Mayan bees and the honey of the Yucatan Peninsula

Honey is Mexico's liquid gold: the country is one of the world's leading producers of honey. This succulent substance is produced by the Mayan bees.

Mayan bees and the honey of the Yucatan Peninsula
Mayan bees. Photo: Ciencia UANL

Honey is Mexico's liquid gold, as the country is one of the world's leading producers of all kinds of honey. Most of this succulent substance is produced in the Yucatan Peninsula by the Mayan bees for the international markets.

The nickname "liquid gold" is not out of place, because in economic terms this agrifood good generates annual revenues of up to 123 million dollars, so it is considered one of the main livestock activities that generate foreign exchange. In addition, it is an important socio-economic activity for the whole country, as it is a source of income for 43 000 producers and their families.

In Mexico, the form of commercialization, both for export and for the most important national consumption, is in bulk; this means that there is no differentiation between kinds of honey, that is, they come from different regions, from different producers, and are all mixed in the collection centers or processing plants.

Initiatives have been generated to add commercial value and bring honey to the market in a differentiated way. Because per capita consumption of honey in Mexico is very low (250 grams per year) compared with the international market (up to 1.4 kg in Germany) it is thought that if the distinction is achieved in the kinds of honey for sale, it would bring a direct economic benefit in terms of exports since international consumers are the most demanding with the specific characteristics of honey.

Liquid gold

The sweet substance produced (collected, processed, and stored in their combs) by bees from flower nectar or exudations from other living parts of plants is called honey. It consists mainly of sugars (glucose and fructose) and small amounts of other compounds such as acids, proteins, enzymes, minerals, vitamins, pigments, and volatile compounds.

Each honey has a particular chemical composition, depending on the geographical origin of the flora and nectar, the environmental conditions, the producer's handling at the time of extraction, the storage conditions, and the treatment it was subjected to in the processing plant. Thus, the organoleptic properties of the honey (taste, color, smell, and texture) allow it to be recognized and differentiated. Transported into the commercial food environment, this is used as a factor in choosing honey, in the same way as it is done in a wine or olive oil tasting. Thus, although this differentiation can be made, generally in Mexico honey is stored in bulk, except for a few artisanal producers who have begun to characterize their beekeeping product for sale.

Mayan bees
Mayan bees

The golden Yucatan Peninsula

The Yucatan Peninsula consists of much of the Petén region of Guatemala, a small part of the eastern appendix of Tabasco, almost the entire state of Campeche, and the states of Yucatan and Quintana Roo. It is a different province from the rest of the Mexican territory due to its biogeographical characteristics, since the set of its physiographical features, climate, soils, and hydrography results in a very peculiar flora and fauna; it even sustains its unique character due to endemic species.

The experts call primary vegetation the flora that has reached its maximum development in the process of regeneration, which has been maintained for a long time in that state, that is, that has not been modified by human activities or recent natural events; while they refer to secondary vegetation as that which develops after a natural or human disturbance as a result of the process of ecological succession. In the peninsular flora, there are some species of primary and secondary vegetation that, due to their abundance, are important for their nectar production, resulting in a diversity of kinds of honey that are recognized by beekeepers. The floristic richness of the Yucatan Peninsula is so vast that approximately nine hundred species of plants are visited by bees.

Since the origins of the Mayan civilization, honey and wax have been produced in the peninsula from the cultivation of stingless bees (Melipona beecheii), and although melipon farming is still practiced today in the peninsular Mayan area, at the beginning of the 20th-century beekeeping (breeding of the European bee Apis mellifera) was developed in parallel. Due to the floral diversity and resources of the area, European bees adapted and multiplied successfully.

The type of flowering visited by the bees depends on the prevailing vegetation in an area and the time of year in question, which leads to the presence of different types of honey during the year. Therefore, if the botanical origin of the kinds of honey were known, it would be possible to have quality control that would allow them to characterize them according to the type of pollen grains that each one contains. They are called monofloral when there is a 45% dominance of one type of pollen, and multi-floral when there is no predominance of one. In other words, the diversity of kinds of honey in the Yucatan Peninsula is a consequence of its biological diversity.

Considering the annual honey production in the Yucatan Peninsula from a specific flower, 42% comes from tajonal, which blooms from December to February; 48% from ts'its'ilche, which blooms from March to May; and 8% from a wide variety of leguminous flowers and vines that open their petals from June to October. The honey from each period has been characterized; for example, those from vines have high humidity but are rich in enzymes, those from tajonal have low humidity, crystallize, and are clear, while those from ts'ilche are aromatic and have high mineral content.

Mayan bees
Mayan bees

Designation of origin

An appellation of origin is the geographical designation of a country, region, or locality that makes it possible to recognize a product originating therein, the quality or characteristics of which are due exclusively or essentially to the environment, including both natural and human factors.

It seeks to protect local knowledge and know-how, including production methods, i.e. the "know-how" of generations in a given region. In this sense, the objective is to promote the denomination of origin as an instrument of differentiation and valuation in the production and commercialization of the honey of the Yucatan Peninsula.

Botanical origin

By analyzing the pollen in the honey, it is possible to know if the bees that produced it pecked out flowers of a single species (honey which is called mono-flower) or of several species (multi-flower). Moreover, if its organoleptic properties are linked to a very short flowering period, then this sweetened substance could be offered with a higher value on the market.

Geographical or environmental origins

The product is designated by the name of the place of its production or manufacture, associating the raw materials and the method of harvesting shared by the people living in those areas, so that all beekeepers or honey producers in the defined region would share the name of the designation. At present, honey obtained in a traditional way by collective marks created by producers' organizations in the same area are on the market.

Like the flower, like the taste

The characteristics of each honey, such as the softness, creaminess, subtlety or intensity of its flavor, perfume, the acid, salty or bitter touch, depend on the flowers that the bees visit, the location of the beehives, and the time of the year of harvest. The color of the honey is the first quality we perceive and, besides evidencing its floral origin, it reflects the minerals it contains, its freshness, and storage conditions. In the international market, the color of honey is described by the Pfund scale, a progression of colors that begins with white is associated with soft honey, and reaches dark amber, linked to more intense flavors.

There is honey for all tastes, so here are some descriptions of honey according to the flower that bees peck at:

K'an chunúup (Thouinia paucidentata). Extra light amber color (25 to 40 mm Pfund) with a light yellow appearance, medium crystallization, floral and herbal odor, sweet and mild taste.

Ha'abin (Piscidia piscipula). Light to dark amber color (49 to 87 mm Pfund) and texture with liquid and solid phase. Its tendency to crystallize is slow. Its flowering season overlaps that of ts'its'ilche and its moisture content is low. It has a caramel smell, as well as a taste, with sweet, sour, and spicy notes. It is considered strong honey.

Tsalam (Lysiloma latisiliquum) Clear, white to extra light amber (31 to 38 mm Pfund); because it is harvested in the rainy season, its moisture content is high and generally liquid and transparent. When harvested at maturity, it presents a fine crystallization. It is tasty, aromatic, and has a soft consistency. Due to its characteristics, this honey has a better chance of entering the market as a differentiated monofloral.

Chakàah (Bursera simaruba). Its color ranges from extra light amber to light amber (38 to 68 mm Pfund); when harvested it is liquid and transparent, but it has a tendency to crystallize quickly due to its low moisture content. It has a floral smell and a sweet taste with a very particular waxy note.

Box káatsim (Acacia gaumeri). Its color varies from extra light amber to light amber (44 to 54 mm Pfund). It is generally liquid, with a tendency to slow crystallization and high moisture content because it is harvested in the rainy season. It has an herbal smell with a sweet and waxy taste.

Sak káatsim (Mimosa bahamensis). It is a light yellow honey, in the white to light amber category (38 to 58 mm Pfund). Liquid and transparent, it foams when shaken due to its high moisture content. It has a herbal smell and a sweet, fermented, and acid taste.

Tajonal (Viguiera dentata). Honey with yellow tones, white to light amber color (22 to 54 mm Pfund). Generally liquid, its flowering is late and overlaps Thouinia. It tends towards medium crystallization and its smell is floral, with a herbal note and a sweet taste of soft caramel.

Ts'its'ilche (Gymnopodium floribundum). It is liquid and amber-colored, its smell reminds of its floral perfume and its flavor is sweet at the beginning but later its spicy or astringent component predominates, so it is considered strong honey.

There is no doubt about it, without flowers of primary vegetation there can be no honey characteristic of the Yucatan Peninsula. Similarly, without bees to pollinate, there are no flowers, and without organs to pollinate, there is no honey.

Not everything is honey on a stick

It all sounds perfect and relatively simple, a lot of work, but there are several difficulties; for example, the planting of transgenic crops in the regions where Yucatecan bees are pecking. This is a serious problem since the possible contamination of honey by transgenic pollen from a crop not authorized for human consumption would prevent it from being marketed in the European Union. It is a problem of regulation; if the honey from the peninsula has more than 0.9% pollen from a transgenic crop authorized for human consumption, then the liquid gold can be sold in international markets but requires special labeling indicating that it contains transgenic ingredients, which could lead to a reduction in its sale since it is known from market studies that consumers in the European Union opted for organic honey.

As if this were not enough, the implications of planting transgenic crops go beyond the commercial sphere of honey, as they directly affect the ecological balance of the area. To install these genetically modified plantations, it is necessary to deforest thousands of hectares of forest, that is, to eliminate the vegetation essential for obtaining the characteristic honey of the Yucatan Peninsula. In addition, transgenic crops are linked to herbicides such as glyphosate, which is considered a carcinogen and is associated with the disappearance of bees in the world; with this loss, wild and commercial pollination decreases, resulting in the affectation of crops (food) and biodiversity.

The last drops

It is essential to promote and defend organic beekeeping since one of the reasons why Mexican honey is so popular in the European Union is because it does not contain pollen from transgenic crops. Along with this measure, care must be taken to promote the biological corridors from which the honey from the Yucatan Peninsula originates, since the variety of honey depends directly on the conservation of primary vegetation and the biodiversity of the area and, in a compensatory manner, all these plants benefit from the cross-pollination of the bees that visit them.

Likewise, it is essential to promote the national consumption of honey and improve the dissemination of the variety of kinds of honey, as well as the impact that environmental deterioration would have on honey-producing areas; therefore, one must not lower one's guard about environmental protection. The ban on planting soybeans in the Yucatan Peninsula is only a battle that has been won.

Beekeeping and melipon farming in Mexico, besides generating jobs for the economic development of communities, are traditional activities full of ancient knowledge that is transmitted from generation to generation. Their conservation and procurement will have a direct impact on the diversity of delicious differentiated honey and a possible denomination of origin, but even more, their survival benefits the conservation, protection, and improvement of the environment.

This is an excerpt from an article written by Elisa T Hernández, Faculty of Science, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Graduate in Physics and Mathematics from the IPN School of Physics and Mathematics. Graduated from UNAM with a degree in Science Dissemination. For 10 years she has been dedicated to the teaching and popularization of science, has been the author of nine basic education textbooks, and likes to write articles on the popularization of science. She currently works in the UNAM's Ciencias magazine, where the original article first appeared (in Spanish).