Beekeeping in Malta has a long history. The Greeks called the island Melite (Μελίτη) which derives from the Greek word meli (μέλι) that means honey. This name was also used under the Romans and was changed during the Arab rule to Malta.
A sub species of the honey bee (Apis Mellifera Ruttneri) is endemic to the Maltese Islands. This was always found in the wild and sometimes still can be found although now is rare to find because of diseases.
During the many colonisers which dominated the islands, honey from Malta was considered as a delicacy and also used to be an export product from the island. It is regarded that the Phoenicians introduced the domestication of beekeeping in apiaries and earthenware jars and some Punic apiaries remain. During the Roman times Cicero in the case of Gaius Verres accuses Verres that he had stolen many jars of honey. The islands at that time fell under the jurisdiction of Sicily where Verres was a Roman magistrate.
In the countryside one can find apiaries called ‘Miġbħa’ that date to Punic times. One of them is the Xemxija apiary that is one of the oldest and best example in the world. In theory this apiary is still in a state of use although the way beekeeping is done today have a different technique from that time as now we use movable frame hives. Till the 1950’s in Malta, bees where kept in earthenware jars. These type of jars where made of clay and had no bottom and at their mouth they had a closure with small holes. These where kept under trees especially under carobs as these trees cover a good area and thus the jars are covered and protected from the sun. Sometimes they where also put in niches in the rubble walls made especially for these jars. But those who had the means used to build apiaries in their fields. These where specially built rooms or caves which had their opening closed by a wall. Where the jars were put there was an opening in the wall where the bees could enter and leave the jars and a kind of shelving at the back where the jars rested and the jar extension can be put. These apiaries sometimes used to be rented to beekeepers from other locations. Some used to transport the jars to Mellieħa for the Wild Thyme honey season. They used to tie the jar to a piece of wood so it will stay in an upright position and close the mouth and bottom of the jar with sack cloth. Beekeepers that didn’t have an apiary in their property and left their jars under trees or behind walls used to cover the mouth of the jar and thus the bees started to use the bottom side of the jar as an entrance. A piece of wood with a stone behind it was put to the bottom of the jar to reduce the entrance to few centimetres.
There was not much manipulation on the bees when they used to be kept in jars but the production of honey was much less than today although they rendered a lot of beeswax after the gathering of honey. In general, honey was gathered once a year after the wild thyme honey season. They used the Feast of St. Anne (26th July) as the honey gathering day. The beekeeper seeing the bees developing started to add extensions to the jar. These were like rings of clay about 12 inches long although they differed in size, without any bottom or mouths which were put behind the jar. Sometimes rings of metal taken from 5 gallon tanks were used. Some old beekeepers say that they added up to 3 or 4 extensions when it was a good season. This also depended on the strain of bee housed in the jar.
Gathering of honey was a little bit messy. A long knife was used to cut off the combs with honey which were then put in a pail or a pot and covered. Before bee smokers were available the beekeepers used to burn some grass in old cooking pans and extinguish it to make some smoke.
The beekeeper used to cut the combs till he met the combs containing the larvae. The beekeeper sometimes when he used to see a jar with it’s combs being built perpendicularly, tried to change the way the bees built the combs by cutting a comb from another jar and place it parallel to the entrance so maybe the bees change the way they are building.
These techniques started to change in the 50’s as the first movable frame hives, and tools began to appear. These generally where imported from Britain. The hives were then copied from them and crafted locally. Till today the British Standard hive is common in Malta.
The biggest drop in the use of jars was in the early 1990’s when the varroa mite was introduced in the Maltese islands and eliminated about 2/3 of the entire bee colonies in the islands.
Here it is important to say that honey was a commodity in old times. Before the invention of sugar refining, honey was the only means of sweetener and also for a time it was also cheaper than cane sugar. Some farmers kept a few jars of bees so that they have some honey for their consumption, and not as a business.
Wax was also priced as it was used for moulding, arts and also produced one of the cleanest candles.
Today many things changed but one cannot forget our fathers that without any modern knowledge and tools managed to place Malta in the world map of honey. Maltese honey is regarded as one of the best around the world.
Honey is a sweet food made by some species insects using nectar from flowers. The honey produced by honey bees is the most common, as this insect makes a good surplus of honey which is harvested by the beekeeper to be consumed later as food. The taste of honey comes from the types of flowers the bees visit during their forage time. This also gives different properties to the honey.
The bees collect nectar form flowers and store it in their honeycomb cells. After this the bees add enzymes to the nectar and dry it from water. When honey is ready, they cap each cell with a piece of wax (like a kind of lid). The beekeeper encourages the overproduction of honey so it can be harvested without endangering the bee colony. When he takes the frames containing honey the beekeeper removes the wax cappings by an uncapping fork or an uncapping knife. After all caps are removed he puts the frames in the honey extractor and honey is taken out of the frames. The honey that gathers at the bottom of the extractor is then filtered and left to settle in the settling tank. Then it is bottled.
In religion Christians and Jews compare something beautiful and abundant with honey. St. John the Baptist lived in the desert on a diet of wild honey that he took from feral bee colonies and locusts. The Jewish symbol for the new year (Rosh Hashanah) is honey and apples, while the Muslims in the koran have a Surah named ‘an-Nahl’, meaning “of the bee” where the writer says that God created the bee to make honey which mankind can use to heal body ailments. It also have symbolisims in Hinduisim where it is one of the five elisirs and Buddhism as Buddha was offered honey by a monkey during his retreat. Even in ancient religions, the Egyptians and Incas offered honey to their gods.
Maltese types of Honey
The first type of honey we harvest in Malta is the spring multiflora honey. This type of honey is gathered from many types of flowers that are present in spring time. It contains different kinds of pollen and nectar. In areas where clover is still grown the honey bees work a lot on this flower. Also when orange trees are present the bees work on it’s blossoms. This type of honey is collected during May if the beekeeper is going to harvest wild thyme honey. Some people find it good against allergy and hay fever, when they take it regularly as this type contains different kinds of pollen and the body will get used to them slowly and don’t react to them, resulting in less allergies. This type of honey has the tendency to solidify in a few months (sometimes even less).
The second harvest is of the wild thyme honey. At the end of May the Wild Thyme (Thymus Capitatus) shrub opens it’s flowers. This type of plant grows on the garrigue in the north of Malta and on the island of Commino. It has little purple flowers with a very strong aromatic scent. The nectar collected from them by the bees make a very delicious honey. This season starts exactly in the last week of May and ends between the last of June and the first week of July.
After this season in the last weeks of August the bees start to work on the Eucalyptus flowers. This results in the build up the colony after it is slowed down by the summer temperatures. If no heavy rains occur in September the bees continue to gather from the Eucalyptus flowers during the month. These flowers are very sensitive to rain and humidity as they are like a fluffy ball. This type of honey is sometimes rare or very abundant as it depends on many factors, like temperatures, weather and strength of the hive. After the flowers of this tree abate in October the carob trees start to flower. The hives which now are strong enough and if the weather permits the bees to forage, another type of honey is taken.
This autumn multifloral honey consists mainly from nectar collected from eucalyptus trees, carob and the flowers that one finds in the beginning of autumn. This honey tastes mainly of carob, and is used especially for sore throats, and by people who smoke.
It is important to note here that these types of honey after some time solidify. The honey is still suitable for consumption. It can be eaten solid or put the jar in warm water and the honey liquifies again.
The Maltese honeybee – Apis mellifera ruttneri
Apis mellifera ruttneri is the endemic honey bee of the Maltese islands. This species evolved when the Maltese islands were isolated from mainland Europe, after the Mediterranean sea rose above the passage to Sicily.
For many years it was the sole honeybee species in the Maltese islands till importation of queens happened in recent years when many queens and packaged bees were imported after 1992. This happened after the devastation left by the Varroa mite that was found in the islands that year. It is estimated that about 4000 colonies were devastated by the varroa mite at that time. The sub species relates closely to the North African bee (A. m. intermissa) and although slightly lower, with the Sicilian bee (A. m. sicula). It’s identification was done in 1997 by WS Sheppard, Marc Arias, A Grech and MD Meixner. It is named after Professor Friedeich Ruttner (1914 – 1998) to acknowledge his research in beekeeping. When tests where done at that time it was found that altough after all the importation that happened before the Maltese sub-spiecies was still identifiable and also dominant.
Charachteristics of the Maltese Honey Bee
The Maltese honey bee is small in size and of a dark colour. When compared to the North African bee and the Sicilian bee it has shorter legs and wings. The wings are also much narrower. From all the bee races it has the widest abdomen. It has long hair on it’s abdomen. This bee is very adapted to the Maltese islands climate and enviornment. The queen will keep constant laying of eggs to the climate variations. It is noted that before summer and winter the queen drops in the number of eggs laid and stores extra honey in the brood chamber instead, then again starts laying abundantly exactly before spring time and autumn. Altough it has a tendancy of being very defensive and sometimes aggresive it can be bred to a more docile honey bee. It is also a very productive bee as it is observed working in strong windy days and during hot weather. During summer time when tempretures can get over 40 °C the bee tends to work early in the morning and in the afternoon till sunset while taking a short break during mid day. It always stores enough honey for winter and sometimes there will be no need to supplement the colonies with bee candy or sugar syrup in winter. This type of bee has a tendancy to swarm and when continuously disturbed it will abscond the hive. It also makes a lot of queen cells and a colony sometimes has more than one swarm. The Maltese bee is sometimes aggressive during bad weather and defends the hive very well against other pests. Sometimes wasp nests are seen near the hives in a few metres distance away without offering any problems to the bees. It cleans the hive very well and removes any foreign material promptly.
The species is considered as making a comeback after Varroa was introduced to Malta in 1992. At that time colonies of bees from abroad were imported to compensate for the loss of native colonies. In 1997 the species was identified as a sub-species. It breeds well with the Italian sub-species making a strain that defends well against Varroa and has good honey yield, while less aggressive, although this is somewhat endangering the Maltese sub-species as a genetically distinct entity and after some generations it ends up a totally aggressive hybrid.