This is me in a beekeeping outfit. More specifically this is me in the middle of the jungle in a 65-year-old Maya man’s beekeeping hat, sweatshirt, and giant gloves, looking for all intents and purposes like an alien who’s come in peace. Which is actually quite fitting.
Having recently arrived for a year in the town of Felipe Carrillo Puerto (“Carrillo”) in southeast Mexico, I regularly surprise storekeepers when they look up to find me not Mexican. Why are you here? They don’t actually ask, but there’s always a head tilt, either curious or suspicious. I try to be incredibly polite with what little I can say.
While only an hour from Tulum, Carrillo doesn’t see much in the way of tourists; they get off the bus to stretch their legs and get back on. About 90 percent of the 25,000 people who live here are ethnically Maya, with many speaking Yucatec Maya in addition to or instead of Spanish. It’s really an amazing sounding language, singsongy, almost clicky, with “plosives” and “glottal stops” and other things that make linguists get all nutty. “Maya” as it’s called here is one of approximately 31 living Maya languages spoken between Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador.
I knew before I left New York that I was going to the Maya heartland. My coworkers would joke about it – you’re not gonna give a crap about this meeting when you’re living in the Maya heartland! Still, that people here actually speak Maya now (not just that their ancestors did) took me by surprise. Arriving, I felt a bit foolish for this blindspot. But I’ve come to realize that my naiveté is at least somewhat explainable. A combination of marginalization, poverty, and really poor representation in the tourist brochures (Señor Frogs yes, modern Maya no) keep the Maya off most of the world’s radar. (And if you’re wondering why I’m using “Maya” and not “Mayan” or “Mayans,” here’s more than you ever wanted to know about the subject: http://www.osea-cite.org/program/maya_or_mayans.php .)
It quickly became apparent to me that if I wanted to publicize a school that encourages people to come study in the Maya heartland, I should learn something about the people who live here.
And so, the bees. One of the first things I learned is that the Maya make, use and sell a lot of honey, as did their ancestors thousands of years ago. I learned this when I came across an article about a group of farmers in the state of Yucatán who won a lawsuit against Monsanto. The company had wanted to plant soy crops that would have totally screwed the bees, but the beekeepers got a judge to tell Monsanto to back off. Take that Monsanto.
I told my boss about the article and she mentioned that the school’s neighbor, Don Manuel, was in fact a Maya beekeeper, and that perhaps I could write about him for the school’s web site. Five minutes later we were standing in front of Don Manuel’s house yelling “Buenas tardes!” from the street (it turns out it’s rude to just knock on the door). Then I was meeting Don Manuel and he was agreeing to let me tag along when he checked on his bees in the jungle.
So on a Saturday at 7 a.m. I biked to Don Manuel’s house, thinking we were going to take his truck out to see the hives. But as it turned out, his son (also Manuel) planned to propel him there on this giant tricycle where one person rides and the other person sits on a bench in the front:
The idea was for me to follow them on my bike, a plan I found slightly worrisome since this was my first time out on this particular bike, I had no idea how far we were going, it’s generally 90 degrees with 90 percent humidity once the sun gets high and I’d lost my water bottle at a lake the day before. But the tricycle started moving before I could protest. I followed them through town and then, to my slight dismay, onto the highway toward Cancun where I learned that adult tricycles go surprisingly fast. As the Manuels scooted along, I pedaled furiously, recognizing that the scene must look completely bizarre to anyone watching, a slightly maniacal gringa chasing two Maya beekeepers on a tricycle.
Finally, we pulled over at a barbed wire fence, then walked into the jungle. Don Manuel suited me up in his beekeeping outfit and then they lit the humador, a bellow attached to a tin can stuffed with dried corn cobs for tinder. It’s important that you make a lot of smoke before checking bees. Smoking the hives makes the bees calm, which is ideally how you want them before you poke around in their houses. Here’s Don Manuel making smoke and son Manuel doing the smoking:
First, beekeeping has been in their family for generations. Manuel learned from Don Manuel, and Don Manuel from Manuel’s abuelo and so forth. They sell to local vendors but they don’t have a store of their own.
Second, the land they use is shared. The bees are next to someone else’s field of corn (which surprised me, as I wasn’t expecting jungle corn, but then it occurred to me, if you’re in the jungle and the diet staple is corn, where else are you going to plant it?).
Third, traditionally Maya beekeepers raise stingless bees (melipona), which make honey that can be sold for a lot of money. But melipona produce very little, so many beekeepers raise Africanized bees, which is what these guys were.
Fourth, weather and Monsanto can totally screw bees and beekeepers. If you mention either to Maya beekeepers they get very agitated. This part of Mexico had actually been in drought until recently and Don Manuel was very pleased about the arrival rain.
Fifth, the word for ‘bee’ in Maya is cab and the word for ‘honey’…is exactly the same. I cannot express how much I like this fact. The word for beekeeper is cabnal.
Sadly, I didn’t get to actually taste the honey. Manuel told me the bees wouldn’t produce until January and the harvesting wouldn’t be until June. My consolation was to buy some at the local market, and it’s seriously fantastic.
More dispatches soon. For now, I’ll leave you with this picture of Don Manel and son. You may notice they look a bit serious. They’re not unhappy, the Maya just aren’t big on smiling in pictures. I have no idea why. Also, here are two videos, the first of Don Manuel pumping up the smoker and Manuel checking the hives with no gloves.