Few countries love honey and revere beekeepers more than Greece, and perhaps no country has a deeper history in this craft. According to mythology, Greece's first keeper of bees was the demigod Aristaeus, who was said to have learned beekeeping as a child from the Nymphs who raised him and to later pass his knowledge to humans. He "invented the riddled hive… and made a settled place for the labors of the wandering bees," wrote the poet Nonnus in his epic fifth century poem, Dionysiaca. Nonnus also credited Aristaeus with developing the first bee-suit, and to have been reared on nectar and ambrosia, the honey-based foods of the Gods.
Mythology aside, beekeeping may have come to Greece as early as 1500 BCE, when laws promulgated by the Hittites outlined the punishment for theft of a hive (five shekels of silver, about the same as for stealing a sheep). In Athens, archaeologists have excavated cylindrical hives, made from pottery dating to 400 BCE, which often were reused as coffins for children.
Today, the average Greek consumes approximately 3.6 pounds of honey a year, the largest amount per capita in the European Union and more than double U.S. consumption. According to a 2013 study, Greece has the greatest density of bee colonies in Europe, with 11.4 colonies per square kilometer. (The U.S., by comparison, averages only one colony in twice that amount of land.) The country also produces some of the finest honey in the world. At the 2019 London Honey Awards, judges bestowed prizes on 17 Greek honey producers, crowning them with three of five possible platinum awards.
While bee colonies in the U.S. have been famously dying at a catastrophic rate for at least 10 years, dragging down American honey production, Greece's honey industry has remained stable, producing honey that is widely praised. Indeed, Greek scientists have found that bee colonies on Mount Olympus, mythical home of the twelve Greek Gods, produce several varieties of honey that are among the most potent in the world, containing antibacterial, antioxidant, and anti-cancer properties.
Today, with the Greek economy still reeling from its years-long debt crisis, and unemployment hovering dangerously around 18 percent, beekeeping is still flourishing — an economic refuge for some, and a growing cottage industry.
The Mani peninsula, the middle finger of the Peloponnese in Greece, hosts a number of fishing villages. One is Stoupa, home of the man who inspired the main character in "Zorba the Greek," the famous novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. | (Rob Waters/Courtesy Craftsmanship Quarterly)
I've come to Greece to understand why this country has so many prospering bees and beekeepers, and why theirs is so widely ranked as some of the most flavorful, potent, and healthful honey in the world. I also want to learn why Greece has largely avoided the catastrophic die-off of honeybees that has afflicted so many other countries — and what lessons Greek practices might yield for those countries. My questions went well beyond gastronomic concerns. In July, 2019, the Earthwatch Institute declared the honeybee "the most important living being on earth." The reason: 70 percent of the world's agriculture depends on bees, yet we've managed to let this insect's population decline so dramatically that bees are now considered an endangered species.
My efforts to answer these questions took me all over Greece, from the craggy, southwestern reaches of the Peloponnese peninsula in southern Greece, to Karditsa, a small, bicycle-friendly city in the center of the country, and finally to Amorgos, a narrow island shaped like a comma in the Aegean Sea.
Greece's potent herbs
My journey begins with a drive into the Taygetos Mountains in the Peloponnese with Kostas Stagakis, an organic beekeeper and farmer, and his friend and fellow beekeeper, Kostas Perdikeas. I'm jammed into the back seat of Perdikeas's four-wheel drive pickup truck with my interpreter for the day, Vivi Letsou, the owner of Zen Rocks Mani, the yoga retreat center that is housing me. Perdikeas swerves around fallen boulders and charges over deep ruts, tossing Letsou and me around in the back seat. He's stocky, bearded, and wears mirrored sunglasses, making him look like a rugby player, or an off-duty mercenary.
As we ascend into the Taygetos, we pass steep cliffs twined with herbs and wildflowers — yellow irises, purple thyme blossoms, wild cherries. As we round a bend, we are confronted by Profitis Elias (Prophet Elias). At almost 8,000 feet, it's the highest peak of the Taygetos range, which cuts through the southwest side of the Peloponnese. Perdikeas hits the brakes and points. "This is why the honey here is the best," he says. "Because this is the beauty, the nature, in which the honey is produced."
In a country with the greatest density of bee colonies in Europe, colorful beehives are a common sight — in this case, on the hills above Athens. | (Courtesy Craftsmanship Quarterly)
"In Greece, since ancient times, nature has been able to create some of the best products," adds Stagakis, in full Greek-supremacist mode. Stagakis, age 49, looks like a middle-aged rock star, with a greying two-day growth of beard and long black hair tied into a man-bun. "You get the best oranges," he says, "the best olives, the best grapes, wine, and honey — and the best women." The translations pause here as Letsou and the two Kostases banter back and forth, laughing loudly. Finally, Letsou lets me in on the joke. "I told them women are not a product, we are goddesses," she says. "And you men came out of women's bodies."
Greece's natural abundances might inspire the beekeepers, but the climate seems to matter more — because of how it affects the diet of the bees. A country of peninsulas and islands, arid mountains and lush forests, Greece possesses a multiplicity of microclimates that foster a huge variety of plant life. According to the Convention on Biological Diversity, Greece "is one of the world's hotspots for endemic plants." Nearly a quarter of the country's 5,700 plant species are unique to Greece. Furthermore, the country's dry summer heat and relative lack of rainfall give Greece's fields of plants and herbs, such as thyme, oregano, and sage, an intense potency, which food scientists have been able to measure. One strain of oregano on the Greek island of Chios was found to contain Carvacrol, an aromatic and highly antibacterial compound, at levels that are "among the highest reported for this species."
When the honeybees feast on nectar from these powerful herbs, they produce honey with the same kind of punch. "I don't mean to sound nationalistic," Stagakis adds, "but there are truly some qualities in honey here that are found nowhere else."
The "mystery" behind bee colony collapse
When I ask Stagakis what makes a good beekeeper, he laughs. "I do nothing," he says. "I don't make the honey, the bees do." The beekeeper's job, in other words, is to properly manage the bees.
As obvious as this sounds, it's not so easy, especially at a time when bee colonies across the industrialized world are facing dire threats. In June, the Bee Informed Partnership, a U.S.-based research collaborative, released its annual survey of nearly 5,000 American beekeepers and reported the loss of 40.7 percent of colonies over the previous year. The European Commission in 2018 reported losses in some member countries of 50 percent or more.
To understand what was going on, a 2017 study tracked bee colonies in 17 European countries and broke them into four groups based on rates of colony collapse. It found that over two years, Greek bee colonies collapsed at the lowest or second lowest rate. (Scientists use the term "collapse" because not all bees die when a colony disintegrates; most of the worker bees just abandon their hive, which leaves the queen and a few immature bees unable to sustain it on their own.) Among the European countries with high colony losses, two possible factors stood out in particular: how close the bee colonies were to agricultural areas, and the level of training and experience of the beekeepers.
Explanations are similar in the U.S., but in somewhat different proportions. Tim May, president of the American Beekeeping Federation, says plenty of information and training are available to beekeepers, but guidance can only go so far in helping bees overcome environmental hazards. This is especially the case when so many bee colonies are located near farmland, where the flora is under assault from a growing range of pressures. In addition to their struggle to find nutritious food, the bees have to fight off the notorious Varroa destructor mite. "We use three different [mite-control] methods and are always listening to what the experts say we need to do," says May, who runs Sunny Hill Farms, an 81-year-old family-owned beekeeping operation based north of Chicago. In the U.S., May says, "Ag lands are tough."
Beekeeper Kostas Stagakis grows organic vegetables on the side. He is part of Clean Mani, which is organizing community compost collection for organic farmers — an initiative that's part of a new health movement in Greece. | (Rob Waters/Courtesy Craftsmanship Quarterly)
Consider the situation in North Dakota, the U.S.'s top-honey producing state and home base to nearly a fifth of the nation's bees — more than a half million colonies. For generations, the Dakota prairies created an ideal environment for honeybees, says Clint Otto, a research ecologist at the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center of the U.S. Geological Survey in Jamestown, North Dakota. "We have a lot of grassland out here," Otto says. "And that grassland supports flowers, and flowers equal nectar, and nectar equals honey."
But the grassland has been vanishing — steadily, and with increasing speed. Rising commodity prices have encouraged farmers to plant every inch of their fields in corn or soybeans, even on land that they used to keep fallow as part of a federal conservation program. Those fields are now planted with seeds engineered to be resistant to the fungicides, herbicides, and pesticides that American farmers increasingly use. Those chemicals — including glyphosate, the active ingredient in the weed-killer Roundup — not only kill weeds, many of which generate their own nectar, they also wipe out flowering plants. To make matters worse, the chemicals coat the plants with a toxic dust, which tends to get picked up by foraging bees and brought back to their hives.
"If you look at a soybean field this time of year, you'd be hard-pressed to find a flower or plant other than a soybean," Otto says. "There used to be grass and flowers growing there. But now, since everything's Roundup Ready, the whole field is just sprayed, and anything that's not supposed to be growing there — anything that's not corn or soybeans — is dead." That includes wild milkweed plants that used to pop up spontaneously, and which provided critical forage for monarch butterflies and bees. Since bees typically fly three to four miles from their colony searching for food, it has become nearly impossible to keep them away from fields that have been sprayed.
"Beekeepers used to call North Dakota the best place in the U.S. to raise honeybees," Otto says. "Now they say it's the least worst." Similar struggles are confronting beekeepers all over the U.S.
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