Image above: Taygetos Mountains, Peloponnese, southern Greece
Greece produces some of the finest honey in the world on a consistent basis. Greek apiaries earned 3 of the 5 platinum awards at the 2019 London Honey Awards, and 17 Greek honeys were awarded prizes.
The typical Greek person consumes an average of 3.6 pounds of honey annually. This is the highest consumption in all of Europe and is over double the amount of honey eaten by the average American.
The Greek economy is still far from healthy after their debt crisis a few years ago, but their beekeeping sector is thriving. Greece had the highest density of bee colonies in Europe based on a 2013 study and is now second only to Hungary, with 11.4 colonies per square kilometer. Compare this to 1 colony in twice that amount of land in the United States, where beehives have faced life or death struggles for the past decade.
This 2:37-minute video takes a look at Greek beekeeping back in 2013:
Greeks have loved honey since time began. Perhaps this is an exaggeration, but Greek mythology informs us that the first keeper of the bees was the demigod Aristaeus, who was raised on honey-based nectar and ambrosia, the foods of the gods, by the Nymphs. He is said to have learned beekeeping from them while he was a child, and later taught humans this knowledge. He is also credited with having invented the first bee-suit and the hive as a place for wandering bees to settle, according to Dionysiaca by Nonnus, a fifth century poet.
Even if you are not a big believer in mythology, ponder this. Bee colonies on Mount Olympus, home of the Greek Gods, produce varieties of honey that Greek scientists find to be some of the most potent honey in the world, with antioxidant, antibacterial and anti-cancer properties.
Few countries have a history with bees and beekeeping like that of Greece. Ancient records from 1500 BCE indicate that Hittite law took it seriously if a beehive was stolen. Punishment was a fine of five silver shekels, equal to the fine for stealing a sheep. Pottery cylinder-hives have been excavated by archaeologist in Athens and date back to 400 BCE.
What is the secret to Greek honey-producing success? Greek hives are not experiencing catastrophic colony collapse disorder in anywhere near the numbers found in other parts of the world. Is there something to be learned?
In the Taygetos Mountains of the Peloponnese in southern Greece, the steep cliffs up to nearly 8,000 feet are laced with potent herbs and wildflowers like wild cherries, purple thyme blossoms and yellow irises. The diversity of climate plays a role in the bees’ diet, since Greece is a country of islands and peninsulas, cool forests, hot fields and dry mountains. This creates many micro-climates where many plants can grow.
The Convention on Biological Diversity states that Greece is a hotspot for endemic plants. An amazing 22.1% of the country’s over 5,700 plants are unique to Greece. The climate is perfect for fields of intensely potent plants and herbs like oregano, sage, thyme. This potency has been measured by food scientists and for instance, the strain of oregano that grows on the island of Chios contains Carvacrol, which is an aromatic and highly antibacterial compound. It registers at the highest reported levels for this species. When honeybees feast on nectar from these pure and potent herbs they produce honey rich in these compounds.
And what of colony collapse disorder? Figures in the industrialized world are grim. In June 2019 the US-based research collaborative Bee Informed Partnership released its 2018 annual survey from nearly 5,000 US beekeepers. A 40.7% loss of bee colonies was reported compared to the previous year. The European Commission reported in their 2018 report that losses in some member countries were 50% or more.
In 2017, in a study where 17 European countries were broken into 4 groups based on colony collapse rates, Greek bee colony collapse (abandonment by most worker bees) was rated the lowest or second lowest over a two-year period. The 2 potential reasons for high colony losses in Europe were the training and experience of beekeepers, and the proximity of bee colonies to agricultural areas. This is similar in the US, where bees are faced with environmental hazards like vanishing grasslands, a lack of nutrient-dense wildflowers and herbs, and an ongoing battle against Varroa destructor mite infestations.
Nearly 20% of bees in the US call North Dakota home, and with over 500,000 bee colonies, this top honey-producing state reported a total of 42.14 million pounds of honey was produced in 2014. Grasslands there are now vanishing rapidly, being replaced by corn and soybeans planted from seeds engineered to be resistant to herbicides, pesticides and fungicides. Their chemicals kill nectar-producing weeds and flowering plants like the wild milkweed plant that monarch butterflies and bees enjoy. Foraging bees unwittingly transport the toxic chemical dust back to their hives.
Meanwhile, the bees of Greece live large, foraging on potent wild foods and producing high-quality honey that even the gods of Mount Olympus would still delight in eating.