“A taste of honey, a taste much sweeter than wine.” Who doesn’t love the taste of honey and what kitchen doesn’t have honey on its shelf? Honey is one of the trinity of products that you find in every Greek kitchen, along with lemons and olive oil.
Honey or “liquid gold,” has been around for nutritional and healing uses for at least 8,000 years, as seen in Stone Age paintings. On Crete in Knossos, the Minoans around 2000 BC used and traded honey along with olive oil, as shown in their huge pitharia or jars. Some centuries later, Linear B tablets from the Myceneans also show extensive trading of the product.
In the classical era, the physician Hippokrates was a big fan of honey and recommended it as a medicine for many uses. For pain, he suggested oxymel, which was vinegar and honey. For sore throats and fevers, and for thirst, he gave hydromel, fermented honey and water, perhaps the oldest alcoholic drink. (In early Anglo Saxon England, the warriors, when not in battle, were sitting around in the mead hall swigging hydromel, which they called “mead” as described in the epic Beowulf).
Hippocrates also recommended giving honey for “baldness, contraception, wound healing, laxative action, cough and sore throat, eye diseases, topical antisepsis,for prevention and treatment of scars.” Quite a miraculous list. Other ailments that that honey was said to help were tuberculosis, aiding the circulatory system, hiccups, hepatitis, worm infestation, piles, eczema and ulcers.
Not to forget its cosmetic use.In ancient Egypt Cleopatra used it for her hair and skin to keep it soft and smooth.
Honey was known as the “nectar of the gods” as this is what they subsisted on, along with ambrosia. And as with Indian and Egyptian culture, in ancient Greece, offering a honeycomb to the gods was an offering of propitiation or conciliation.
Bees and honey have a long history in Greek mythology. It was Melissa (Greek word for bee) the bee goddess who nurtured the infant Zeus on the slopes of Mount Ida (Psyloreiti), as Karen Olsen relates in her book Island Almanac: Seasons of a Life in Crete.
The dead were buried with a piece of honeycake to offer to Cerberus, the two faced guard dog of the underworld. In Book I of the Odyssey, Homer describes King Nestor (head of Mycenean Palace near Pylos) as having a voice that “flows sweeter than honey.” When Ulysses (Odysseus) descends into Hades, he soothes the dead spirits with milk and honey, allowing him to speak with his mother, with Achilles and with the seer Tiresias. Also in the Odyssey, Ulysses uses beeswax to close his sailors’ ears against the luring songs of the Sirens.
In the Bible the Israelites fleeing slavery in Egypt are promised a “land flowing with milk and honey.” This idea of honey flowing is the origin of the word ‘mellifluous,’ (surely an SAT vocabulary word!) which comes from the Latin (and Greek) for honey: mel or meli and fluous or flowing. Someone with a “mellifluous” voice is a very pleasant speaker to listen to.
If honey has been around as a food and medicine for thousands of years, then of course bees produced it in the wild. What about domestic beekeeping? In the 6th century BC in the hills of Mt. Imitos (Hymettus) it was such a popular vocation that lawmaker Solon passed a law saying “He who sets up hives of bees must put them 90 meters (300 feet) away from the already installed ones.”
The beekeepers, as is done today, rotated their beehives around the area to take advantage of different plants blooming at different times.
Athens’ Mt. Hymettus is still a popular place for beekeepers as there’s such a diversity of plants and flowers on the mountain. Take a walk anywhere and you might hear a buzzing of bees and suddenly see in a a clearing several hives, sometimes abandoned.
Greece has more beehives per acre of any European country and its honey is considered among the best in the world. A couple of reasons:
–rich variety of Greek flora, richest in the Mediterranean area, with 7,500 different species of herbs, plants, wild flowers and trees and 850 plant species unique only to Greece
–temperate climate and abundance of sunshine.
As honey lovers, we usually buy 10 kilos a year from a small producer, Stavros and his wife Despina, who keep bees on the island of Leros, near Rhodes, in the Dodecanese.
Recently, on a cloudy cool day, we met Stavros, who is a much beloved school teacher, for a coffee in our neighborhood and to share with us his experiences. The weather, as he explained, would not be to the liking of the bees, who prefer warm and sunny days to do their nectar gathering.
How did you first get into beekeeping?
Well I love nature and anything to do with plants. Besides my teaching, I work as a gardener for apartment buildings in the area. I was always interested in bees and around 40 years ago, got several hives and started keeping bees on Leros, the island where my wife and I come from. We built a house with an area for beekeeping and other agricultural activities.
For the beehives, there’s a worldwide regulation size, but you can decorate them however you want! The neighborhood kids enjoyed painting some hives, as you can see.
Whatever I’ve learned is from personal experience along the way and from information that the Ministry of Agriculture publishes to amateur beekeepers.
I know there are different kinds of honey you can buy – thymarisio (thyme) pine, fir, (elato) etc.Tell us about different kinds of honey in Greece and the kind that you produce.
Well, there are two main categories: floral, from various plants and flowers, including thyme, and pine and fir, where the bees feed on sweet secretions from microorganisms that live only on the trees, not from the actual tree itself.
Our honey differs from year to year because it depends on what plants are around. And not only differs as a whole, but from beehive to beehive, it depends on the preference of the particular colony! So one beehive could favor nectar from orange blossoms, one from almond, and another from thyme [Thyme honey forms much of the honey in Greece, especially on the islands of Crete and Kythira].
But it’s usually not only thyme, the bees are not particular, whatever strikes their fancy.
This not being choosy about a flower reminds me of a poem by Emily Dickinson:
The pedigree of honey
Does not concern the bee
A clover any time to him
(But to be totally accurate, it should be “her” not “him” as the worker bees are female not male……)
It’s so amazing, how they make honey from the nectar they gather. How do they do it?
The bees have a second stomach or honey sack where they store the nectar they gather, guided by smell, and then they mix it with a special enzyme from their bodies. Then they add the nectar to the beehive sack or honeycomb and beat it with their wings. When its in the right thickness, they cover it with wax that they produce.
How is your honey different from honey of large manufacturers?
The honey that the companies produce and sell in the market has a uniformity year after year. They collect honey from small producers around the country, then use their professional staff to work on the product to be consistent in color, texture and taste.
Honeys also differ in how soon they crystallize. Pure honey will crystallize sooner than commercial brands. Some people think this is a sign that the honey has gone bad, but it shows high quality honey. For our floral honey, it’s around 6 months or so. When it starts to crystallize, you just need to put the jar in hot water (40 C or 100 F) for 15 minutes or more until the crystals dissolve and the honey liquifies. Or you can do it in the microwave, but be careful. Be sure the lid is removed, then microwave it over medium power for 30 seconds at a time, stirring in between microwaving sessions. Actually, honey stays good for years. It doesn’t allow in bacteria.
[Archaeologists in fact have discovered honey in Egyptian tombs 3,000 years old and it is still good!]
Beekeeping has its dangerous side. When do bees sting you and have you ever been stung?
When they feel they’re in danger .. But always wear protective equipment of course. Though my brother was wearing such gear and he was stung 20 times once. Fortunately he was not allergic, but he had to go to the hospital.
At times we just wear the hat to protect the face.
Can you describe to me the process of extracting the honey from the honeycombs?
Well, we usually do it in August, which is the driest month of the year.
It’s the bees that let us know when they’re ready. (smiles) They seal the honeycomb with wax that they also produce.
And then we use a machine that extracts the honey from the comb and it sits for a month while the flavors mix together.
What are some other things you’ve learned about bees in your beekeeping?
They’re fascinating creatures. The colony is like a family, all to protect the Queen. If a bee from another colony wants to enter, they won’t allow it in (unless it’s carrying pollen or nectar) to feed them.
[For some statistics, I turned to Karen’s book again. She and her husband have direct contact with a beekeeper in their village who regularly brings them a honeycomb, which they love to use on their breakfast yogurt, eating directly from the comb.
Each hive contains the queen, thousands of female worker bees as well as a few hundred male drones (whose only task is to fertilize the Queen’s eggs.) A single queen can lay 200,000 eggs, 2,500 a day when active. To produce just one spoonful of honey, the worker bees will visit around 4000 flowers. To produce 100 liters of honey, they need 900 liters of nectar So they’re incredibly active, traveling hundreds of kilometers in their lifetime!]
What other products do you get besides honey?
Propolin is one, it’s made of beeswax and other oils and resins. The bees use it in their hive. It has an ingenious role actually, If a creature, let’s say a mouse, gets into the hive, first they sting it to death, and since they can’t get rid of it, they have a way to at least sterilize the environment. They wrap propolin around it, which is known for its antibacterial and anti fungal qualities. Indeed, propolin is sold in pharmacies as an anti-bacterial medicine. Another product of the bees is royal jelly, which is a substance to feed the Queen and her larvae. Even the poison from the sting is marketed, as a cure for arthritis. There are some people who actually encourage bee stings as a way to get the poison for their arthritis!
In the winter the bees live dormant, creating a kind of sphere in the hive where they congregate and live but in the summer when they’re active, they have much shorter spans. They prefer an environment of around 30 degrees C and if it’s too hot, as it can be in the summer months, they flap their wings and create a kind of cooling.
Bees have been around for over a hundred million years. In the last few years there’s been talk and worry of them disappearing. Why is this happening?
First of all there’s a worldwide disease called “vorroa,” when little mites get into their colonies and if there’s enough of them, it can destroy the whole colony. We spray in November and February for this problem. But if people overspray, then that can contribute to death of bees. So, overuse of chemicals. Environmental pollution for sure. And another factor is radioactivity. We demonstrated that in my school one day when we had a cell phone near bees in a hive. They just disappeared.
[The organization Save the Bees recommends that growers plant different plants in different seasons of the year and different places so the bees will always have some kind of food, buy from producers that have sustainable agricultural practices, try to avoid plant poisonous substances in gardens and balconies, to leave out a bowl of water every so often]
[Closer to home, disasters like fires can also have a devastating effect on bee populations. On the shelf of my supermarket one day I noticed a bright yellow display of paper towels noting that with each purchase, “20 cents for the bees of Evia” (large island near Attica). In the terrible 2021 summer heat wave, a wildfire in northern Evia killed 10,000 bee hives and destroyed 50,000 hectares of pine forest. This area, with its thick forests, had been a leading pine honey producer. Now the beekeepers have truly become “nomadic,” going north to Halkidiki (peninsula north of Thessaloniki) and south to Crete. You can check out more information at www.beegin.gr ]
Thank you Stavros, and for the photos. I’ve learned so much about bees and beekeeping that I never knew before! I’ll think twice before I get annoyed by bees buzzing around my picnic sandwiches.
Stavros gave us a sample jar from their production along with the 5 kilo containers that we usually buy.
Before we got a chance to sample Stavros’ this-year honey, we were taking a walk in our neighborhood where this outdoor display for the store “Melinikon,” caught our eye.
Inside, kyrios Yiannis and kyria Vicki sell all sorts of products besides honey — wine, legumes, nuts, home made rusks and biscuits and moustoalevria, a dessert made from grapes in early autumn that we bought, along with a jar of ‘elato’ or fir’ honey from the Taygetos mountains (southern Peloponnese).
We were eager to compare this honey (as noted earlier that the bees make this type of honey from the microorganisms feeding on trees) with Stavros’ floral honey. Taste test results: Color the same. Taste and texture: Stavros’ floral honey is a little lighter and sweeter, the fir honey is slightly heavier and thicker. But they’re both heavenly.
Honey can be mixed nicely with alcohol. A popular and delicious drink in Crete is rakomelo, honey and raki. if you want to try it, it’s 1 – 2 t. honey for every 4 shots of raki, add a clove and some cinnamon.
The first day of the harvest, Stavros, Despina and friends cut off pieces of the honeycomb and eat the honey directly from it. And they make traditional Greek sweets like loukoumades (Greek doughnuts) that are soaked in warm honey syrup.
In ancient Greece, these were called “honey tokens”and awarded to winning Olympic athletes.
The harvest is an occasion for not only honey sweets but getting together and feasting on island specialties like this dish of giant beans, eggplant and feta, cooked by Stavros.
Besides drinks and desserts and being a wonderful breakfast food with tahini (superfood!) or peanut butter and banana, or of course yogurt, honey can also combine with savory foods too. We used it preparing this melt-in-your-mouth recipe of grilled salmon with honey, soy sauce, lemon, grated garlic and ginger. Use 2 T. of soy sauce and lemon to 1 T honey, You can marinade it first for a little while before grilling. The green dots on top are capers.
When you blend salty and sweet, you get such a pleasant taste. You can try baked feta with honey: take a piece of feta, sprinkle with pepper, add some olive oil on the top and around the sides and bake for a few minutes, so it gets a little soft. Then you drizzle some honey on top of it (if you want to thin the honey, microwave it for about 30 seconds). Then grill it, for anywhere from 3 to 5 minutes (be on top of it to check the oven so you don’t burn it!) The honey caramelizes, seeps into the feta and leaves the most delectable taste. You can add oregano and fresh thyme or basil if you have it. Eat it while it’s fresh!
This mix of savory and sweet is popular in Crete in the sfakianopita as served at Kalderimi restaurant in Chania, after the meal, along with raki. It’s like a crepe, and instead of feta, it uses another white cheese a little less salty, myzithra. Kali orexi! Bon appetit!
As humans, aren’t we lucky and grateful that bees work so hard for our taste enjoyment. You don’t have to live on Mt. Olympus to savor this nectar of the gods. Enjoy!
8 thoughts on “HONEY, NECTAR OF THE GODS”
My favorite honey is Manuka honey. Pricey but delicious.
Right, Manuka honey is supposed to be the very best you can have. And the most expensive.
Very interesting, Sherri. I especially loved the recipes. Yum. Especially the baked feta with honey.
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Thanks Nancy. Just add a little honey to baking and food is magically transformed…
A most interesting and informative piece. I learned a lot, and an apiarist friend in Australia was very interested, too.
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Thanks Gillian, and glad your beekeeper friend liked it too.
Even though I have enjoyed honey for many years, I read a lot of new information in your blog. I will definitely try the recipes. Well done!
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Thanks Sue, I learned a lot too. Definitely try the recipes!