mexican government to proceed with its plan to develop genetically modified soybeans. As the farmers in the region started harvesting genetically modified soybeans, it spelled doom for the local beekeepers. Pech was quick to notice how it was harming the bee population. Pech said: “When agricultural permits were given for GMO soy production, there weren’t adequate environmental studies conducted and our dependence on the forest for sustenance had not been taken into consideration.” (The World).

There were other side effects like deforestation, water contamination along with pesticide-related health problems. She observed that bees were dying at massive rates. The glyphosate used in soybean farming is said to be a carcinogen. Farmers were also using other pesticides and these were killing the bees. 

Pech started a movement to thwart the usage of glyphosate for farming. She organized women and leaders from nearby locations and held meetings. She got support from the mining organizations and a lengthy battle ensued. Pech was very vocal and she also organized protests at historic Maya sites. She felt the battle was not only about saving the bees and the Maya tradition of beekeeping, but also about protecting a larger ecosystem and a community relying on it for income and sustenance.

Farmers were also using other pesticides and these were killing the bees. (Image: Asferico via Dreamstime)

Their efforts led to a lawsuit being filed and the matter reaching the Mexican Supreme Court. The Mexican Supreme Court gave a verdict in 2015 saying the government has to consult Indigenous communities prior to harvesting genetically modified soybeans. The government was compelled to revoke the permit. However, the Mexican authorities did not abide by the apex court ruling fully. Pech laments that the new government did not show a changed attitude either. The Goldman Prize came as a boost to continue her fight for safeguarding the bees, the Maya tradition of beekeeping, and the environment.

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