If you were inclined to subscribe to a “100 mile” diet, Huatulco is a pretty good place to live: all the fish and shrimp you can eat, shade grown coffee, mescal, fresh cheeses, sun-ripened fruits and vegetables, stone ground corn for tender tortillas, and of course, honey. Bees are what make the agricultural world go round. The relationship between bees and flowers is much like the conundrum of the chicken and the egg. Which came first?
The Mayas of Yucatan have been cultivating bees and using honey medicinally, in spiritual practice and as a powerful foodstuff for thousands of years. The Yucatan bee is the Melipona, that same loyal little fellow who figured so largely in Mexico’s domination in vanilla production for centuries (see my story on Vanilla in Huatulco Eye October 2011 ). Not only are they sensitive little bees who like a small sustainable range (a “3 mile” diet suits these winged muchachos), but they are stingless. That’s right, no stinger; early beekeeping in Mexico, and indeed right up until the mid 1990s, was a pretty painless endeavour.
However, in the 1950’s, when Mexico was 3 in world honey exports, and Brazil was about 17 th , Brazil imported African honeybee queens. The African bees are a bit bigger and fly longer distances, and thus are bigger honey producers. Brazil proved successful in that quest, placing third behind China and Argentina in world honey exports just last year; this success is more than a little bittersweet. The African honeybee marched northward like a conquering army at a rate of 300 to 500 kilometers a year. They reached the Yucatan in 1986, and Texas in 1990. Like most invading armies, their reputation preceded them, and news stories began to appear about their aggressive attacks.
The nature of beekeeping was about to change. Around the same decade, there were two other forces at work against the Melipona, one man, and one nature. Malathion, a chemical used in mango farming to control seed weevils and fruit flies, also killed bees when applied at the wrong time of the growing cycle. As well, a world-wide wave of varruo mites smacked Mexican honeybees, and surprisingly, the African honeybees proved resistant to the mites. The African honeybees flourished, and by 2000, Mexican honey production was right up there again with those conquerors dominating the hives. In fact, the African bees were being touted as the saviours of the Mexican honey business. But as with most success stories, there is a downside – a cultural and ecological fallout.
The honey business in the Yucatan (40% of all honey produced in Mexico) was dominated by a few Yucatecan rich families allied with US export companies from WWII till the 1960s. Experienced in modern beekeeping through their commercial work, Yucatecan farmers regained control of their communal forestlands, and evicted the commercial hives around this time. Thus began co-operative beekeeping and honey production, typically a family affair, with a couple of hives outside the house, near the fields of corn and tomatoes. The aggressiveness of the Africanized bee has threatened this rural sustainability model as farmers have had to move their hives away from their families and populated areas. And sadly, the decline of the Melipona is also threatening local eco systems. “Smithsonian entomologist David Roubik points out that the stingless bee, rather than non-native species, has been essential to the pollination of tropical forest plants, and when the bee is in peril, so is the local ecology. He and his colleagues have produced instructional material in Spanish and Mayan languages to promote the propagation of stingless bees, thereby building up a breeding stock to be reintroduced into the wild.” As well, SAGARPA, the Mexican government’s agricultural arm, has a “Queen” program where beekeepers are able to purchase a Melipona queen for their hive for about $150 pesos.
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” Muhammed Ali taunted Joe Frazier with this statement, which is one of the most easily recognized quotes of our time. Like Ali, the African honeybees pack a big punch. These aggressive Africanized bees take over hives with a weakening queen, or even attack a strong hive in military-like strikes using scouts and camouflage scent. Their sting is no more or less painful than any other bees’, but characteristically they become hysterical when disturbed and will attack en masse, chasing their victim, often with fatal results.
If you are a hiker or gardener, read this guide: http://www.saudicaves.com/mx/bees/index.htm and always have Avapena on hand. Avapena is an antihistamine made by Sandoz, available in most Mexican pharmacies, and recommended for scorpion and insect stings. Directions: take one and head for the hospital. (active ingredient chloropyramine hydrochloride).
Ah, that was a nasty but necessary digression from a very sweet topic. Why is honey so prized and revered that beekeepers would risk their lives for its production? Besides the obvious agricultural necessity for bees, honey is an amazing byproduct, with three unique properties.
First, it is hygroscopic, which means that it naturally absorbs moisture in from the air. In treating open wounds, honey is useful, preventing scarring by keeping the skin moist, encouraging the growth of new tissues, and allowing easy removal of any dressing. For the same reason, it is used in moisturizers, creating a renewing moisture barrier for the skin. Second, it is antibacterial. Honey is one of the only foods that will never spoil. It contains an enzyme that produces hydrogen peroxide, thought to generate honey’s antimicrobial agent which in turn prevents the growth of bacteria. Third, it is a source of antioxidants that can destroy biologically destructive chemical agents that cause a number of cell changing diseases. So, in a smog and stress laden world, honey is a superfood that can keep your body balanced.
And most importantly, it is delicious. As a natural sweetener, honey has long been used in Mexican baking; in recent years, commercial use has risen, mostly due to consumer pressure for organic and unprocessed ingredients. Honey is used for sopapillos, which are like a little Mexican donut, and also for the very traditional Rosca de Reyes, an oval-shaped bread served on Three Kings Day. But it is too hot to use the oven in June, so I am sharing one of my favourite hot weather salads. Provecho!
Kathy Taylor is a freelance writer who arrived in Huatulco in 2007 by sailboat. Her passions are food, sailing and Mexico. She writes about life in Huatulco on her blog: http://www.lavidahuatulco.blogspot.com/