Greek island nectar... the food of the Gods
The Greek islands are renowned worldwide, for good reason. They are the cradle of ancient, admirable civilizations, the birthplace of a people who have impacted the arts and sciences since antiquity and home to places of unparalleled natural beauty. The environmental inspiration combined with human ingenuity has made the islands a hub of creativity for centuries. Those fortunate enough to travel to many Greek islands, are surely impressed by their natural beauty and stunning versatility. The beaches and shores surrounding the island gems vary, from the finest light sand to the steep volcanic rocks. Inland from the shore, you will find diversity and the allure of island geography: from a low, almost flat ridge, few meters above sea level on some small Aegean islands, to high mountain ranges on islands such as Crete, Evia, Andros or Samothrace. The variety of landscapes and microclimates are breathtaking, stretching from the 35th North parallel in Gavdos and exceeding 40th in Thassos; the possibilities are endless.
Greek islands vegetation enchants botanists. More than 1600 plant species, alone, have been recorded in the Cyclades, of which more than 100 are indigenous. In the Eastern Aegean, more than 2200 plant species thrive, with 86 of them endemic. In the northern Aegean— only in the small Samothrace perimeter— more than 1440 species are grown, 18 of which endemic. Much of the plant species of the Greek islands consists of aromatic and medicinal plants, forests and shrub vegetation. Aromatic, medicinal and some edible plants have been used in the region since antiquity, but much of this vast plant wealth is not put to use… or is it?
Imagine an army of millions of workers. Such an army on almost every island in Greece. An army of workers who visit each flower, each tree, each bush and collect from the top derivatives from each blossom or plant. An army that works to transfer the best "materials" of the island flora to factories to process them into valuable products of high nutritional and biological value; a benefit and resource for many. Of course we are talking about the bee. The bee, the blessed and sacred insect, shared by the sky and earth, the admirable being that can "concentrate" in one gram, all the aromas and the sweet tastes of the island nature, while ensuring its viability through pollination. Of course, with a little help from the beekeepers …
Beekeeping on Greek Islands has been practiced for thousands of years. In fact, by exploring mythology, beekeeping in Greece started on a Cycladic island. As Hesiod and Pindar mentioned, Aristaeus, the son of God Apollo and Cyrene (daughter of Hypseus, the king of the Lapiths), was the one who taught apiculture to humans, starting from the island of Kea. Since that time, the Gods would not be the only ones privileged to feed on nectar. The mortals now had access to the concentrated and upgraded form of nectar… honey. And the lore and divine nature of honey carries with it the history of the islands, robust and high quality.
To produce the honey, the bees collect the nectar from a multitude of flowering plants and from the honeydews from other insects living in trees (e.g. pine trees), concentrate it and store it in their honeycombs. By instinct, they gather large quantities of what is needed. The surplus is collected and marketed by the beekeeper. This is one of the few unprocessed and exceedingly nutritious foods that can be accessed by humans. About 200 different Associations / Organizations for honey have been recorded, and through studies, the great health and nutritional benefits have been documented. In addition, without being a medicine, honey has proven therapeutic applications, both when used purely and in various formulations.
The honey produced in the Greek islands is distinguished both for its taste and exceptional aroma. This flora preferred by bees and integral to beekeeping on Greek Islands (among them the numerous aromatics) enjoy the dry-heat conditions, which contribute to slow harvesting, better concentration and more intense flavor and aroma. Of course, we are not talking about a single honey but about many different types of honey, coming from the islands of Greece, each having different floral sources. Take for example a typical honey from Thassos and compare it with a honey from Limnos. Although the two islands are only 60 km away, their honeys are vastly different products apart from their exceptional nutritional and biological value. The honey of Thassos is a dark colour— characteristic pine honey— with touches of island microflora. The honey of Lemnos, a light color— characteristic flower honey— is fully dominated by thyme. Compare the honey of Skopelos—the island covered with the most foliage of the country— with the honey of Kalymnos. Both are exceptional, but so different in color, aroma and taste. The first is dominated by pine and autumn heather, whereas the second has intense thyme aroma with citrus notes. All are different, all superior quality. Greek island honey has participated in many international quality and taste competitions and has always been positioned among the best: winning many prestigious awards.... but, unfortunately, this is unknown to the general public outside of Greece!
Greek products are mainly consumed in our Greece. The average honey consumption per person in Greece is approximately 1.7 kilos per person. It is the highest consumption per person in the EU. The annual production is 22500 tons produced by about 25000 beekeepers (amateurs and professionals) managing approximately 1.9 million honeybees. With a relatively low production of honey per hive, ranging in the islands from 8 to 15 kilos, the quantities produced are almost exclusively available in the domestic market. The (going?) price for Greek honey is considered enough for producers as the retail market starts at 7 and reaches 20 euros per kilo, depending on the type of honey. Arguably the quality of Greek honey should demand a higher price. The comparison with honey prices in several European countries (which are not always comparable in quality) shows that Greek honey could be sold at much higher prices in foreign markets. To achieve this, increased production is needed, which may not be feasible. Since 2009, there has been a steady increase in the number of beekeepers and bees in Greece. Beekeeping has been impacted by the current economic crisis. Many see beekeeping as a solution for work and income. Young beekeepers enter the field and this brings hope and requires investment for future honey production. New ideas and new products, based on honey and also the other valuable "gifts" of the hive (propolis, pollen, royal jelly, wax) are beginning to appear, both in the Greek market and abroad, slowly but increasingly so.
Both the state and the business and scientific community must assist in the spread of Greek apiculture products abroad. Appropriate promotion and participation in international exhibitions is needed. Further research is needed to uncover the “hidden secrets” of the treasures contained in the hive, such as the many and important properties of Greek propolis. The superior quality of beekeeping products, especially those produced in the Greek islands, is a given. Time to get to know and appreciate this quality beyond the Greek border.
by Dr. Alexandros Papachristoforou
Laboratory of Animal Physiology, Department of Biology, AUTh.
Dept. of Agricultural Sciences, Biotechnology and Food Science Cyprus University of Technology