Traveling from the city of Puebla, the state capital, towards the heart of the Sierra Norte 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 peoples live following a system called koujatkiloyan, or “productive forest,” that sustainably uses and benefits from 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 queen of the forest is Scaptotrigona mexicana the native bee and giver of a flavourful 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. sonoIn other parts of the country, the native bees have been replaced by more aggressive, African bees brought by the Conquistadors, while in the Sierra Norte the indigenous people have managed to protect them and still breed them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 medicine. Traditionally it is used as a natural antibiotic for the respiratory tract and recent analyses have proven the honey’s anti-microbial effect. And of course is delicious:
spiced and piquant on the nose, complex, sharp and citrusy in the mouth.
The Pisilnekmej Sanctuary
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 35 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 (declared the Pisilnekmej Native Bee Sanctuary), 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. “We are producers of coffee and pepper, but also honey,” says the beekeeper Ruben Chico Cruz. “Nobody used to buy the honey, except very cheaply. Now we have the chance to breed our bee because we can get a good price through the cooperative. We are also trying to market propolis, pollen and beeswax.” Through various seminars, the Presidium is training new producers, introducing young people to beekeeping and promoting this unique and little-known honey to restaurants around the country.