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Mayan honey producers fight the odds

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Hobones, clay pots used in artisanal honey production (replacing the logs used by the Mayans).
Hobones, clay pots used in artisanal honey production (replacing the logs used by the Mayans).

It’s been tough going for melipones, the stingless bees that produce honey for which the Yucatán Peninsula is famous. But human ingenuity has given hope to bee producers all over Mexico.

Maya communities on the Yucatan Peninsula have been keeping stingless Melipona bees for centuries, but it is estimated that there has been a 93% decrease in hives in the last 25 years.

Stephane Palmieri, president of the Melipona Maya Foundation, indicates that in recent years the number of swarms has been reduced by up to 80 percent in Quintana Roo, a figure confirmed also by an INEGI agricultural census. Currently 2,200 of these swarms are attributed to beekeepers indigenous communities, mainly in Yucatán, Puebla, Veracruz, Quintana Roo and Campeche.

But all is not lost, reports Vice Magazine, which sent a reporter to the town of Cuetzalan, in the Sierra west of Puebla,. They interviewed Ignacio Arriata Mendoza, a beekeeper who for 35 years has been faithfully devoted to melipona. He is part of the Tosepan Titataniske Cooperative, whose name means “united we stand” in Nahuatl, and which for 35 years has worked with the natives of the region to safeguard Mexican agricultural treasures, such as honey, coffee and peppers.

Tosepan is working to protect the Pisilnekmej bee, which is a melipona, because it is native to the region and has an environmental, social and economic importance to the community. It is also through seminars teaching the craft of beekeeping to the next generation. Producers sell their honey and other products of the Cooperative for a reasonable price, and then the Cooperative sells honey, pollen and propolis and used to make cosmetics.

Ignacio says his bee culture technique is almost the same as that used by the Maya. Instead of using tree trunks, they use pots, not wanting to damage the trees of the region. The method involves placing two clay pots placed vertically one above the other, to simulate the hollow of a tree inside. The Mayans called these hollow logs “hobones” and seal each end with red earth, leaving an inlet and outlet for the bees. Twice a year the trunk is opened for extraction and sealed again for another production cycle. Both Maya and indigenous communities now celebrate the harvest with a drink called “balché,” made with fermented honey and some tree bark.

Tosepan initiated a program for the collection, processing and marketing of virgin honey in 2003 with 120 farmers, who averaged 70 years old. Currently there are already 300 Nahua and Totonac producers, and they tend to be younger.

Stephane Palmieri, left, of Tulum, is helping honey producers in Mexico. Photo: Facebook
Stephane Palmieri, left, of Tulum, is helping honey producers in Mexico. Photo: Facebook

Stephane Palmeri, President of the Melipona Maya Foundation, and its environmental coordinator, Aniceto Caamal Cocom, promoted a project that began in 2013 in Tulum, which aims to export Mexican honey to France for the manufacture of cosmetics. The company Ballot Flurin accepted the agreement to donate to the foundation 10 percent of their profits, selling creams under the Apicosmetique line, which range from 17 to 80 euros.

In 2014, the Melipona Maya Foundation received 580,000 pesos based on this agreement. This money went entirely to the purchase of mother colonies and wooden boxes to increase the reproduction of bees.


The Grand Park Royal Cancun Caribe received its first delivery of toiletries containing the honey – which is supposed to have special healing powers – on time and on spec. Photo: Travel Foundation
The Grand Park Royal Cancun Caribe received its first delivery of toiletries containing the honey – which is supposed to have special healing powers – on time and on spec. Photo: Travel Foundation

Another group, the Travel Foundation’s Melipona bee project, ran a cooperative called Much Kaab, which sold honey-derived toiletries to the Grand Park Royal Cancun Caribe – on time and on spec. Guests in the VIP section of the hotel are offered a soap “cheeseboard” on arrival, with a choice of different soaps.

Related: A Facebook group devoted to the fate of the Melipona has the latest news.

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