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 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.”
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.
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.