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Now reading The Stingless Bees of the Yucatán

The Stingless Bees of the Yucatán

An afternoon with one of the few Mayan beekeepers left.

We were visiting a beekeeper in the rural Yucatán. The only condition, my host told me, was that I couldn’t track where we were going via GPS.

I acquiesced immediately. I could never have found my way back without a trail of breadcrumbs, anyway: we were headed into a Mayan jungle, to a place, I would soon learn, without plumbing, where ancient pyramids sat in stone-rubble piles, and where the bees don’t sting.

Denis Larsen owns Casa Hamaca, a small bed-and-breakfast in the town of Valladolid, an hour and a half straight inland and a quiet, colonial world away from the raucous beach resorts of Cancún. When he first invited us on the adventure, I was hesitant. We had only a few days in the colonial hamlet, and we hadn’t yet been to the advertised attractions: the cenotes (natural underground pools used for swimming) and the Mayan ruins. But the previous night, as I listened to Denis talk to Nate, a part-time local, over a few beers on the porch, I realized that while the tourist attractions would always be here, the Mayan beekeepers were disappearing fast. Francisco, whom we were going to see, is one of a remaining group of only last sixty to one hundred people who still practice the tradition.

Two of Francisco’s daughters, their three children, and a dog were along for the ride. The dog and one of the children sat in the trunk. The two women and the other two children sat in the back seat. They didn’t bother with seatbelts.

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We were on a real highway for only the first twenty minutes. Then we turned: it would be ten miles inland—just over an hour—until we reached our destination. The minivan bumped slowly over rocks and through dried-up riverbeds. This was likely Denis’s last trip down before the rainy season began and the road would become impossible to traverse. The road in front of us crossed part of a sacbe, the ancient Mayan network of paved “white ways”—elevated, limestone-paved roads that provided the original inhabitants of the area year-round access to the rough jungle.

Then we were there. Half-dressed children, more dogs, and a few chickens tottered over to greet us. Directly in front of us were the beehives: vertical rows of hollowed-out logs creating an A-frame out of a skeletal wooden structure. Behind the hundred or so hives, there were a few low buildings—not much more than thin boards and big stones loosely stacked and sheltered by a palm roof.

Each hollow log hive, called a hobon, was over a foot long and half a foot in diameter. They each had a small cross carved into them, above a tiny hole. Unfortunately, somewhere between Francisco’s Mayan language being translated first into Spanish by his daughter, Gabi, and then re-translated from my rusty, decade-old Spanish into English, we were never able to ascertain exactly the purpose of the holes. (Later, a Google search told me the crosses were there because the bees have souls, and “it is there to protect them, as it does us.”) A piece of wood corked the end of each log, sealed with mud. Francisco and Gabi washed the leaves of a nearby Chacá tree, then used the leaves to wash the mud away. (The leaves, Francisco told me, have a sanitizing property that helps keep the hive healthy.) He took out a small metal knife and pried out the plug.

Inside, bees barely bigger than ants buzzed about in curved hives—nothing like the hexagons we’re used to. These looked as though the Sydney Opera House had been extended into an infinite illustration by M.C. Escher. Using a chopstick-like tool, Gabi scraped honey into a dried-gourd half. Against the white insides of the gourd bowl, the honey ran loose, a deep amber dotted with orange pollen and the occasional bee trapped in its own sticky substance. As she tried to return each stuck bee safely to its home, I put my finger in for a taste.

The honey was bright, as though infused with citrus. It was complex and savory, as though the bees pollinated a soy sauce bottle in place of a flower (and, in fact, the main crop of this species has historically been the tomato—a natural source of MSG). The pasty chunks of pollen burst when chewed, a savory version of the flavor crystals in chewing gum. The bees zipped around as I stood frozen, stunned by the flavor, dipping and re-dipping my finger into the sweet near-liquid.

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Forget the images of white safety suits and fishnet-like veils you might imagine on a beekeeper. Mayan beekeeping, like the bees themselves, is far less hazardous. It’s also far less fruitful: a similarly sized hive of the small stingless bees would produce two liters of honey in a period that European bees would produce fifty. For now, government-sponsored programs ensure that beekeepers like Francisco receive fair payment for the rarer honey, but it doesn’t hold the same promise of long-term, steady, guaranteed income. But, beyond the surface differences, Mayan beekeeping is a tradition fraught with spirituality, ritual, and ceremony. Today, a visitor is most likely to see the honey pop up in a luxury resort spa on the Riviera Maya, but centuries ago it was used to anoint, cure, and serve as an offering to the gods. In a conversation during my visit, Francisco shared the trump card that makes European bees—like those we know in the U.S.—easier to keep: The sting of the bees deters thieves.

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Gabi opened up a second hive, this one with a slightly different type of stingless bee. This one was deeper; the portion we could see was barely more than a thick spider web, tiny strands interconnecting across the opening of the hive. This honey ran almost clear, flecked with bright yellow pollen, and looking more like the metal-flecked liquor Goldschläger than anything you’d put in your tea. The higher water content makes it more of a drinking texture than a spooning one. I lapped it up, wondering if that was a minty-ness I detected or if I was still fixated on flavor-crystal gum. The third hive Gabi showed me was such a whirlwind I couldn’t even be bothered to detect the flavors. Instead, I was distracted by a young boy wielding a yellow bird.

He motioned for me to follow, and soon our whole crew—Denis, Francisco, his wife, three daughters, two sons, a few of their children, two dogs, my husband, and some rather scruffy chickens—walked about five hundred yards into the jungle. The whole area—by the hives, the house, and well into the jungle—was strewn with trash: plastic bags, glass Coca-Cola bottles, and yogurt containers. We followed the boy to a cenote—out in the jungle, it turns out, these caves, like the sacbe we passed on the way in, are a dime a dozen, strewn about the jungle like mushrooms on a forest floor. At first, I was hesitant—I was four-and-a-half months pregnant, and it was a rumored forty feet down a makeshift ladder into total darkness and onto rounded rocks surrounded by water. But then I remembered how I almost said no to coming to see the bees. I left my shoes, phone, and shirt at the top of the hole and slowly made my way down. One of the sons checked on me every few feet while another held a mirror up toward the opening of the hole, bouncing sunlight around the cave. There were two levels, each about the size of a train car, with rock sloping between them. I paused on the first before getting helped to the second, where the cool water lapped at my toes.

It was ninety-five degrees, and I was covered in a layer of sweat, honey, and jungle dust. The pull of the clear water—still see-through despite the near-darkness—was too strong. I slipped out of my shorts and into the water.

At the end of the day, we piled thirteen people (or fifteen—I couldn’t count them all) into the minivan and stopped at the ruins of a pyramid. If it wasn’t for their height, rising above the treetops, one might never know these were Mayan ruins—to the untrained eye, they were simply a hill with a few big rocks. One of the small kids pointed to a square stone the size of a microwave oven. A young man lifted it onto his own back and carried it back to the van: an ancient pyramid turned into a new chair.