Puebla Sierra Norte Native Bees Honey Mexico
The Sierra Norte de Puebla is a mountain chain in the north of Puebla state covering a surface area of 500,000 hectares, with peaks up to 2,300 meters high. Traveling from the city of Puebla, the state capital, towards the heart of the Sierra takes you across wide semi-arid plateaus until the climate becomes more humid and the cacti gradually give way to dense vegetation. The whole region has around 150 plant species, of which 90 percent are endogenous, and 170 bird species. The indigenous Náhuat and Totonaca people have developed a system called koujatkiloyan, or “productive forest,” that sustainably takes advantage of this biodiversity. Food is harvested from the forest, which is protected instead of being chopped down. The forest offers a mosaic of diversity in which wild species are found alongside cultivated species, following the traditional way of managing of natural resources. The farmers make their living by cultivating coffee, pepper (Pimenta dioica), vanilla, cinnamon and macadamia nuts and gathering wild fruits. Within this system, the native bee Scaptotrigona mexicana plays a fundamental role as a pollinator and dispenser of a flavorful honey, which according to Náhuat tradition also has medicinal properties.
Locally known as pisilnekmej, the bee is one of 46 species of Melipona (stingless bees) known in Mexico, and is endemic to the Sierra Norte. Its domestication dates back to the pre-Hispanic era. In other parts of the country, the native bees have been replaced by more aggressive, African bees brought by the Conquistadors, while in the Sierra Norte the native people have managed to protect them and still breed them in traditional mancuernas. These hives are made up of two terracotta pots, sealed with a damp ash mixture.
Honey production takes place between 400 and 1,300 meters above sea level. The producers prepare the mancuernas and position them in the forest near their homes. The honey is collected from April to June, on sunny days during the full-moon period. The producers separate the two pots using a machete, select the combs and manually extract the honey, then separate the hive’s other products (pollen, propolis and wax). They then reseal the mancuerna. The collected honey is left to ferment for a few months, then used by the families as a food and as a medicine. Traditionally it is used as a natural antibiotic for the respiratory tract and recent analyses have proven the honey’s anti-microbial effect. The liquid honey is spiced and piquant on the nose, and complex, sharp and citrusy in the mouth.
The Presidium was established in 2012 with the collaboration of the Tosepan Titataniske cooperative. The organization, whose name means “united we will win” in Náhuat, has been working in the Sierra Norte de Puebla for 37 years, developing projects with the local indigenous people relating to diverse areas like organic agriculture, the safeguarding of traditional culture, building low-environmental-impact houses and promoting health and education.
Since 1998, Tosepan has been coordinating the work of a group of producers who are teaching young people the art of beekeeping. Initially the group was made up of 40 beekeepers with an average age of around 70. Now there are 140 beekeepers in 18 communities in the municipality of Cuetzalan, with a much younger average age. The producers sell their honey and other mancuerna products to the cooperative for a fair price, then the cooperative markets the honey, pollen and propolis and uses them to make cosmetics.
The Presidium is working to protect the pisilnekmej bee, because of its importance within the traditional food production system and as a source of income for the families. Through various seminars it is also training new producers, introducing young people to beekeeping and promoting this unique and little-known honey to restaurants around the country. In recognition of the beekeepers’ important work, in 2011 Cuetzalan was declared the Pisilnekmej Native Bee Sanctuary.
18 communities in Cuetzalan municipality, Puebla state
140 Náhuat beekeepers, members of the Tosepan Titataniske cooperative
Leonardo Durán Olguín
Tel. +52 233 3310036