A Bittersweet Introduction to Malta’s Celebrated Honey and Bees

malta-pure-honey-honeycomb-bees

Our first encounter with Malta’s revered honey was destined to offer a bittersweet lesson.

At a Christmas market in the Mediterranean country’s capital city, Valletta, we first met third-generation beekeeper and retired science teacher, Michael Muscat. On that chilly evening, girls dressed in holiday hues sang familiar Christmas tunes, peppered with Maltese lyrics. Politicians delivered their Christmas speeches in the open air, and I shook the country’s president’s hand three times. (She was making the rounds throughout the crowd, Shawn and I were moving about as well, thus the comical trio of salutations.) Inside an adjacent tent, vendors sold everything from handmade jewelry, to carob-infused wine, to candles. And as we edged towards the booth operated by Michael and his wife Mary, they literally had their last jar of honey in hand.

Shawn and I had been wanting to purchase Maltese honey (għasel) for several weeks, but in light of cautions about fake Maltese honey, we didn’t know where to find the real stuff. Now that a kind and articulate producer was standing before us, instilling confidence about his honey’s authenticity, we purchased the jar without hesitation.

Exchanging pleasantries, we learned that Michael had been beekeeping for 46 years. Because Michael has the same surname as Malta’s prime minister, I asked him if they are related. (Muscat is a very common last name in Malta, and it turns out there is no connection.) Ever since seeing the eye-opening documentary, More Than Honey, Shawn and I had developed an interest in visiting an apiary. When Michael learned of this wish, he thoughtfully offered to show us around one of his six apiaries in the coming months.

Malta’s Sweet Namesake and its Honey, Revered for Millennia

Malta has been known for its remarkable honey since ancient times, and it’s believed that the Phoenicians first introduced the practice to the island. Speculation exists that the name Malta even evolved from names given to it thousands of years ago. The ancient Greeks referred to the island as Melite (Μελίτη), translating to ‘honey sweet’. During the Roman period, that morphed into Melita. Remarkably, apiaries dating to the Punic times, cut out of living rock, still exist near Xemxija. And a map dating to 1154 described Malta as an island full of “pastures, flocks, fruit and above all in honey.”

Visiting Michael’s Apiary During Malta’s ‘Driest Winter on Record’

Once an unusually-dry winter had turned to spring, we made plans to meet at Michael’s apiary. In the months since our December introduction, Shawn and I had quickly become Maltese honey fans, enjoying delicate dollops of Michael’s magnificent honey on plain yogurt and in bowls of oatmeal. By March, we had nearly finished our jar.

Ahead of our meeting, I emailed Michael to ask if we could purchase more honey. His reply demonstrated the current drought’s detrimental effect, something that hadn’t been as apparent to us since this was our first Maltese winter.

“I have none left. Considering the rainfall pattern this year, I doubt whether there will be any honey harvest coming this spring and summer,” he wrote.

Knowing that there would be no more of this outstanding and unique-tasting honey for the near future, Shawn and I cherished the last spoonfuls. Feeling rather bittersweet, we went to meet Michael’s bees the next morning, near a small city called Siġġiewi.

Historically, Michael said, his Siġġiewi apiary had been one of the most productive. However, Malta’s driest winter on record had led to a lack of wild flora, causing some of Michael’s bees to starve to death, despite him intervening and giving them a syrup supplement.

“It’s been disastrous,” he said, as we slipped beekeeping hats over our heads. “Normally, we get about about 600 mm (roughly 24 inches) in a year. Up until now, it’s been about 100 mm” (roughly 4 inches).

As we trudged through his property studded with Mediterranean flora like cactus plants, plus fig, olive, orange, and eucalyptus trees, Michael continued in delivering the dire news. “Now, the landscape is brown and dry, but usually there’s more green this time of year.”

Spotting several wooden beehive boxes, painted in neutral hues reminiscent of Malta’s ubiquitous limestone, I asked Michael approximately how many bees there were at this apiary.

“About 8,000 to 10,000 bees live in each hive, and here, I have about 25 colonies,” he said. As I calculated the figure in my head, Michael opened the cover on one of the hive boxes, causing more bees to buzz about.

With my gloved hands and the beekeeping contraption on my head, I felt a bit like an astronaut. Surprisingly, despite having an irrational fear of spiders and other insects, I wasn’t too nervous. Bees collided with my protective hat’s plastic eye shield as I awkwardly fumbled to find my camera’s shutter button with my gloved finger.

“One of the colonies here is critically ill – it is beyond rescuing,” Michael said, showing us a frame with dead bees inside.

Continuing to do his hive maintenance, Michael explained that bees usually fly within a 1.5 to km radius, in search of nectar and pollen.

This made me wonder if honey flavors varied greatly between one Maltese corner to another, but Michael said that this wasn’t the case.

“Since Malta is a small island there is little difference, if any, between honey from one apiary to another. The aroma and flavors of the honey depend primarily on the source of nectar. Since the flora in spring is the same throughout the island, the difference will be negligible. However, if clover is abundant close to one apiary, while citrus is predominant in another, the honey collected will show subtle differences.”

In a good year (that is when Malta has plenty of rain that’s evenly distributed, and there is no untreated disease) Michael may be able to harvest an average of ten kilos of honey per hive. That has not been the case for the past two years, though.

Michael and his wife have three daughters, all architects. Mary has never been to any of his apiaries, but Michael said she enjoys marketing the honey with him, as she was the night we first met Michael.

He believes that the knowledge gleaned from his 44 years as a science teacher “complemented his beekeeping” well. Today, he continues to sell honey – and related products – at fairs. He has acquired repeat customers over time.

When I asked him what he most likes about the hobby, his response came easily and quickly.

“I most enjoy actually handling the bees and exchanging ideas with my customers,” Michael said with a smile. “I also appreciate the rapport I’ve been able to develop with them. Often, people will say, ‘I like your product better than the one I bought in the store'”.

“Are there any drawbacks to beekeeping?” I asked.

“Honey’s limitations – one cannot ensure it’s produced,” he said.

Indeed, as we left Michael’s apiary, longing to have another jar of the special honey in hand, we too had learned the lesson of honey’s limitations.

How You Can Help Your Community’s Bees

  1. Plant bee-friendly flora. According to this site, everything from lilacs to lavender, sage to wisteria, and rosemary to mint are desirable.
  2. Do not use pesticides or chemicals in your garden.
  3. Buy honey locally, if possible.

Further Resources:

Malta Beekeeper Michael Muscat

We made it to beekeeper Michael Muscat’s Christmas market stand just in time. Here, he and his wife, Mary, sell their last jar of honey to us, in December 2015. It featured Malta’s autumn flora. With its faint carob taste and hue, it was unlike any honey we’ve ever had. Quite extraordinary.

Siggiewi Church Malta

Siġġiewi’s main street and church.

Wildflowers Malta field

Wildflowers fill a plot of land near Michael’s apiary outside the city of Siġġiewi. He also has apiaries elsewhere on the island. He explained that flavor differences occur between the spring, summer, and autumn honey because the flora is different. “Summer honey comes primarily from the thyme, thistles and the flora found in the garrigue. The autumn honey comes from the eucalyptus and the carob trees, and from the wild vegetation that normally appears after the first rains in September,” he said.

Malta Beehive Boxes

Several of Michael’s beehive boxes, which he crafted himself. A bee colony inhabits each box, and there is only one queen bee per colony. Michael raises his own queens, but some beekeepers buy them from dealers. Bees are incredibly intelligent creatures, apparently having a “kaleidoscopic memory of every flower for miles.” Michael mentioned that each hive has its own smell, “so when bees from a neighboring colony accidentally enter the wrong one, they realize it.”

Malta Honeycomb Beekeeping

A complex, fragile but strong honeycomb. “I marvel at the precision the bees demonstrate when making these honeycombs. It’s an instinctual process, but it’s like there is a supernatural power behind it,” Michael said. The hexagon-shaped wax cells of the honeycomb not only hold the larvae, but also the bees’ honey and pollen. The honey is extracted from the honeycomb. Incredibly, Michael estimated that this apparently delicate honeycomb sample could hold about 1.5 kg (3.3. pounds) of honey.

Malta Beekeeper Michael Muscat

The morning of our visit, Michael was removing strips he’d applied several weeks before, which are designed to combat mites which can kill bees. “The hive is so rich in food – a beekeeper must protect against mice and viruses,” Michael explained.

Maltese bees

Beekeeping in Malta

Michael pulls out a frame brimming with bees.

Maltese Bees Apiary

During our visit, Shawn and I mentioned the German gingerbread-eating wasp that we nicknamed Bart, which we had mistakenly identified as a bee five years earlier. “He must have had a sweet tooth,” Michael said, smiling.

Colony Dead Bees Malta

Bees that have succumbed to starvation, even despite Michael providing a syrup supplement to help them through the drought.

Beekeeping smoker and hat

Some of the tools of the trade, including a bee smoker (left and right) and beekeeping hat (right). Beekeepers use the smoker when they need to work inside the colony’s box. As Michael explained, “When there is smoke in the air, the bees think there is a forest fire. They fill their stomachs with honey, and then leave the hive. In theory, they won’t attack the beekeeper.” Despite taking precautions, Michael said he’s typically stung every day.

Maltese Bees and Honeycomb

The honey bee species that Michael tries to keep is Malta’s indigenous black honeybee, the Apis Mellifera Ruttneri. However, he noted that since the mating of the queen bee occurs in flight, a beekeeper only has control of half of the genetic pool of the offspring. He noted that his observations “show that our bee is dominant and within years, a hybrid colony will eventually become the indigenous black Ruttneri honeybee.”

Beekeeping Hat

Shawn and Michael prepare to get suited up.

Malta honey honeycomb

When we bought a jar of reddish-caramel colored honey back in December, I wrongfully assumed that there would be more when we planned to later visit Michael’s apiary a few months later. As a result, I didn’t take a picture of the jar when it was full to the brim with honey. Here, the empty jar (right) serves as a bittersweet reminder that production cannot be forced.

 

Our Video of This Experience:

Beekeeping in Malta

Where in the World?

Planning Pointers:

  • Malta has been known for its honey since antiquity. If you are visiting the country and would like to purchase a jar of Michael’s raw honey, which is not pasteurized, you can reach him by telephone (+356 7927 9671) or by email:  muscatma@gmail.com. In addition to honey, Michael has sold other bee-related products including mead (an alcoholic beverage made with fermented honey), propolis (the bees’ glue-like sealant, which people use in traditional medicine) and a beeswax cream blended with essential oils. Of course, his product line is subject to availability, something that’s heavily dependent upon recent weather.
  • If you do not purchase honey directly from a beekeeper, ask questions about the honey’s origins to be sure it is Maltese. (It’s reputed that some jars of honey are being branded as though they are Maltese, but if you look more closely, their labels may indicate that they come from another geographic location.)
  • Need more inspiration? This link contains an index of all my posts from Malta.

Thanks:

Many thanks – Grazzi ħafna – to Michael for taking the time to introduce his bees, and for sharing a bit about the fascinating world of beekeeping.

Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved. The video is a creation of my husband, Shawn.

22 Comments on “A Bittersweet Introduction to Malta’s Celebrated Honey and Bees

  1. A fascinating and informative lesson on bee keeping the reprehensibility we – ourselves – have to maintaining bees. Our farmer neighbors down the road recently put out a dozen hives. I originally planned to harvest my lavender to make sachets, but when I saw how many additionally hives are in our neighborhood I will leave the lavender for the bees. They went absolutely mad over the oriental poppies and peonies. The air absolutely vibrated with their humming. I counted more then 25 bees in one poppy blossom. Cheers Virginia

    • Virginia, it’s generous of you to share your lavender, poppies, and peonies with your neighborhood bees, and your gardening approach is such a nice model for others to follow. Kudos to you! Do you think the bees might fly over a complimentary jar of honey as a result? :)

      Several years ago, colleagues invited a group of us to their 17th-century home in a picturesque, wine-producing region of Germany. We went on a walk through the woods together, encountering a beekeeper whose truck – transporting about a dozen bee hives – had gotten stuck in the mud. About half of our group helped the beekeeper dislodge the wheels from the mud, and through it all, the beekeeper kept talking to his bees. He was so grateful for the group’s help that when it came time to extract the bees’ honey, a few weeks later, he ensured everyone in the group was given a jar. During the stuck-truck incident, I remember my colleague commenting that such honey must be fantastic because of the great care he showed to his bees. Indeed, it was!

      • I adore these kind of stories, Tricia. I may not be enjoying my neighbors honey but I know I am only able to buy honey because of the kindness of bees. XX Virginia

      • “Because of the kindness of bees.” I like that, Virginia. We just returned from a walk along Malta’s Victoria Lines – the so-called ‘Great Wall of Malta’ built by the British in the 1800s. I’m delighted that despite there being a drought, we saw many happy bees feasting upon wild thyme flowers. :) I also picked some wild capers and am trying my hand at pickling them. It’s my first go, so wish me luck!

  2. I didn’t know about Malta’s honey history! It is a very foodie place though so it is not suprising. Also 46 years of experience, that is amazing. I think I have another excuse, not that I really need any, to return!

    Malta keeps unfolding and the more I find out about it the more I love it which I didn’t think was possible because I fell in love the minute I saw pictures of it and then when I flew in I knew it was going to be a place that I’d return to soon.

    Also, shame about the fake honey. I mean come on of all the things to fabricate but I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Great post!

    • Hi Melissa, it’s always nice to have an excuse to return to a destination, isn’t it? I’m glad you’ve found a few more reasons to revisit Malta. From what I’ve read and heard, Malta gets a lot of attention for its sun & sea tourism, but there is more to be appreciated here. We’ve most enjoyed agritourism-type adventures, plus the heritage and history sites, and walks near the coast or in the countryside. When the time comes for you to return to this little dot in the Mediterranean, feel free to send me a message if you have any questions. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, and hope you had a lovely weekend! :)

      • Hi Tricia, agree that tourist know it for one thing mainly. I was lucky to get some insider knowledge from my old neighbour who moved there 5-6 years ago. He wasn’t raised there so maybe he doesn’t know as much about the honey. I will definetely look at your blog and send you a message. I also think I need to stay for longer than 4 days. Gozo took up a full day so I would really like to explore Malta a bit more.

      • I’m glad you were able to get out to Gozo, Melissa, as it presents a quieter, slower-paced look at Malta. We’d thought about living there, but in the end, were uncertain how easily we could regularly commute to Valletta and the university from Gozo. We’re actually headed there tomorrow for a day-trip. We’ve been here 8 months, and there’s still much to see.

  3. Hey Tricia. I hadn’t thought much about bees until our most recent trip to Germany. In Nuremberg, there was a hive attached to one of the old city walls, and it was happy, healthy, and totally exposed to the elements! I had never seen anything like it. You might find this interesting, the photos are very cool:

    https://gallivance.net/2014/10/02/nurnberg-germany-bee-there-or-bee-square/

    In this post, you’ll see references to our blogging buddy Martha who keeps bees in the cold northeast. If you have an interest check out her blog for details. Fascinating.

    I’ve never read this anywhere from experts, but what your post confirms for me is that bees are a very good indicator of the health of an ecosystem. In the case of Malta, it’s really is isolated, and resources are scarce. When it’s dry, there aren’t as many flowers – no flowers, no bees. And this make sense for Malta from a historical perspective. It’s a tiny place with few natural sources of food, so honey would be a readily available food, which over time, became a part of their culture. We saw tons of bee hives and honey for sale on our recent trip to the Balkans, especially in Bulgaria. Thanks a lot for a thought provoking post. BTW, how’s Shawn going in his studies? ~James

    • James, belated thanks for taking the time to share your thoughtful comment, as well as links to Martha’s beekeeping blog and the unusual beehive you spotted in Germany! Your mention about bees being a “very good indicator of the health of an ecosystem” seems spot-on, and it reminded me of a quote attributed to Albert Einstein: “If the bee disappeared off the face of the Earth, man would only have four years left to live.” (I guess there’s some discussion about whether or not Einstein really said that, nevertheless it’s thought-provoking.) In a documentary that I mentioned in this post (the one called ‘More than Honey’), the filmmakers filmed farmers in China pollinating fruit or nut trees by hand, because the bees who’d normally done the work had simply died.

      It’s also quite interesting to see that Nürnberg beehive out in the open. I’m surprised it’s survived despite Germany’s regular rainfall! I also took a peek at Martha’s blog, and was dismayed to read her most recent post mentioning the loss of one of her hives. Beekeeping seems to be an art and a science dependent upon forces that aren’t always easy for a beekeeper to control.

      Finally, thanks for asking about Shawn’s studies. :) He finishes his program this autumn – can’t believe how quickly that’s flown by. He’s in the midst of doing a 50-page paper, but was delighted to get away from the keyboard earlier this week, when we spent the day at a picturesque beach celebrating his birthday and the 4th of July. Hope you and Terri are both well.

  4. That was very interesting. I never visited an apiary but I buy my honey from a local beekeeper. I used to make alot of mead so I used to buy alot of honey. Whenever I visit the beekeeper I ask him about his bees. Beekeeping is interesting but I don’t think I’ll ever do it.

    • Gerard, nice to ‘see’ you again! When we met beekeeper Michael here in Malta, he mentioned making mead too, and this reminded me of your mead-making. We didn’t get a chance to try any mead, but that’s still on my radar to do sometime. Is your local beekeeper an ‘urban beekeeper’?

      • Hi Tricia. My local beekeeper, Graham, is not an “urban beekeeper.” Some of his bees are in the suburbs and some are on farms. I’ve been to his house in suburban Hicksville but I’ve never seen his operation.

      • It’s interesting how beekeeping varies from the city to the country, and from region to region. I wonder how much a mead’s flavor differs when different samples of honey are used to make it. For example, Malta has different ‘flavors’ of honey, based upon the flora that the bee consumes in say, the autumn vs. the summer. I wonder if the fermentation process would cancel out those subtleties or if you can actually taste the difference. Is this a silly question, or have you ever noticed this? :)

  5. Hi Tricia. The honey that is used makes a very big difference in the taste of the mead. Your question is not silly.

  6. Wow… I enjoyed my trip to Malta, but had no idea about their bees – I feel like I learned a lot from your post – thanks!

    • Hi Adam, and thanks for dropping by! When I came here for the first time in 2006, I didn’t know about Malta’s unique species of bees either. With lots of Maltese honey for sale this time around, I became curious after living here for a few months. :) What did you think of the country, and what were some of your trip highlights?

    • Given your family’s interest in bee-related products, I think you’d enjoy networking with some of Malta’s beekeepers! Are you experiencing unusually-dry weather in Greece this year too? We finally had a burst of rain a few days ago, but I can’t imagine that it’d be enough to help undo the damage of this winter’s drought.

      • Hello Tricia! Thank you very much for your kind thought. Do you have a certain idea in your mind on how to network with Malta’s beekeepers? It would be great for us to learn more about Malta’s culture on the matter and also pass our own knowledge through our products and our advices on different uses of propolis with the people there.

      • I actually thought of networking in person if you ever visit Malta, but now that you’ve mentioned it, perhaps the beekeeper I profiled in this post (Michael Muscat) might be interested in communicating with you. His name & telephone number are listed under the Planning Pointers section (first bullet). It sounds as though he is well-connected in the beekeeping community here, so perhaps you could have a good exchange.

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