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In Mexico, Israeli expat makes a buzz with refuge for endangered stingless bees

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COZUMEL, Mexico — When Nataniel Moshe Sagi first came to Mexico and learned about bees that don’t sting, he says he fell in love. He had no idea that such bees existed and was alarmed to learn that after being on this planet for millions of years, they were now in danger of dying out. So he uprooted permanently to Mexico and now runs a bee conservation sanctuary on Cozumel Island, where he keeps several species of stingless bees and gives tours to visitors.

“They are my friends,” the 24-year-old Sagi assures visitors to his bee sanctuary on a recent afternoon as he lifts the lid off a wooden box where his bees live. “They know the flower where they collected the pollen yesterday, so of course they know me. There are experiments showing that bees have great memory and they can recognize faces.”

Sagi has five species in his sanctuary. The best known is Melipona beecheii. It produces a thin honey that is sour — and delicious. The ancient Maya kept these bees in their villages for thousands of years, held ceremonies around them and even worshiped a bee goddess. They valued the honey for its medicinal properties, Sagi says — adding that it helps with eye infections and that the Maya believed it eases childbirth — and even made an alcoholic beverage from it.

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In the 16th century, Spanish friar Diego de Landa noted in his book that “they make wine from honey, water and the root of a certain tree that they cultivated for this purpose,” saying the drink “was strong and smelled foul.” The bees were so important to the Maya that in the Madrid Codex, one of only four ancient Maya books that survived to our time, an entire 14 pages are devoted to bees, Sagi says.

Another species in his sanctuary is tiny. Sagi says that this bee — called the Plebeia mourena — might be the smallest social bee in the world. Nataniel Sagi discusses the bee species he keeps at his sanctuary on Cozumel Island in Mexico, March........

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