Distraction Free Reading

Honey, let we tell you! A speculative trans-species storytelling of the Maya Forest borderlands

Editor’s note: This is the second post in an ongoing series called “The Spectrum of Research and Practice in Guatemalan Science Studies.”

Previous scholars largely confined their studies of European honey bee (Apis mellifera, including Africanized hybrids) communication to the waggle dance, with the communication range limited to food gathering, hive site selection, and other simple collective tasks. Recent advances in therolinguistic interpretation have demonstrated that a hive structure’s 3-dimensional matrix, including differentially-deposited pheromones and scent signatures laid in wax, contain additional, semi-permanently recorded content, though without a functional grammar. Rather than fully-articulated communication, the hive contains references to broader concepts—such as joy, woe, growth, care, loss, hunger, abundance, battle, defense, and so on. Reading waggle dances in hive context reveals that basic communication is often interwoven with broader narratives.

The following is a translation of three communication events recorded in a colony of Africanized A. mellifera living in Guatemala’s Mirador-Río Azul National Park, part of the larger Maya Forest of the Yucatán peninsula. The colony has been identified with a pseudonym, C7294, to provide anonymity in line with IRB nonhuman subject protocols—particularly to protect it from anti-A. mellifera sentiments. As non-Native species, the bees’ presence on the landscape is often interpreted as a foreign threat in need of eradication. Feral Africanized colonies in particular have long been identified as invasive byproducts of plantation agriculture, ecologically damaging to regions like the Maya Forest. Indeed, C7294’s presence in the region, like all A. mellifera bees, is grounded in human histories of colonization and control.

Yet here, we offer the bees’ own narratives of relations and encounters on the landscape, which disrupt this anthropocentric perspective. In the excerpts, the dancing bees describe encounters with members of other colonies—including secondary description of narratives passed between members of different colonies at foraging sites. It is unknown how these intercolony narratives are communicated outside of the hive context; the bees use the verb “dance” to describe the communications, though we do not yet know if these are in fact variations on the hive-bound waggle dance or if the verb is simply used to describe all bee speech acts. Related bee colonies can share similar dialects of dance language, such that mutual intelligibility is possible, though the third excerpt below indicates the more extreme possibility of communication across species.

A man on a natural path prepares a smoker to visit his conservation-supported beekeeping venture in Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, Mexico

A man prepares a smoker to visit his conservation-supported beekeeping venture in Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, Mexico. Photo by author.

I.

In the first excerpt, a C7294 forager recounts an encounter at a feeding site with a bee from another colony. Like the majority of A. mellifera stories, it includes instructions on direction, quality, and flight distance (expressed as strength of flight) to a foraging site. These instructions, according to tradition and etiquette, begin and end the narrative:

Honey, let we tell you!
The gathering place, east-southeast,[1] sweet fly weak.
We smell sister gathers there. We smell sister dances hairless primates, we smell sister dances dark-painted primates.
We smell vicious scent.
We smell sister dances honey theft. Liberty!
We dance sweet fly weak east-southeast, we smell sister dances sweet fly weak north-northwest.
We smell vicious scent. Liberty!
The gathering place, east-southeast, sweet fly weak.

The passage opens with the traditional forager greeting, “Honey, let we tell you!” Only first person plural is used in honey bee; see D’Arbay and Bardol’s interpretation of ant for a comparative grammar from another eusocial insect (Le Guin 1982).

Here we encounter a familial term conjoined with the C7294 forager’s source of information about the familial connection, pheromones (we smell/sister). Based on the encounter and repeated use of the familiar address, it appears the encountered bee is likely a member of the colony from which C7294 swarmed, making it one of C7294’s closest relatives.

This original colony—we will call her C7295—appears to be participating in a community-based conservation beekeeping initiative, such as that promoted by the Guatemalan Association of Forest Communities of Petén (ACOFOP), the Guatemalan NGO Asociación Balam, the German-led trinational Selva Maya program, or other conservation and development organizations in the region. Given the sister bee’s reference to “dark-painted primates” (indicating the use of UV-blocking sunscreen on human skin) and the C7294 forager’s identification of “vicious scent” (often used to refer to commercial insect repellents), the beekeeping initiative is most likely one with international involvement. The directional information left by C7295 indicates a location further southeast, perhaps in Uaxactún or another community-run forest concession in the eastern Maya Biosphere Reserve, or in a community in western Belize. The latter especially would point to international involvement.

Beekeeping projects have proliferated in the region, particularly with Africanized bees, which are preferred due to their abundant honey production. In these projects, local humans tend hives and sell honey as a sustainable non-timber forest product, while extralocal humans provide intermittent support such as training, hive boxes, marketing materials, access to international actors and markets, and other supplies and subsidies. The latter humans are sometimes of the region and sometimes from the United States or Europe (most likely to appear “dark-painted”), though all draw on project models and expertise imported from abroad.[2]

While abundant honey production of Africanized bees is considered a boon to these projects, these colonies are more defensive of their hives than non-Africanized bees, and may therefore discourage some human beekeepers. They are also more likely to swarm (asexually reproducing the colony by splitting it into two or more) or even to completely abscond from a hive in response to stress.

Here we propose that use of the term “sister” indicates a swarm that split, although repeated invocations of “Liberty!” in response to honey theft or chemical scents make this interpretation unclear. The exclamation is typically reserved for absconsion, and its use traces back to the earliest escape of Africanized A. mellifera from their origin in agroindustrial hybridization experiments in Brazil in 1957. Its use has since expanded to include all wholesale relocations of Africanized A. mellifera colonies, not only those responding to human action. It is possible that C7294 is using it here to remember her own departure from the human-managed project, or to encourage her sister colony to abandon the project hive in which she still lives. While A. mellifera can thrive in human-led hives, particularly if provided supplemental food sources during times of drought or food stress, frequent disturbance of the hive and extraction of honey can lead to abandonment. The latter can quickly undermine a beekeeping venture, along with unpredictable climatic effects on honey production, insecure market access, and withdrawal of external supports following the end of short-term NGO projects.

II.

The second excerpt is as follows, with notedly greater enthusiasm for the foraging site:

Honey, let we tell you!!!
The gathering place west-southwest, sweet sweet fly strong! The gathering place west-southwest, sweet sweet fly strong!!
We smell sister-daughter gathers there. We gather together we smell sister-daughter, sweet sweet fly strong!
We smell sister-daughter smells [of] death. We smell sister-daughter smells [of] red bird.
We smell sister-daughter dances west fly weak-strong, we smell sister-daughter dances death.
We smell sister-daughter smells [of] dark paint.
We smell sister-daughter dances The queen is dead! Long live the queens!
We smell sister-daughter dances death.
The gathering place west-southwest, sweet sweet!! Fly strong!!

This second encounter at a foraging site, with a member of a more distantly related colony (“sister-daughter” indicates a new queen lineage within a former sister colony), contains startling information. The formal announcement of a queen’s death to mark a new lineage is standard, but here the repeated invocations of death—both directly smelled by the C7294 forager and danced by the second bee—are highly unusual. “Death” almost always refers to colony death, not the death of an individual queen.

Several clues point to a particular culprit: the use of chemical insecticides in the nesting cavities of scarlet macaws (Ara macao, “red bird”) in eastern Laguna del Tigre National Park. The location of the second bee’s hive, to the southwest of C7294, supports this interpretation, as does the indication of international involvement through the smell of dark paint. While most chemical use is strictly regulated in Guatemala’s national parks – including in neighboring communities with settlement agreements that restrict the use of agricultural chemicals, including insecticides—the small-scale application of insecticides inside nesting cavities has been introduced as a macaw conservation measure.

Africanized A. mellifera and A. macao compete for nesting cavities in the area. Local macaw fledging success has increased dramatically as a result of intensive veterinary interventions into wild chick health (including supplemental feeding, deparasitizing, relocation to foster macaw nests, and other actions), led by the local branch of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society. Nest use by bees is considered a serious threat to the population, such that application of pesticides in cavity sites has been introduced as an additional protective measure for the birds.

While there is too little evidence on the use of familial terms between colonies to be certain, we note here the ironic possibility that the dying colony in question—killed by conservationists—is descended from one that absconded or swarmed from a conservationist-led honey project.

III.

The third and final excerpt was translated from a quorum session on the eve of C7294’s relocation due to drought stress. Drought has been increasing in the region, a trend expected to intensify with climate change. As a full-colony relocation, it begins with the traditional cry of “Liberty!” Unlike foraging communications, in which a single bee presents a dance, in relocation events multiple bees dance to present different potential hive sites. The text has been edited to reduce repetition from multiple dancers:

Liberty! We dance hunger.
The nesting place, north fly strong, we find no water. We dance hunger.
The nesting place, northwest fly weak strong, we find no water. We dance hunger.
The nesting place, south fly weak, we find no water. We dance hunger.
The nesting place, north-northeast fly strong, we find water, we find hairless primates, we find no vicious smell, we find no dark-painted. We dance abundance.
The nesting place, north-northeast fly strong, we smell sister sister bitter, we smell sister sister no defense.
We smell sister sister bitter dances drought. We smell sister sister bitter dances hairless primates and dances water.
Liberty! We dance hunger.
The nesting place, north-northeast fly strong, we dance abundance.
We will fly north-northeast!!
We will fly north-northeast!!
We will fly north-northeast!!

Here the colony site-seekers appear to have encountered a native bee (Melipona beecheii) colony, indicated by the use of repeated “sister sister” to indicate familial distance, along with the modifiers “bitter” and “no defense” (M. beecheii is known for its bittersweet honey and is stingless). While therolinguists have yet to fully understand M. beecheii grammar, having long dismissed it as a less sophisticated form of  honey bee communication, it appears that at least some communication is possible across species.

With a focus on M. beecheii conservation in the face of widespread deforestation of the Yucatán peninsula, the relationship between Africanized A. mellifera like C7294 and Melipona bees is usually described in terms of competition for both foraging resources and cavity nesting sites. Indeed, the arrival of feral Africanized A. mellifera in the region is often cited as contributing to M. beecheii’s decline (Villanueva-G, Roubik, and Colli-Ucán 1005). The possibility that collaborative communication is occurring between these species is thus of especial interest to therolinguists and conservationists alike.

Long before the recent community conservation beekeeping projects, native M. beecheii bees were longtime collaborators of Maya people in the region. While the arrival of the Africanized European bees has apparently threatened the survival of M. beecheii, many institutional environmental actors favor programs with the introduced bees due to their economic and epistemic scalability. Yet a few M. beecheii beekeeping ventures still remain, with uneven access to the institutional supports provided A. mellifera projects.

Given the directional information and the encounter with a human-supported native bee colony, we suspect that C7294 chose a relocation site in or near Calakmul Biosphere Reserve in Campeche, Mexico, most likely in the 20 de Noviembre ejido.[3] In this ejido, Maya community members continue to keep M. beecheii bees and use their honey for medicinal purposes and to produce tourist-oriented consumer goods like soaps, salves, and lotions. Nearby communities (ejido and otherwise) also engage in German Selva Maya-supported A. mellifera honey production, so the future recapture of C7294 or its descendants is possible.

Africanized A. mellifera colonies like C7294 share tendencies towards defensiveness, large-scale production, and frequent migration that at first seem to provide allegories of human action in the region. But in these texts, it is clear that their demonization as foreign others does not fully account for their ongoing collaborations with human conservation projects or other landscape inhabitants. As escapees of experimental breeding programs, their desires for liberty and abundance may also be read as displaying anti-oppressive beliefs, even as their harms to others should not be dismissed. Ultimately, more research on intercolony and interspecies bee communication is necessary, including narratives from nearby M. beecheii colonies, to better appreciate the lived worlds of Africanized honey bees in the Maya Forest.

Note: This is a piece of speculative fiction inspired by an Ursula K. Le Guin story. While, sadly, the ability to read complex bee texts is not “real,” the places, conservation projects, and dynamics described are. The stories are based on field research in Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize conducted in 2017-2018 with Melinda González. Desmond Ramirez provided bee communication insights.


Notes

[1] All directions have been translated from their original coordinates, expressed as angle from the sun’s azimuth, to compass points.

[2] See Brown (2006) for analysis of a similar beekeeping venture in Brazil.

[3] Ejidos are a form of communal land holding in which the Mexican state maintains formal land ownership while granting collective usufruct rights to rural communities.


References

Le Guin, Ursula K. 1983. The Author of the Acacia Seeds and Other Extracts from the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics. In The Compass Rose: Short Stories. New York: Harper.

Brown, Christopher J. 2006. Productive Conservation and its Representation: the Case of Beekeeping in the Brazilian Amazon. In Globalization and New Geographies of Conservation, edited by Karl S. Zimmerer, 92-116. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Villanueva-G, Rogel, David W. Roubik, and Wilberto Colli-Ucán. 2005. Extinction of Melipona beecheii and Traditional Beekeeping in the Yucatán Peninsula. Bee World 86(2): 35-41.

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