Malta has been involved with the production of honey since time immemorial. The word ‘Malta’ itself in fact, derives from the Greek word for honey, ‘meli’, or ‘land of honey’, ‘melitos’. This points to the fact that the production of local honey already existed as far back as the time of the ancient Greeks. The Romans too considered honey to be one of Malta’s chief products, in fact they called Malta ‘Melita’, which is similar to ‘melitai’, their word for ‘honey’.
Anyone who is curious to know more about honey-making during the Roman period need only visit the ancient ruins of a stone apiary in a cave found in the town of Mellieħa. Situated just a stone’s throw away from the road that runs the length of the ridge, the beehives lie nestled in a sheltered spot at the mouth of a cave just below the ridge top. It’s likely that clay pipes with one end closed, except for some small holes, were placed in the alcoves. The door cut in the side allows access to the back of the hollows for comb collecting. Even today, Mellieħa is known as a main honey-producing zone, with more than 40 modern hives. Other such zones include Fawwara, just below Dingli Cliffs, as well as most of Gozo.
Honey remained popular with the Maltese until sugar was introduced. The climate of Malta is ideal for the production of honey because of its mild winters. In Malta and Gozo there are currently approximately 2,200 colonies of bees and 220 beekeepers. Maltese honey is very popular with tourists because of its unique characteristics and particular taste. The Maltese honey bee is native to Malta and is a sub-species of the Western honey bee. It is black in colour and well-adapted to relatively cold winters and very hot dry summers.
Maltese honey does not have one uniform colour, as its colouring ranges from light to dark, depending on the flowers the bees have foraged on during the particular months the honeycomb was made. The honey is a blend of the seasonal flora, and not of just one particular crop, although the largest amount of pollen and nectar generally influences the taste, like in the case of wild thyme, citrus and carob honey. Spring honey tends to be light in colour, while the autumn one would be slightly darker because bees would have got their pollen from the darker carob flower. Other flowers bees tend to forage on, and which give a special type of aroma and taste to the honey, are white clover, bitumen clover, white mustard, and borage.
A forager bee can travel for miles to find the flowers it wants. Once there, it uses its straw-like proboscis to drink the sweet nectar. A bee’s stomach can take 100 to 1,500 flowers to fill up. Once at the hive, the bee regurgitates the nectar where it fills one of the hive’s outer frames. Bees add an enzyme called invertase to help mature the nectar into honey. The enzyme breaks down sucrose into two simpler sugars called glucose and fructose. These two sugars make up around 70% of honey. Water makes up around 18%, with another 5% consisting of vitamins, pigments, enzymes, minerals, organic acids and aromatic oils.
Honey is known to be very useful for its soothing and healing properties, especially in the case of colds and coughs. Being highly antiseptic, it is also believed to deter bacteria, and is normally drunk with tea or warm water, as well as used to make soap, candles, and soothing creams. The well-loved Maltese traditional sweet – the ‘qagħqa tal-għasel’ or honey-ring, also has honey as its main ingredient.