Mongabay | By: Astrid Arellano | February 08, 2023

A team of Indigenous Yucuna women in the Colombian Amazon are rescuing and documenting the remaining oral knowledge on bees and their roles in the ecosystem, along with the traditional classification system of diverse bee species.

  • With the help of nine elders, they are documenting and sketching tales and songs to gather bee names, characteristics, behaviors, roles in their crop fields and the places where bees build beehives.
  • Biologists part of a bee inventory program and the women from the reserve are working to compare each other’s findings on bee species in the Indigenous territory, where researchers say bees are better protected than other regions of Colombia.
  • Some of the traditional tales and knowledge are even surprising to the women documenting it; they say the details and scientific information will be shared with the communities and local schools to raise awareness on the importance of protecting bees.

Je’chu, a god, first created bees so that their wax would cure the world. So goes the spiritual testament of the Yucuna Indigenous peoples of Colombia.

“He is our god and creator — our grandfather,” narrates Carmenza Yucuna Rivas, leader of the Miriti-Parana Indigenous Reserve in Colombia, located in the Amazon Rainforest. “And he created bees because there had to be a species protecting life.”

Therefore, during rituals, elders take a small piece of the beehive and, with the permission of its tiny inhabitants, they conjure an invocation over it. They then light it on fire so the emerging smoke blowing in the wind covers humanity, protecting us and helping us live well. This smoke is a sign of the harmony and peace that keeps nature balanced, according to their religious beliefs.

“Wind is the biggest connection between the beehive and nature, as it helps expand this knowledge and wisdom,” says Carmenza. “Beehives also help regulate the climate, drive sickness away, give us the opportunity to create chakras [food gardens typically using an agroforestry model with diverse plant species] and make them productive. They let us have something to cultivate or extract from nature in the first place.”

To rescue and document the remaining oral knowledge of the origin of bees in their culture and their importance to their ecosystems and territory, Carmenza is leading research about these species with 36 women from the 12 communities part of the Indigenous reserve.

“For thousands of years, they’ve been sacred species in our culture but no one had done this exploration,” says Carmenza. “We got interested in investigating the biodiversity we have as the bee species provide many ecosystem services and help conserve biodiversity.”

Since the second half of 2020, Carmenza and her colleagues have been going to each of the communities and speaking to elders to gather information, such as tales and songs that talk of the origin of the bees. They also draw to document the information. Each of them has taken the task of sketching the stories on paper to describe the insects.

Their aim is to classify the bees according to the cultural system of the Yucuna-Matapí, Tanimuca-Letuama, and Tuyuca-Macuna peoples, including their names, characteristics, and the places where they build the beehives.