Honeypot: A product or service that attracts large numbers of tourists.
The islands of Malta are fabled for their honey. In fact, the name Malta is derived from the ancient Greek word Melitē, or honey-sweet. Believed to have been introduced to the islands by the seafaring Phoenician civilization in 750 BCE, the art of beekeeping for honey has been around for at least 8,500 years.
In an effort to better understand the allure and mystique of Maltese honey, Tricia and I met with Michael Muscat, a local beekeeper who produces raw honey in limited quantities. We met Michael at a Christmas market in Malta’s capital of Valletta and purchased a jar of his dark red honey – its color a result of his bees visiting the blossoms of local Carob trees in the autumn.
Sensing our enthusiasm to understand the origins of Malta’s namesake, Michael agreed to give us a tour of one of his 6 apiaries. However, the driest winter in 93 years has proven to be difficult for the bees and their search for flower nectar. As a result, this year’s honey production will be significantly diminished.
The world is becoming increasingly interested in raw honey, which means honey that has not been heated past the temperature in the beehive, or 95ºF/35ºC. This interest is based on the health properties associated with raw honey, including anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, and immune system-strengthening characteristics. When honey is pasteurized and filtered, it removes the pollen that is both important for health and for identifying the honey’s origin.
Recognizing where a honey was produced is increasingly important in a globalized food chain where products laden with harmful pesticides are making their way into our kitchens. The European Union has been exceptionally stringent in its use of pesticides and applying the precautionary principle of thoroughly testing a chemical before introducing it to the environment. This has been critically important for beekeeping, where several poisonous neonicotinoid pesticides have been banned due to the danger they pose to bees. Considering that almost 1/3 of our agricultural products are dependent upon healthy and happy bees, careful and sparing use of pesticides makes sense.
Bees are not only beneficial to fruit, vegetable and honey production, they are also an increasing source of tourism revenue. Slovenia, a lush green country lining the northeastern corner of the Adriatic Sea, has taken the lead in promoting the burgeoning field of bee tourism. From honey massages, honey spas, and honey therapy, Slovenia is paving a sustainable tourism path towards pure gold from pure honey. With luck, other countries will follow their example.
“With a name like Malta, the honey has to be good.”
Considering their namesake, the islands of Malta should be a pioneer in the field of bee tourism. However, if the Maltese do not begin placing a premium on the country’s green space and adopt an effective water allocation strategy, the industry that has been the very essence of the country’s identity for millennia will cease to exist.
The jar of dark red, carob-essence honey that Tricia and I bought from Michael Muscat in December was the most delicious honey I’ve ever tasted. Whether drizzled over a hot bowl of oatmeal, buttery toast, or simply a spoonful to taste, Maltese raw honey is an incredible experience. With luck and initiative, it will be an experience for future generations too.