Almost every guide book on the Malta makes reference to the Islands’ name as deriving from the Greek word for honey – meli – or land of honey, melitos, or even their later Roman name ‘Melita’, also meaning honey. It’s just as likely the name came from the Phoenician Semitic verb form malata, meaning ‘one takes refuge.’ All these etmyological threads are possible, but the idea of the Maltese Islands as isles of honey is a connection that we love. Certainly, guide book prose always says Malta is honey coloured, from its warm, yellow limestone and sun. The Maltese word for honey by the way is Ghasel.
But it took a walk in fantastically warm weather, high up on the ridge near St Agatha’s Tower (Red Fort) beyond Mellieha, to drive home the millennia-old link between Malta and honey. The garrigue landscape up there is covered in wild thyme; the hardy weathered variety that survives downpours, gales and drought. These bushes rarely get trodden under foot so grow into bushy mounds. Rub them and savour a heady scent that is to die for, and many a lamb has.
Now, bees loves thyme when it flowers deep purple-blue in early summer (end May to early July). So it stands to reason that where there’s an abundance of thyme, beekeepers follow. I’d heard about some Roman beehives near Mellieha, but wasn’t at all sure where they were or what on earth they’d look like. They turned out to be a stone’s throw from the road that runs the length of the ridge, but they are easy to miss.
Thanks to a helpful walking guide of the area I’d picked up for €2.50 from Din l-Art Helwa (Malta’s National Trust) which runs the tower, I did an hour-long, circular route passing by the beehives. They lie nestled in a sheltered spot at the mouth of a cave just below the ridge top. If you didn’t know they were an early form of hive, you’d mistake them for bread ovens or perhaps a dovecote of some sort. Sadly, it did look like some people had used the spot as a kind of BBQ area. But in essence, this cave apiary is how it would have looked in Roman times, when Malta’s golden nectar was highly prized. It’s likely that clay pipes with one end closed, but 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. Clay pipes hives were in use until relatively recent times in Malta.
Malta’s honey zones
Mellieha is renown even today as a main honey producing zone, and early in the walk, you pass around 40 modern hives. Other zones include most of Gozo, the isle of Comino, and Fawwara, just below Dingli Cliffs in the West. Today, there are only around five, full-time beekeepers on the Islands who manage an income from this ancient livelihood.
Beekeeping here today
But, things are changing, and several, like Nicholas Zammit in Fawwara, are very enterprising, bottling around 500 kilo a year, in nice packaging, and with new lines, such as honey and pistacchios. Honey hand creams and beeswax products like ornamental candles are now regular sidelines too. Nicholas travels widely to beekeeping industry seminars and fairs, in the UK and Italy, for information on how to broaden his scope here. He dreams of an eco-tourism centre near his small-holding to introduce people to Malta’s heritage in honey, as well as a small museum with ancient tools and details of those Roman hives.
There are around 20 kinds of honey in Malta attributed to various plants and trees including clover, eucalyptus, orange blossom, carob and thyme of course. If you buy fresh extracted honey and direct from a beekeeper, you’ll know which flowers dominate its taste. Spring is for clover and wayside flower honey; end May to early July is thyme season; and early autumn is for carob honey with its dark colour and distinct aroma.
Where to buy
Some places for starters:
Airport deli shops (but try to buy direct from keepers)
Nicholas Zammit, Fawwara, tel: 21 465750 / 9946 7712
Any local grocer, but it might not be the best
Road side stalls – watch out for honey for sale signs!
For a short background on beekeeping in Malta and those clay pipes, see beesfordevelopment.org