More than just honey: exploring Chile’s secret world of bees

A long tradition of beekeeping in this Andean country means delicious honey as well as abundant folk recipes for propolis, royal jelly, pollen and beeswax.

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Traveling through the Chilean countryside, you’re bound to notice the cheerful blue-and-yellow boxes that dot most small farmsteads. Beekeeping is a common source of income among small farmers in central Chile, as well as a multi-million dollar export industry, and although bees only arrived in Chile recently (by bee standards), you’ll find that many cultural traditions revolve around the sweet, gold liquid that is one of Chile’s best natural foods.

An intrepid sailor brought dozens of Italian honeybees to Chile in the mid-1800s, but only two hives survived the journey, establishing themselve in Peñaflor, near the capital. The huge variety of central Chile’s native trees, plants and herbs helped encourage the country’s nascent apiculture, and now beekeepers can be found from Arica in the north to Punta Arenas in the south, although production is concentrated between La Serena and Temuco.

On your adventures, keep an eye out for Chilean specialty honey from native trees, such as:

Miel de ulmo: the classic Chilean honey from the native forests of Ulmo (Eucryphia cordifolia) in the southern regions of Los Ríos and Los Lagos. Ulmo honey is a white, creamy honey, rich in vitamins and anti-bacterial properties.

Miel de azahar: a light amber honey, very sweet and with a pleasant aroma, this honey comes from the flowers of various citrus trees, especially orange trees. It’s said to have curative properties for insomnia.

Miel de avellano: honey from the wild hazelnut tree (Gevuina avellana) found from the Coquimbo region to the Aysén region. The golden honey is creamy and rich in Vitamin A, and is said to contain many of the health properties of hazelnuts, especially for the skin.

Miel de quillay: a dark amber honey from the Quillay (Quillaja saponaria), a fragrant native tree. Quillay honey is often recommended for allergies and digestive problems, and is high in antioxidants. Some say the taste reminds them of manjar, the Chilean version of dulce de leche.

Once you’ve found your favorite Chilean honey, try one of the many honey by-products which are usually sold at the same stands as the honey. Beekeepers often sell bags of pollen, tiny jars of royal jelly, and liquid dropper bottles of propolis.

Propolis
, called propóleo in Spanish, is commonly sold in small bottles and recommended to boost the immune system. A recent study by Chilean professors at the Universidad Católica and the Universidad de la Frontera in Temuco found that Chilean propolis may be an effective treatment for cavities, or caries. The article, “Effect of Chilean propolis on cariogenic bacteria Lactobacillus fermentum” (pdf), was published in the Journal of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

By Jackie Seitz