Greece’s Secret to Perfect Honey
While prosperous countries like the U.S. have struggled to keep their honeybees alive, Greece continues to produce what many consider the world’s finest honey. What’s the Greeks’ secret? And why can’t everyone else keep up?
By ROB WATERS
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 beekeeping 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 (5 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.
Seventy 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.
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 the 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 12 Greek gods, produce several varieties of honey that are among the most potent in the world, containing antibacterial, antioxidant, and anti-cancer properties.
With the Greek economy still reeling from its years-long debt crisis, and unemployment hovering dangerously around 17 to 18 percent, beekeeping is still flourishing—an economic refuge for some, and a growing cottage industry.
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.
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.”
Nearly a quarter of Greece’s 5,700 plant species are unique to the country. And Greece’s dry summer heat and minimal rainfall give its plants and herbs, such as thyme, oregano, and sage, an unusually intense potency.
“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.”
Continuing up the mountain, we cross into a heavily wooded area, which Letsou tells me is the Vasiliki, or royal, Forest. It’s made up largely of fir trees and towering black pines—some as much as 300 years old. (The forest got its name, she says, because Gorgo, the ancient queen of Sparta, is said to have summered here about 500 years before Christ.) The stands of pine and fir also supply the ingredients for a unique honey known as honeydew or forest honey. Found mostly in Turkey and Greece, it comes, indirectly, from the sap of conifers.
The magic of this honey starts when a scaly insect known scientifically as Marchalina hellenica embeds her eggs in the bark of fir or pine trees. As the eggs become nymphs, they probe the trees, suck out sap, and excrete some from their hind ends. This material, essentially insect poo, is called honeydew. After the bees gather an outing’s booty (through their noses), they return to the hive, regurgitate their cargo (honeydew in this case, flower nectar in others) into the mouth of another bee, which will then repeat the process in an industrious game of pass-the-nectar. “It might go through five, six, seven different bees,” Stagakis tells me.
As the bees proceed with their labors, they secrete enzymes that dehydrate the nectar, boosting its sugar content. In their final step, to remove what they can of the remaining water, the bees hover outside the honeycombs beating their wings.
Back on the road to Mount Taygetos, we finally come to a stop 3 kilometers from the summit and unpack ourselves from the truck. Before us is a long line of rectangular boxes stacked one, two, and sometimes three high. The boxes, Stagakis’s beehives, are painted in muted shades of green, blue, yellow, and orange. Beyond them, wisps of clouds and forested mountains, brown and barren at their peak, punctuate a brilliant blue sky.
Stagakis has come to inspect his colonies, as he does once or twice a week. He has about 100 here at the top of the mountain, 50 more in another village. To encourage his bees to feast on Greece’s potent herbs and flowers, Stagakis moves his colonies with the season and the weather.
This is the honeydew honey and it is utterly unique—thick and less sweet than I expected, but intense and potent in a way that lingers in the mouth.
First, Stagakis dons a hood and veil to protect his face. His task for today is to merge two colonies, one of which has lost its queen. He plans to combine it with a colony that has a queen, which he thinks possesses powerful pheromones (hormones transmitted by scent). “If she has strong pheromones,” he says, “she holds the bees close to her and the population will increase.”
It’s a delicate operation. He takes the wooden lid off of the first box and sprays smoke from a bellows to calm the bees and keep them from swarming. Using a spray bottle, he also sends a light mist of diluted vinegar into the box to neutralize some of the scents. “It’s a kingdom of smells,” Stagakis says. “The two hives will kill each other if they smell the difference in each other.”
Then he takes a piece of newspaper and places it on top of one box to separate it from the other. The wind catches the newspaper, blowing it out of his hands and down an embankment. He crawls down the hill precariously, retrieves the paper (precious up here, hours from the nearest town), and starts again.
“The newspaper creates a separation,” he explains. “The bees will fly at the newspaper, make holes and start to go back and forth. But this gives them more time to get used to each other and not fight.” He places the second hive on top, sprays more smoke, and steps back. In a matter of minutes, the colonies have become one.
From another box, Stagakis pulls a frame lined with honeycombs and hands it to me. The combs are filled with honey the color of dark amber. I dip my finger in and taste. This is the honeydew honey and it is utterly unique—thick and less sweet than I expected, but intense and potent in a way that lingers in the mouth and throat. Adding to its delights are bits of honeycomb, which make it chewy and crunchy. Apparently, this honey rarely crystallizes because of its low sugar content. Stagakis says it also contains powerful antioxidants.
Before finding Stagakis, I spent some time with Paschalis Harizanis, a professor of apiculture at the Agricultural University of Athens. After studying beekeeping at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, Harizanis earned a summer scholarship to work with beekeepers in Ohio, then did graduate research at the University of California, Davis as the last PhD student of renowned bee geneticist Harry Laidlaw.
Harizanis is now one of Greece’s foremost researchers of bees and apiculture, and he helps train hundreds of beekeepers every year. “Greek beekeepers are very well-educated,” he told me at one point, “the most literate farmers in Greece.” Fortunately for me, Harizanis was offering a honey-making seminar during my visit, and he invited me to observe. This was no small treat; out of 62 who applied, only 20 people were accepted.
I arrive just in time to partake in a sampling of the students’ work. Eight bowls of honey, each one different in color and texture, are laid out on a table. I sample each one, and find myself stretching for ways to describe them. Pine honey is thick and spicy; thyme honey, amber colored and intensely aromatic; chestnut honey has a powerful and slightly bitter aftertaste; and citrus honey is surprisingly clear and light. Words fail me for honey from some of the more exotic varieties: manzanita, oak, and cotton.
Two of the honeys come from Katerina Apostolopoulou, a 35-year-old who switched from financial services to beekeeping 5 years ago and is one of only a few women at the seminar, or working in the industry. She now maintains 100 colonies, and sells their honey to friends and family, and by word of mouth. Another recent recruit to this field is Aris Galiatsatos, who took up beekeeping when the financial crisis struck Greece in 2009. “I am a bee lover now,” he told me. “I can not imagine my life without them.”
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 of 2019, 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 2 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.”
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 3 to 4 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. (For one particularly intimate account, see the sidebar, “The Wisdom of a Veteran Beekeeper”, a Q&A with Spencer Marshall of Marshall’s Honey. Now 76, Marshall has spent the last 50 years producing the San Francisco Bay Area’s most widely sold artisanal honeys.)
Bret Adee, a third-generation beekeeper whose family business was started in the 1930s, is now the largest beekeeper in the U.S. Adee Honey Farms keeps nearly 100,000 colonies that spend summers in North and South Dakota. During the winter and early spring, these colonies are trucked around the country to pollinate almond trees in Central California and fruit trees in other western states.
In recent years, Adee has lost nearly half his colonies every winter and has scrambled to replace them by buying new queens, splitting colonies, and acquiring colonies from other beekeepers. Despite his efforts, his colonies are still depleted and far less productive—a trend experienced by beekeepers throughout the country. Over the last winter, Adee lost so many bees he was forced to close down operations in Nebraska, where he had kept bees for 60 years. “These are dark days for the bee industry,” he says. “There’s a lot of nervousness among beekeepers right now.”
In 1993, the U.S. had about 2.9 million bee colonies that produced some 231 million pounds of honey. By 2017, the number of colonies had fallen only slightly, by 7 percent. During that time, however, honey output dropped 36 percent to 148 million pounds. One result: more than two-thirds of the honey consumed in the U.S. is now imported.
More than a decade into this crisis, scientists agree that high bee death rates stem from a complex mix of pesticide exposure, mite infestation, habitat loss, and climate change, but they disagree about the relative importance of each factor. Dennis vanEngelsdorp, a University of Maryland entomologist, is a “firm believer that the major driver of colony losses is the Varroa mite” and that the vast majority of bees are exposed to levels of pesticides at such low levels that “it’s hard to know how they could be affected.”
Other scientists and beekeepers—noting that mite infestations began before bee colonies started collapsing—put more blame on pesticides; and they were alarmed by the actions of Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency to allow the use of one pesticide, sulfoxaflor, that the agency itself labeled “very highly toxic” to bees. Trump’s EPA also approved emergency use of eight others, and suspended—at least temporarily—the collection of quarterly data on honeybee colony losses.
Adee says the EPA under numerous administrations has allowed these products to be used and ignored evidence of the dangerous synergistic effects that multiple chemical agents pose to bees.
“This is bigger than the Trump EPA,” Adee says. “This is an institutionalized problem that the EPA hasn’t looked at the side effects of insecticides on beneficial insects. You could grow old reading all the papers about the chronic effects the different insecticides have on honeybees. Honeybees are insects, and these pesticides are designed to kill insects.” Adee is so convinced of this fact that in 2013, 2016, and again in 2019, he joined lawsuits against the EPA to block the use of various insecticides.
Farmers’ dependence on insecticides and herbicides, as well as the widespread use of genetically modified seeds, make the dangers to bees in regions dominated by industrial agriculture almost ubiquitous.
A legal action filed in September 2019 by the Pollinator Stewardship Council and the American Beekeeping Federation, sought to reverse the EPA’s decision to allow broader use of sulfoxaflor. So far, though, legal victories have been elusive. Adee and other beekeepers, meanwhile, are just hanging on. “We’re all on pins and needles because the prices have gone down,” he told me. “And everybody’s concerned that we’ll have a repeat of last year, when we had such terrible losses in the fall.”
The larger problem is that U.S. beekeepers, even large operators like Adee Honey Farms, are small fry compared to big agricultural and chemical interests. Farmers’ overwhelming dependence on insecticides and herbicides, as well as the widespread use of genetically modified seeds, make the dangers to bees in regions dominated by industrial agriculture almost ubiquitous.
If there’s one thing that gives Adee a modicum of hope it’s the work being done by farmers and researchers who are part of what is now called the “soil health movement.” That movement is popularizing practices that diversify plantings, make greater use of cover crops, and treat soil more gently by avoiding tillage. This allows roots and plant residues to remain, which feeds the soil, strengthens the plants that grow in it, and ultimately reduce the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
“I’ve come to realize healthy soils equal healthy plants and healthy plants equal healthy bees,” Adee says. Soil health evangelists are also trying to break Big Ag’s dependence on monoculture (planting huge tracts of land with a single crop). Among other dangers, monoculture forces bees to live on only one food. “If a human were to consume nothing but sardines one month, chocolate the next, turnips the month after, and so on, one could reasonably expect that person to fall ill,” a group of scientists wrote in a 2015 paper in the journal Science.
When taken together, the various challenges that bees face every year create a condition that some beekeepers describe as “The Four P’s”: parasites (such as the Varroa mite); pathogens (often spread by the mites); pesticides; and poor nutrition. As discouraging as this four-cornered picture looks, some bee experts see potential solutions beyond smarter farming. In his 2019 book, “The Lives of Bees”, Thomas D. Seeley, a professor of biology at Cornell University, argues that if beekeepers simply did a better job of imitating the way wild bees build and feed their hives, commercial colonies would thrive as well, even those infested by Varroa mites.
Surprisingly, Seeley urges beekeepers to refrain from treating their hives for mites; over time, he argues, beekeepers would do better to put their resources into watching and managing their hives more carefully, allow a little die-off, then build on the Varroa-resistant bees that survive. Among his many other suggestions, Seeley also advises beekeepers to create smaller hives; stop clustering them together; and don’t continually relocate them. Each of these ideas might mean more work and less profit in the short term, but Seeley believes they can equate to more profit—or at least the survival of the bees, and our honey—in the long term.
These are great suggestions—for an ideal world, says Tim May of the beekeeping federation. May says none of the leading mite researchers would support Seeley’s approach to Varroa infestation. And keeping bees within their natural environment is even more difficult as time goes on. In the last few decades, the market for California almonds has skyrocketed, and that has meant trucking more hives across the country to pollinate the state’s rapidly expanding orchards. “In 1988,” May says, “only 11 percent of the average commercial beekeeper’s revenue was obtained through pollination. Now it’s over 60 percent.”
Meanwhile, in Greece, despite the country’s economic privations, agricultural leaders have been way ahead of the Americans—at least regarding the health of their land and crops. Greece doesn’t allow the use of genetically modified crops or seeds, and the European Union has banned the use of several neonicotinoids, a type of pesticide that is believed to be especially dangerous to bees. Furthermore, large, single-crop orchards are rare in Greece, and since bee colonies are widely dispersed, there’s no need to truck in bees to pollinate the nation’s crops.
Still, the life of a Greek beekeeper is hard, and 2018 was especially tough. In June, Kostas Stagakis had already moved his hives five times searching for better forage for his bees. “The winter was dry and some flowers did not blossom,” he tells me. One of the reasons, he explains, is that with climate change, the Sahara desert is expanding, sending windborne sand across the Mediterranean from Northern Africa. “More wind, more dust, and more dryness means less flowers,” he says.
These conditions create plenty of uncertainty, not just for Stagakis but also for the world’s future supplies of exceptional honey. In a banner year, Stagakis can get as much as 30 kilograms of honey per hive; in a bad year, as little as 10 kilos. On average, with 150 colonies, he grosses about 9,000 Euros a year (roughly $10,000). Production costs take at least half that amount; to make ends meet, therefore, he also maintains a grove of olive trees and an organic garden, from which he sells fruits, vegetables, and olive oil.
Having devised some pesticide-free approaches to maintaining his vegetable garden and olive grove, Stagakis uses the same concept with his bees. To control Varroa mites, for instance, he takes essential oil from Greek thyme, soaks some of it into a sponge, and puts it in his hives, aiming to kill mites and not bees. It helps, he says, but it’s not foolproof.
The day after our trip up the mountain, I had coffee with Stagakis (and one of his friends, who helped translate). Throughout much of the conversation, Stagakis was glued to his phone, getting weather reports. Suddenly, he stood up and said he had to go; it was raining up on the mountain and he needed to move his colonies. His friend laughed. “Kostas doesn’t run his life,” she said. “The bees run his life.” And just like that, Stagakis was gone.
I left a couple of days later, too, and soon was on a ferry to Amorgos, the tiny Greek island where some of the best honey in Greece is produced by a former filmmaker. Panagiotis Maroulis had been living the fast life in Athens as a director of movies and TV shows until, in 2005, he got tired of it. “I decided to escape,” he tells me from the workshop of his small estate in Lagkada.
In Amorgos, a near-perfect set of factors seem to coalesce to create the conditions for great honey. “Here, the food of the bees—it’s very, very powerful,” Maroulis says. “The plants get strong because they grow in really difficult conditions. Plus we don’t have factories, we don’t have pollution, we don’t have big cultivations using fertilizers, there are almost no pesticides.” (For a taste of what an herbalist’s life is like on this idyllic island, see the sidebar, “On a Rugged Greek Island, an Herbal Scientist Follows the Path of His Ancestors”. And don’t miss the accompanying mini-documentary, “Vangelis, the Ethnobotanist”.) For Maroulis, one additional factor came into play: Not long after coming to Amorgos, he had what he describes as an almost mystical experience. “I felt something without knowing where it came from,” he says. “It was a vibe, a feeling. I was attracted to the bees.”
Maroulis now maintains 150 colonies, which are spread across five different sites—on Amorgos and the nearby islands of Nikouria and Danousa. He visits one every day. To do so, he must walk alongside a donkey on single-trek paths and take boat trips on the turbulent Aegean. “The view, the feeling—it’s a very inner-space experience, like meditating, like an odyssey,” he says.
In the view of Pantelis Koutas, one of the beekeeper’s friends, Maroulis is a true artist—both bee whisperer and, it turns out, a painter. Indeed, the counters and walls of his workshop, which doubles as his kitchen, are stacked with bottles and tanks of honey as well as dark paintings in the tradition of the Greek Orthodox church. Not coincidentally, Maroulis made these paintings using a technique known as encaustic, which uses heated, pigmented beeswax applied to wood.
Of course, neither beekeeping nor painting are paths to wealth, a fact that Koutas acknowledges with a laugh. “He can have a year that’s OK; he can have a year that’s a disaster,” he says. But so what? “He makes art; he makes honey. He grows some plants; he makes olive oil. He has what he needs, and he’s living in Amorgos.”