Editor’s note: Our recurring feature, Building Blocks, focuses on foods and ingredients that are fundamental to the cuisines we write about.
This may come as a surprise, but little Greece is Europe’s fourth most important honey producer after Spain, Germany and Hungary. Every year, between 12,000 and 17,000 tons of this liquid gold are stolen from the country’s roughly 1.5 million hives and poured into jars to satisfy the local desire for honey. And it seems Greeks can’t get enough of it. They rank high among the world’s consumers, slurping up 1.7 kg per person every year as they use it to sweeten tea, drizzle over yogurt, slather on toast and soak baklava and other desserts. By contrast, the average American ingests a mere 400 grams. Of course, the Greeks go way back with the stuff. Honey is one of the world’s oldest foods, and the Greek word for it, meli, hasn’t changed since it was inscribed on Mycenaean Linear B tablets 4,000 years ago. It needs little processing, does not spoil and tastes divine, and thyme honey in particular possesses antiseptic properties and minerals that are actually beneficial to our health. Even as late as half a century ago, sugar was a luxury in many rural communities here, so that almost all sweet recipes routinely called for honey instead. Of course, Greeks also praise their honey as the best. Although this is a subjective declaration and cannot be proved, their honey does have an international reputation for excellence. Greece’s botanical wealth – some 6,900 species of wildflowers and herbs – and topographical diversity, as well as the absence of monocultures, heavy industry and (on paper at least) GMO crops give Greek bees a head start in creating honey with greater flavor and purity than in other lands where agriculture and manufacturing are more intensive. Not surprisingly, beekeeping is a very popular activity. In 2013, there were 20,000 registered beekeepers. Two years later, 5,000 more had joined them. With Greece’s ongoing financial insecurity, many men and women have signed up for classes in the hope of making an extra euro from what the uninitiated see as a profitable, straightforward endeavor. Of these, only 1,500 are full-time professionals, and some of these are companies with employees and 3,000 to 4,000 hives. Beekeeping demands lots of work as well as luck, especially with the weather.
To find out more about this ancient delicacy, we met with two professional beekeepers, Petros Zouberis, who has 200 hives on the Cycladic island of Andros, and Yannis Andreou, with 340 hives on the mainland. Zouberis comes from a family of honey men and has been working with bees for well over 30 years, since he was 18, while Andreou took up beekeeping as a hobby in 2001 with a cousin and turned it into a full-time job when the company he was working for as a freight forwarder closed in 2005.
Both men are passionate about what they do and full of respect for the remarkable creatures they deal with.
We met with Zouberis in his dimly lit, narrow shop on the Gavrio waterfront on a Sunday morning in early November. The fruit and vegetables displayed outside on weekdays were stashed in a back room, while we sat next to the cash register at a small round kafeneion table where a backgammon board lay open. On the wall opposite us his wares were lined up on shoulder-high shelves. There were local wines, capers, olives and lots of honey: topaz-colored, translucent thyme honey with glints of sunlight even in here and thick muddy heather honey, so fresh it hadn’t been labeled yet or set into a rich, dark amber.
Sixty percent of Greek honey comes from conifers, fir and pine, where the bees draw honeydew from the secretions of an insect, the Marchalina hellenica, which sucks the sap. Of the other honeys, produced from the nectar of flowers – chestnut, arbutus, heather, orange blossom, wildflowers – thyme, the most famous and highly prized, accounts for only 10 percent. Conifer honey tends to be darker and stronger in taste, but all types have their aficionados.
Petros Zouberis’s bees, and Andros bees in general, feed primarily on thyme and heather, along with the spring flora that carpets the island, filling even the rockiest outcroppings with color. Mainland bees have a much wider choice, but heather, white in spring, mauve in autumn, is the mainstay of most beekeepers, providing food when the bees wake up after the winter and before they retire.
Zouberis’s bees, instead, grow strong on throumbi (Satureja hortensis), summer savory, an intensely perfumed herb that comes into flower before the thyme in June. Its nectar and eventual honey go exclusively to feed the new bees, up to 40,000 per hive. We listened in amazement as he told us that, at her peak, a queen bee will lay up to 2,000 eggs per day and that the life span of a worker in summer is a mere six weeks to two months.
“They literally die of overwork. In winter, when they have nothing to do but change places in the melissosphaira, the ball they form in the hive around the queen to keep her and themselves warm, they can live for six months. Then, it’s I who feed them, supplementing the heather honey with sugar water when it runs out.”
Zouberis, a somber man in his 50s, is all smiles when he talks about his life as a beekeeper.
“It’s what keeps me sane. Being out in nature I feel good, forget society and all our problems. When I finished high school in Athens, I came back to Andros to take care of my father’s hives. He taught me the basics, but nothing beats experience – that’s what tells you what to do, and I’m still learning from the bees. They are the royalty of agriculture.”
He told us that although he inherited his father’s 200 hives, they may not all be productive. “Maybe 150 will be working at capacity, but everything depends on the weather. A heat wave or a cold snap can wipe them out, while lack of rain can mean a shorter season for the thyme.”
This year’s wet spring and fall were good for honey. The hills of western Andros turned a pale lavender in June and July and a brighter shade of pink in October, when you might have thought you were in the highlands of Scotland, there was so much heather. Zouberis moves his hives around accordingly and to a sheltered valley in winter.
“This year I was pleased. We got more than a thousand kilos.”
Before we left, Zouberis showed me a couple of frames of comb that decorate the walls. “Look at this: The bees are the best architects. And see here, this vertical one amidst the hexagons, that belongs to the queen.”
Then he took down an impressive-looking certificate, beaming with pride. “This is from a food festival in Thessaloniki in 1938. My grandfather won second prize there for his honey.”
Zouberis is carrying on the family tradition, initiating his sons into beekeeping secrets, and as he closed up shop, he said, “Now I’ll go off to inspect the hives. We’re all finished for this year but next spring, I’ll suit you up and show you what we do.”
Back in Athens (in the northern suburbs, to be precise), Yannis Andreou has a stand for his honeys, pollen and royal jelly at the Kifisia farmers market. His experience differs considerably from Zouberis’s, but they share a love of nature and what Andreou calls these “wild animals.”
Compared to Zouberis, Andreou at 44 is a relative neophyte, but like him, he has learned, and is still learning, on the job. His knowledge, though, seemed encyclopedic, as he told us a tiny fraction of the bees’ complex behavior and what beekeeping involves.
First of all, he covers a much wider area, wintering his hives at Amfilochia, on the west of the mainland near the Amvrakikos Bay, where the climate is mild and the heather prolific. Here they stay till late May to make their first honey from wildflowers, before Andreou and his cousin separate the swarms, loading some into their truck for the thyme at Disfina below Delphi, the fir high on Parnassos and the pine in northern Evia, all at considerable distances from Attica. Between tending his stall at four markets per week and caring for the bees on weekends, Andreou resembles a perpetual motion machine.
Besides traversing much of central Greece, Andreou also has problems unthinkable on Andros. As he sat on our sofa sipping tea in deceptively summery late November, wearing a short-sleeved red shirt, his light-brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, he told us about them.
“We have to be so careful where we place our bees. First, they have to be somewhere where theft is not an issue. It helps to have a friendly shepherd in the area, because you can lose everything. We’ve had people come and empty our hives of honey, wax, royal jelly, the works, and you can’t insure them. Then you have to consider the pollution factor. Hymettus, once so famous for its honey, is now too close to Athens smog to be acceptable, although thyme still grows there. And always you have to consider the weather. Nature and the seasons have changed. For example, this unseasonal warmth right now is worrying. The queens are confused; they think it’s summer so they’re laying eggs, but if there’s a sudden frost they’ll die. We used to take hives to the mountains of Nafpaktia for fir honey, but last year a sudden cold spell killed the bees.
“A hive can give you anywhere from zero to 40 kilos of honey. But there’s no compensation when the weather is against you.
“Our biggest work is in spring, when we have to make sure the hives are healthy, that we are controlling the hives and not the bees. We study our queens to see which are the best – the cleanest, most productive in terms of honey, propolis, pollen – and then try to ‘steal’ the strongest ones, with the best DNA. Although a queen can live for five years, her fertility peaks in the first two years. We don’t keep our queens longer than that.
“Every time I go to the hives, I learn something – about them, but also about myself. The bees know when you’re afraid, angry, worried, and they react accordingly. After all, you are the enemy. You have to go when you’re calm, relaxed. They teach you to know your inner self and to master self-control.”
Andreou wears no protection, except a covering for his hair and eyes, when he goes to smoke out the hives, choosing a time when most of the workers are absent.
“I won’t say I don’t get stung, or that it doesn’t hurt, but I’m used to it. And gloves are too cumbersome. I can’t work with them.”
Neither Andreou nor Zouberis has seen evidence of empty hive syndrome or colony collapse disorder, though they both view bees as under threat from pesticides and pollution, new diseases like the varroa mite and possible interference by mobile phone antennae.
Talking with them made us even more appreciative of our good fortune in having excellent honeys on our doorstep and respectful of both the bees and the people who devote their lives to working with them. Given the planet’s increasingly serious environmental challenges, we’d better stop taking them for granted.
(photos by Diana Farr Louis)
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