Yucatán, Mexico is dense with treasures: stunning Mayan ruins, historic haciendas, sacred limestone sinkholes, and cochinita pibil, an intoxicating slow-roasted pork dish. It is also home to some very special stingless bees that produce Melipona honey, a smooth, slightly sour elixir cherished by ancient and contemporary Mayan communities, spa-going tourists, and powerhouse chefs like René Redzepi.
Meliponicultura, as the production of this honey is called, began over three thousand years ago. The honey was used extensively by Mayan healers to treat eye, ear, respiratory, digestive, and postpartum conditions, and still is in many Yucatán communities today. Because this native species of Melipona bees (Melipona Beechelii) absorb more of the nutritious properties of the plants than other bees, its honey contains more fructose than glucose, which results in some unique flavor and textural properties.
Melipona honey is more watery than your average honey, and less prone to crystallization. According to Fundación Haciendas del Mundo Maya, it is traditionally used more for medicinal purposes rather than flavoring food. Indeed, scientific studies have shown that honey from stingless bees (called Xunan-Kab in Mayan) offers more antioxidant and inflammation-reduction properties than honey produced from stinging bees.
But the silky honey tastes wholly unique, with slight umami and acidic notes, which is why it’s caught the attention of international chefs, not to mention wellness-obsessed internet users intrigued by its touted health benefits.
“Here in the Yucatan they produce honey that’s more syrup like and can hold acidity as if lime was added,” Redzepi posted on Instagram before this November’s Hokol Vuh dinner, which brought 18 of the world’s best chefs to Tixkokob, Yucatán. At Hacienda Santa Rosa, the Noma chef dripped the honey on his eyes, which he says relieved the itchiness. Not quite as daring, I just licked the honey off my hand, and it was unlike any I’d ever tasted: somewhat acidic, lightly floral, and sweet, of course.
Transpatio Maya, which helps support the 15 Mayan communities and preserves food traditions in the Yucatán Peninsula, sells Melipona honey, which Redzepi used at Noma Mexico (one dish was pasilla chiles simmered in the honey and stuffed with chocolate sorbet). The honey is sourced from Calakmul Reserve Biosphere, a UNESCO World Heritage site. But it’s somewhat hard to come across: the stingless Melipona bees are in danger of extinction, as is the ancient art of meliponicultura, though there has been renewed interest. Somehow, the endangered Melipona Beechelii bees recently showed up in Cuba, which could help spark a revival in Melipona production.
“It’s much tastier honey,” said Drexel University entomologist Meghan Barrett in a 2018 interview with NPR. “It’s runnier. It’s more floral. It’s very delicious, but [there are] much smaller amounts of it, so you need a lot more bees.”
There are a few places you can buy the honey if you’re not in Yucatán. On Etsy, a seller from Mérida (the capital of the state) called RutadeMiel offers a few bottles of the honey extracted from 2019 hives. But your best bet is to email email@example.com for availability, as the organization helps preserve (and fund) fading Yucatán traditions, including Meliponicultura.
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Melipona – the stingless bees. Here in the Yucatan they produce honey that’s more syrup like and can hold acidity as if lime was added. It’s also an old Mayan medicine. Still used to this day. For sore throats, for small wounds and as we learned from @mikebagale also for sore or tired eyes and allergies. I tried it and it really did clear out my tired itching eyes. 2nd image: @benito_molina 3rd image: @robertosolis.a 4th image: @zaiyuhasegawa 5th image: @blainewetzel #hokolvuh