Honey in the semi-desert

Honey in the semi-desert

On the border between San Miguel de Allende and Dolores is an arid area where it seems that only teasel cacti, yuccas, trigillos, and other plants native to the climate can grow. Yet, in Estacada, the flowers that bloom twice a year produce dozens of liters of honey that are collected and then sold in the Ignacio Ramírez Market.


To get to Estacada from San Miguel take the road to Dolores, and turn right at the entrance to La Venta. Locals remember that the paved highway was built when Vicente Fox, former president of Mexico, was governor of Guanajuato from 1995-1999. His administration saw the paved road as an improvement because the land is a caliche, and dust was a constant. 


Locals also know that there are giant bones in that white soil. The National Autonomous University of Mexico has proven that millions of years ago the area had water and large animals. These animals died off after the drought that followed volcanic eruptions, and now only dust remains.


As you go along road, you see cactuses, thorny bushes, magueys, and the occasional roadrunner crossing the road. You might think that this is the norm. Suddenly, however, the area begins to change color and turns green due to the broccoli, lettuce, and chard. Others large tracts of land grow alfalfa. “That’s what the road was for, to get in and out with the produce,” those who live in La Venta say. 


Boxes and smokers


As you continue on the road toward La Venta you turn onto a dirt road to reach La Estacada, a rural community of about 200 residents. There, Don Víctor lives with his wife Lourdes and family on several hectares of land. His children, Marlene, Víctor, and Jesús , are learning beekeeping, and gave us a tour of their apiary.


Don Víctor is over fifty years old, and has dedicated more than 20 years to beekeeping; the reward is sweet. During our visit, he recalled that his father decided one day to search for hives, which were plentiful. He set about preparing the boxes. “He took wooden boxes for fruit or vegetables, made the slots smaller, and smeared them with cow dung. He would beat on a length of train rail with another piece of metal, and the noise would induce the bees, including the queen, to enter the box,” Victor explained. Twenty years ago, when his father passed away, Victor decided to go to La Estacada—in the middle of a semi-arid area—and start hunting for beehives. Now, from each box he can extract up to 20 liters of honey. When he started out it was difficult, because African killer bees had arrived and were killing the honey bees. “Now they are gone, and the honey bees can all make honey,” he commented.


The honey collection takes place twice a year. The first time is at the end of the rainy season, and that harvest is different because all honey collected comes from the mesquite flower and other wild flowers that grow in the area, so the color of the honey is lighter, almost white. The second harvest is after the end of spring, and the color and flavor are different, said Don Víctor.


But how to maintain the hives in the middle of nowhere? Don Víctor explained that the hives have a chamber and that honey is never extracted because it is the reserve. In fact, he checks the hives frequently, because sometimes the queen dies, and then all the bees in that hive begin to die. At that point Victor must transfer the swarm to another hive, and from those bees a queen emerges.


Another important point, he added, is that during the dry season he feeds the hives with honey diluted with water. Some beekeepers use sugar or fructose, which gives the honey an amber color and a different flavor. Regarding the extraction process, he showed how each stage has a function. For example, when honeycombs are removed to transfer the honey into containers, the queen bee may be accidentally killed. 


Victor senior’s children Marlene and Victor are already helping. They feed the bees, and help use the smoker in the honey extraction process. The children do not use protective gear, and know how to introduce the smoke so that the bees retreat to the brood chamber, and the honeycombs can be raised and the rich honey deposited in the 20-liter containers.