A vast expanse of barren rock and sand stretches across northern Chile, comprising the driest non-polar region on Earth. The Atacama desert is notoriously inhospitable to life as we know it, but somehow animals and humans alike find a way to survive. And along with humans are their companion honeybees, fertilizing desert flowers and providing a sweet source of calories for the population.
In a rare green patch in the desert, bees swarm all around Luis Escalante as he opens a wooden hive and pulls a frame out from the top, extracting a honeycomb glistening with golden goo. "Almost ready," he says, completely calm amid the agitated buzzing. "I'll come back and harvest in a few days."
Escalante, 59, is the proprietor of the Checkar honey company, located in the village of San Pedro de Atacama. The oasis town was once a stronghold for indigenous populations, dating back at least 1,500 years, but today it's filled with hostels, restaurants, travel agencies, and little else. North of town, a small river flows by, the only reason humans were able to scratch out a living before tourists started flooding the area to visit its striking geological formations. Thanks to the meager water source, a small belt of vegetation grows around the city, in the middle of endless kilometers of desert.
The greenery produces three flowers preferred by honeybees. The first grows on the chañar tree, a thin species with small yellow flowers that bloom at the end of the Chilean winter. That first batch of honey, ready in September and made from pure chañar, is lighter, sweeter and clearer than the subsequent harvests. Later in the year, the thorny algarrobo trees and alfalfa crops also break out into flower, creating fodder for a darker honey made from a mix of all three species.
Escalante's hives are set in a grove of chañar and algarrobo trees, ensuring that the bees don't have to go far to find nectar. The wooden hives are perched on stands with their legs set in oil caps to protect them from ants. In the desert, that's the only formidable predator the bees have to deal with. "Birds might eat one or two," Escalante allows.
That's not to say that life is easy for a desert bee. Local beekeepers originally tried the Italian honeybee, which is the most popular domestic breed, but it didn't thrive in the dry conditions. "They are menaced by the climate," Escalante says. "It's hot in the day, but very cold at night, with a lot of wind and sun."
Now the beekeepers in the Atacama use the Carniolan bee, a species that originated in Eastern Europe and is known for its hardy disease resistance and docile disposition. Indeed, even in the middle of the day, with no smoke to calm them, the bees seem only mildly perturbed by Escalante's incursion into their home. He wears a bee mask, tunic, and gloves, but his legs are protected only by cloth pants that would do nothing to stop an aggressive swarm bent on stinging.
The harsh conditions of the desert hold advantages for bees as well. For one, it's hard for harmful parasites or predators to gain a foothold in the challenging conditions. Desert to the north, the Andes mountain range to the east, and Pacific Ocean to the west have successfully blocked the path of many potential invaders. So far, Chile has even avoided the influx of hybrid Africanized or killer bees that have replaced European honeybees over much of South America.
To prevent mite infestations, beekeepers don't import queens from the outside when they want to start a new hive. Thanks to their careful efforts at sequestration, there hasn't been a mite outbreak in years, although hives do fail from time to time for other reasons. "It could be a dead queen, or another hive attacked them," Escalante says.
Instead of importing queens, the San Pedro beekeepers let the bees follow their own process when they want to start a new colony. When a hive senses that it needs a new queen, the bees segregate certain larvae and feed them a nutritious compound (called royal jelly) in place of the pollen, nectar, and honey that most larvae eat. The royal jelly stimulates the development of reproductive organs that a queen bee needs to produce eggs of her own, which then turn into more worker bees who dedicate their lives to providing delicious honey to the hive—and, incidentally, to hungry humans, too.
To extract the honey from the hive, Escalante takes individual frames to a processing house nearby and scrapes off the wax, which is used for artisanal candles and other purposes. Then he puts the frames in a centrifuge, where about 30 minutes of spinning dislodges all the honey, which he then bottles and labels for sale. He sells his crop mostly in San Pedro, occasionally bringing it to fairs at more distant cities like Calama and Santiago.
This year, however, conditions are even more parched than usual, putting a pinch on his business. A branch of the river that usually runs through Escalante's hive site is completely dry. "There's no water, and what there is, is salty," he says.
That means the trees don't produce as many flowers, and the bees would have to devote more of their time to finding drinking water if he didn't supply it in buckets. "If I don't bring them water, they don't work," he says. "They fly too far to find it, get tired, and die."
As a consequence, the honey yield is low. In a normal year, he can harvest a batch of honey each month from September through April, bringing in a total of 20 to 30 kilograms per season, but he has little hope of approaching that number this year. The honey he collects at the end of January is just the second harvest of the year. "They aren't producing well because of climate change," Escalante shrugs. "It's so dry this year." In the Atacama desert, that means very dry indeed.