Maya slash-and-burn farming surprisingly good for bees

A sweat bee in Mexico. Photo: Science Daily
Maya bee
A sweat bee in Mexico. Photo: Science Daily

An ancient Maya farming practice that would seem to be destructive is actually beneficial to the bee population, reports Science Daily.

When farmers on the Yucatán Peninsula slash-and-burn forest to create small fields, sweat bees in turn find attractive habitats.

Which is a good thing, since farmers here depend on sweat bees to pollinate habanero chillies and other crops.

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A team of authors headed by Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, recently published their findings in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

Traditional farming practices on the Yucatán Peninsula originated with the Maya. Small parcels of forest are cut and burned, then the land planted with various crops. Afterwards the land lays fallow for a few years. This results in mosaic landscapes.

The cleared land lies adjacent to forests, other fields that are currently being farmed and stretches of pasture land.

“This diverse range of habitat provides excellent conditions for native sweat bees,” explains MLU Biology Prof. Robert Paxton. Paxton and PhD student Patricia Landaverde-González have studied 37 sites in Yucatán, where around 70 percent of all plants grown on the Yucatán Peninsula depend on pollination.

Overturning assumptions

“One would assume that such a destructive type of farming would have negative consequences for the diversity of pollinator species — particularly bees,” explains Landaverde-González. 

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The team of researchers collected and identified wild bees at all 37 field sites, experimentally measured the bees’ pollination services and carried out complex statistical analyses based on the collected data.

The Yucatán Peninsula is also known for its avocado, bean, passion fruit and star fruit crops, among others.

This MLU study also shows how important it is to balance moderate farming practices with the protection of forests. This is the only way to maintain ecosystem health and the life-giving services it provides us, concludes Science Daily. 

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