A Noble Mission: Women Dedicated to Rescuing Bees in Mexico City

by Michael Nguyen
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In the bustling districts of Mexico City, a remarkable group of women is undertaking a crucial mission to safeguard the city’s bee population. Draped in white bee suits, their determination rivals that of brain surgeons. One such woman, Adriana Velíz, concentrates intensely as she requests a knife—a tool she wields with precision and care.

Velíz, leading a predominantly female team, diligently works hive by hive to relocate thousands of bees facing extermination within the crowded confines of Mexico’s capital. Their collective, known as Abeja Negra SOS, was established in 2018 when Velíz, a former veterinarian employed by the city government, observed that authorities routinely exterminated beehives in response to public calls. Recognizing the need for an alternative approach, Velíz and her colleagues embarked on a search for a solution.

“Our rescues are driven by the urgency to protect a species that faces the threat of extinction,” explained Velíz, who now works with Abeja Negra SOS. “We offer an alternative to prevent emergency teams from eradicating the bees, giving them a second chance.”

Bees worldwide have experienced a devastating decline in recent decades, with the United States alone witnessing a 25% loss over the past 40 years. Earlier this year, millions of bees in southern Mexico fell victim to pesticides, prompting beekeepers to mourn their tragic fate. Human activities such as the use of harmful chemicals, habitat destruction, and climate change are often cited as primary factors contributing to this decline. Scientists and global leaders warn that the diminishing bee population could have far-reaching and adverse consequences.

In 2019, the United Nations sounded an alarm, highlighting that bee loss “poses a serious threat” to global food security. Adriana Correa Benítez, a bee researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, emphasized the potential challenges for Mexico in mitigating climate change if bees continue to vanish. “Bees not only pollinate the food we consume but also native plants that regulate the entire ecosystem. Considering the significance of reforestation in light of climate change, their role becomes even more vital.”

Over the past five years, Abeja Negra SOS has traversed the expansive city of 9 million people, rescuing bee colonies from trees, street gutters, and lamp posts. They have successfully relocated approximately 510 hives, each housing an average of 80,000 bees. In a recent scene on a Thursday night, Velíz peered into a hive lodged inside a street lamp, no larger than a small melon.

With deftness and tenderness, Velíz delicately cut along the hive’s side, murmuring a gentle “shhh,” as if soothing a child. Her knife glistened with honey as she extracted the honeycomb and placed it within a wooden square frame, which she then slid into a wooden box. Tonight’s rescue, Velíz noted, was fortunate—the colony was small and docile, affectionately referring to them as “hippie bees.”

As they proceed, the team diligently searches for the queen, a critical element in rehabilitating the bees and ensuring a seamless relocation of the colony. Velíz’s keen ear detects the queen’s presence as the bees’ frenzied buzzing mellows into a soothing purr. Due to their African heritage, many bees in Mexico can exhibit heightened aggression compared to typical honeybees. This can pose challenges in large cities, where residents often perceive these insects more as threats than vital contributors to the environment.

Velíz revealed that the team of around a dozen bee handlers primarily consists of women. “While we initially tried to work with men, it seemed they were drawn to the danger,” Velíz said. “We soon realized that it wasn’t a practical approach, so we began exclusively hiring women. It became evident that we could accomplish the same tasks as men, and oftentimes, even better.”

Once safely nestled inside the box, the rescued hive is transported to the rural outskirts of the city, allowing the bees to recuperate and thrive. Later, they are either donated to local beekeepers or released into the wild. The team has faced challenges since they charge a modest fee of over $300 for hive removal, primarily to cover logistical expenses. Consequently, many city dwellers still find it easier to summon firefighters, who exterminate bees free of charge.

Nevertheless, as Abeja Negra SOS has expanded its operations, their endeavors have generated a buzz of admiration, inspiring other groups to emerge and join the cause. “While we may not be changing the world with what we do, we are certainly transforming our city’s situation,” Velíz reflected with pride.

Contributions to this report were made by Fernanda Pesce, a journalist from Big Big News.

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