The Sierra Norte de Puebla is a mountain chain in the north of the Mexican state of Puebla, 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 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 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 producer of a flavorsome honey, which according to Náhuat tradition also has medicinal properties.
Locally known as pisilnekmej, the bee is one of 46 species of Meliponini (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 In other parts of the country, the native bees have been replaced by more aggressive, African bees brought by the Conquistadors, while in the Sierra Norte the native people have managed to protect them and still breed them in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 together 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 food and medicine. Traditionally it is used as a natural antibiotic for the respiratory tract and recent analyses have demonstrated the honey’s anti-microbial effect. The liquid honey is spiced and piquant on the nose, and complex, sharp and citrusy on the palate.
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. Since 2018, the Presidium has participated in the project “Empowering indigenous youth and their communities to defend and promote their agricultural and gastronomic heritage.” funded by IFAD. The principal objective of the project is to train young indigenous producers, and promoting this unique and little-known honey to restaurants around the country, and across the tourism network, through the work of the beekeepers themselves.
Slow Food is also helping to give a voice to the Presidium producers in their battle to protect their territory from land grabbing by mining and energy industries. In recognition of the beekeepers’ important work, in 2011 Cuetzalan was declared the Pisilnekmej Native Bee Sanctuary.
19 communities in Cuetzalan municipality, Puebla state
Tania Guadalupe García Guerra
Tel. +52 233 33 18045
Leonardo Durán Olguín
Tel. +52 233 3310036
Slow Food Coordinator
Dali Nolasco Cruz
Tel. +52 7644881101 - 764 7647141