Land of Royal Honey

Story By Danielle Garcia

An angry Africanisada bee dodges into the back seat of a pick-up truck. Israel Carrillo grabs it with his hands and tosses it out the window. He grins, pointing to the fresh stinger lodged in his skin near many other sting scars.

Produced By Tyler Keehn Cleveland

The 39-year-old Israel and his 41-year-old brother David Carrillo are the sons of Juvenal Carrillo Xuúl, a beekeeper of many years in the humid Yucatan peninsula where beekeeping has been a sacred practice of the Mayans. The brothers head into the green jungle around the village of Tunkas to extract golden, floral honey. They encase their bodies in white suits and head nets, before dipping their hands into buzzing boxes. Smoke fills the air. Then Israel robs the hives.

“If something goes wrong or they attack you, you run as fast as you can to the road,” David says. “If you are nervous or scared, they can sense your fear and they’ll attack.”

These bees are some of the Yucatan’s hardest workers. This vegetation-rich peninsula jutting into the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea produces more than two-thirds of Mexico’s total honey and makes this country of 120 million one of the world’s top honey exporters, especially to Germany.

Photos by Laura Jarriel
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The honey brings fame, too. Many experts believe Yucatan honey ranks among the best in flavor, thanks to this peninsula’s wide array of flowers, especially the coveted white Dzidzilche. It only blooms eight weeks out of the year to yield the fragrant amber-colored honey.

Honey production has spread growth in towns like Tunkas, where sending migrants to the U.S. and popular resorts like Cancun and Playa del Carmen competes as the other leading industry.

An ancient culture flowed through honey production, but so does commerce, David emphasizes. In ten years, honey prices have spiked from $3 a kilo to $43 per kilo or 2.2 pounds.

“Whenever you eat a drop of honey, think about how it got into your hands,” David says. “I swear without honey, Yucatan would be nothing.”

International Threats

That ancient honey culture has changed, though. When the Africanisada bee first arrived, beekeeping actually declined until beekeepers developed ways to protect themselves from the dangerous newcomer, says Sebastien Proust, the manager of the Reduced Emissions from Degradation and Deforestation Alliance in Mexico.

The migrating foreign bee contrasts fiercely with the native stingless Melipona bee.

A kilo of stingless bee honey fetches nearly triple the pesos of Africanized honey. But Africanized honeybees produce substantially more honey. That’s why beekeepers like the Carrillo brothers focus on the Africanized honey. During harvest season, the Africanized honeybees get especially aggressive to protect their honey from thieves.

But far more threatening to the economy and the environment is the fact that in the U.S. and Europe, bees are disappearing at an alarming rate.

In the U.S., rolling deaths of bees started in 2006. A third of managed bee colonies in the U.S. were lost in the 2013-2014 agricultural season, according to a joint partnership led by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This most recent season shows losses increased to 42 percent. Even President Obama worries. Last year, he created a Pollinator Health Task Force to combat bee colony losses.

The most likely factors behind the losses include pesticides, deforestation and disease, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Other experts place blame with climate change and modernization.

Some say bees aren’t necessarily dying but simply aren’t returning to hives, contributing to the phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder. That happens when a hive becomes depopulated with only a queen bee, immature bees present and few or no adult worker bees present.

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Honey of the Ancient Peoples

From ancient pyramid temples to stones tucked within modern buildings, Mayan culture makes its presence known in the Yucatan peninsula. For the Maya, the bees played a spiritual role, too. Ah Mucen Cab was the God of bees and the image of the descending bee can be seen in the ruins of Tulum on the Yucatan’s Caribbean coast. Priests harvested honey from special stingless bees as part of a religious ceremony twice a year. The Maya’s descendents make a form of honey mead known as balche and use it in religious ceremonies today.

This ancient Mayan tradition of keeping stingless bees is in decline. David believes it is up to people like him, who still identify as Mayan, to preserve the culture. Pulling out a small yellow book detailing the Mayan practice of stingless beekeeping, the compact man says he’d like to begin this practice himself in a year or so.

David still attends Mayan rituals and has helped teach Mayan to Spanish speakers. In their hometown of Tunkas, Mayan can still be frequently heard spoken, especially among the elders.

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Modern Days

In Tunkas, the population doesn’t exceed 3,500 people. The streets are quiet, save for the high-pitched robotic advertising jingle of truck’s pitching fuel: “zzeta, zzeta, zzeta –gas.” Drivers of motorcycles and bicycles zoom and peddle through roads as the popular transit form. Concrete huts with palm leaf roofs nestle next to three-bedroom houses coated in bright pinks, yellows, reds or blues. Some homes boast of new refrigerators, flat screen TVs and washer machines, thanks to the remittances of migrants to the U.S. or Cancun. Others may feature only old televisions.

The honey industry has allowed the Carrillo brothers to support themselves and their families. One harvest – November through June – brought David 150,000 pesos, or about $9,500, for example

The rest of the year David sells organic wax from the honeybees and does other forms of agricultural work. He hopes to receive a patent from the government to grow his wax business that sits across from his home.

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But many in Tunkas simply migrate. They’re doing it at an increasing pace. Since the 1990s, over half of Tunkas population has migrated away, according to the villagers. Despite the decrease in population, the increase in money sent by the migrants to Tunkas family members has helped it evolve and develop. Tunkas now has a baseball field with bleachers. A large public plaza sits across from a WiFi-connected municipal building, painted a vibrant turquoise and shaded in the summer with trees with orange-red blooms.

“I want to be happy with my children, that’s…important for me, I belong here.”

David, who is divorced, is sure he will never leave Tunkas, where his two children live, grandchild and mother live. “I want to be happy with my children, that’s…important for me,” he says. “I belong here.”

“Whenever you eat a drop of honey, think about how it got into your hands,” David says. “I swear without honey, Yucatan would be nothing.”

Like Father, Like Son

David and his brother Israel learned much of what they know of the bee-keeping trade as children from their father. “When we would go to check on the bees, he taught me how to organize the box, how to know the age of the queen bee...,” David says.

Like his father, Israel feels a special fondness for his bees. “When I go to check on the bees, I do not feel they are aggressive towards me. But when someone else goes, they do not get the same feeling,” Israel says. “I do feel there is a connection between the bees and the bee keeper.”

David found he enjoyed beekeeping, too.

David says he resembles his now-deceased father with a short, sturdy stature and Mayan features, more than his brother. His father’s maternal surname Xuúl is distinctly Mayan. Like his father, David is satisfied with a simple life. Unlike his father, he appreciates some of the things modern technology has to offer.

The brothers, and four other siblings, grew up with little material things such as a stove, a washing machine, or television because their father refused to pay for electricity. Today, David owns such machines. But he says people here don’t seek to live with luxurious goods, preferring the value of a simplified life.

Their father only used a bike for transportation and did everything with his bare hands instead of tools. He grew up an orphan and refused to adapt to modernity.

Once David joked: “Don’t be crazy, buy a car, a stove. …You are like in the Tour of France because you never throw away your bike.”

Their father worked every day, all day, from 6 am to 6 pm as a beekeeper and farmer, David says. “He never stopped. He was a very straight man. He didn’t drink. He didn’t smoke. He was workaholic.”

Up to his last days, the older man worked. The last wishes of Juvenal Carrillo Xuúl were to be taken to his farm and beehives.

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In 2000, when David was working in Cancun, he received a phone call from his father.

“Will you come and take care of my bee farms, David?” his father asked.

“Without doubt, father,” David responded. Soon, he left Cancun for Tunkas unaware of his father’s deeper meaning.

His then-62-year-old father had terminal cancer of the kidney, and was given months to live. David stayed with the man who was his role model and best friend. They visited his beehives.

The father’s final wish was to be taken on a journey after he died.

Sunshine bathed Tunkas the day of the funeral of Juvenal Carrillo Xuúl. David and the hearse driver journeyed to the bee farms with his father’s body, dressed in white. It was very private. No one else was aware of it.

The quiet music of the buzzing bees enveloped David, the driver and the corpse.

One hour later at noon, the funeral began for Juvenal Carrillo Xuúl.

The quiet music of the buzzing bees enveloped David, the driver and the corpse.

David didn’t cry. But his death was the most difficult event he had ever overcome. For the next 15 days, he woke up to hear his father calling him. One dawn, he even thought he heard his father’s footsteps.

David and his older brother took over the bee farms. They hope to pass the trade to their sons. In that way, honey keeps his father’s spirit alive as well as those who came before him.

“When a person is absent … you can keep that person alive through everything he or she taught you,” David says.