When we travel to Greece, we also travel to a country that has the highest density of bee colonies and apiaries in Europe, and has an annual honey production of 15,000 tons.(1) Beekeeping all over Greece is a traditional rural profession dating from ancient times with a rich history, symbolism and cultural footprint up until today. The island of Rhodes – an important location of the apiculture of ancient and contemporary Greece – provides us with a great adventure through its honey in gastronomy, religion, culture, history and natural beauty. Rhodes, the fourth biggest island of Greece with its sunny climate and mountainous geography has one of the best honey products of the Aegean sea.
The following honey-guide will add new dimensions to your travel on the island of Helios and give you hints of local products and places to visit, such as the one and only Bee Museum of Greece and the ancient Kameiros of Rhodes.
1. The story of honey and beekeeping
Honey was the first sweet in humans’ diet since we formed hunter-gatherer groups as a species. species. One of the first pieces of evidence of honey consumption is a Mesolithic cave painting from Spain (Cuevas de la Araña) depicts a hunter who is harvesting a wild honeycomb back around 6000 BCE.
The Eastern Mediterranean can rightly be called “the cradle of beekeeping” according to our archaeological findings. In Greece, the earliest evidence of the gathering and usage of bee products (like beeswax on pottery pieces) date back to 5500 BCE, but they don’t hold proof of the usage of either domesticated or wild bee products.
As humans, our natural desire for eating sweets made us develop from being hunters of wild honey to being systematic beekeepers. Humans at one point in history started to copy the nests of the cavity-nesting honey bee (Apis mellifera) and created their own beehives.
Our very first direct evidence of systematic apiculture practice is from ancient Egypt from c. 2400 BCE. (2) While in Greece systematic beekeeping most likely had already started around 1600-1500 BCE in Minoan Crete, most probably learning from their fellow Egyptian beekeepers. (3)
Migratory, or pastoral beekeeping was already a common practice back then – just like today. In order to increase the amount of honey production, ancient beekeepers in the Mediterranean would transport their hives according to the local blooming flowers on the mainlands or even by boats on the sea and rivers.
Humans built their hives throughout the ages from various materials like dried mud, clay, cork, stone, wood, woven wicker and so on. The principles of today using beehives with moveable frames was originally established in Greece. (4) Therefore it is fair to call Greece the cradle of modern beekeeping (besides democracy).
Island of Rhodes traditional beekeepers used a unique stone beehive (called thyri) for some centuries, remains of which can be found even today near Malona village. It was the typical beehive of the Dodecanese islands, a much cheaper one than the fired clay hive, and much more durable – although not portable.
On Rhodes people used a special ceramic honey storage jar, the ’vetena’ (bitina, pithari, plithari) with an opening close to the bottom of the jar. The reason is that one gets the best, purest quality of honey always from the bottom of the jar. The wise Rhodian farmers have a saying: “Oil from the top, wine from the middle, and honey from the bottom.”
2. The Rhodian honey
The famous Greek geographer and historian, Strabo (Στράβων) in the first century BCE was already writing about the exceptional quality of the honey of the Aegean islands. „The island honey was regarded as the best” – he wrote in his most famous work, Geographica. And no doubt even today the island honey is the most divine in Greece.
If we look at Rhodes, the sunniest Greek island, we find that weather conditions ensure extremely rich vegetation, and unique, diverse microclimates. Rhodes’ mountains have plenty of varieties of herbs, wildflowers and coniferous trees like thyme, oregano, heather, rosemary, pine. And you need nothing more from nature to gain a high nutritional value and great taste in your honey.
From late February till the end of November flowers constantly bloom throughout the island. These conditions support the above mentioned ’pastoral beekeeping’, therefore many of the Rhodian beekeepers transport their wooden hives according to the location of the blooming flowers.
You can discover for yourself the rich vegetation of the island, the divine scent of its wildflowers and medicinal herbs by hiking on the countless hiking paths of the island’s countryside between the villages, medieval monasteries and ancient sites, while you will find plenty of beehives along the way belonging to the local beekeepers. Rhodes is much more than “a beach”.
The most characteristic and famous types of honey on Rhodes are definitely thyme, pine, and heather (or ereika by the local name) honey. Thyme honey is the sweetest of all with a light golden colour and silky texture. The Rhodian thyme honey is a prize winner amongst Greek honey. The second most popular is dark pine honey with its high iron content and a less sweet taste. The heather honey of Rhodes is a bit bitter in taste, with a deep wonderful reddish colour and with incredible nutritional value. Unfortunately, the last mentioned one is not produced each year, it is highly dependent on the amount of rainfall. Besides these three types, one can find wild lavender, sage, koumaria (Arbutus unedo, a type of local wild berry), thrumbi (a wonderful type of savory, Satureja Thymbra) and ligaria (Vitex agnus-castus) honey on Rhodes.
Today on Rhodes there are about 150 registered beekeepers (with at least 10 hives each), and the majority has a small population of bees (between 30 to 50 boxes). On Rhodes, the honey consumption of the local population is relatively high and everybody has their own local honey producer who they trust and know personally.
Siana village (and the nearby Kimissala area) is considered one of the best areas for beekeeping and is famous for its high quality of honey. There is an annual Honey & Souma Festival hosted by Siana during the summer, which is only one of many fascinating local Rhodian agricultural festivals. But honey is not only produced in Siana. Almost the whole island is suitable for providing lovely honey products, only to mention a few more villages: Archipoli, Apollona (with its famous local pioneer beekeeper from the past Fotis Mpantouvakis), Psinthos, Kalithies, Archangelos, Malona, Laerma, Messanagros, Kritinia, and so on.
If you are on holiday on the island, just drive out to the countryside, and you will find many street kiosks of local producers to buy honey from. Also, most village kafenios (the traditional Greek coffee shops on the main square of each village, or neighbourhood) sell local honey, and you can always pop up to the local food market of Rhodes Town (next to Agios Dimitrios Cemetary) on Saturdays to meet the farmers and discover their products personally.
Despite the many centuries of oppression and occupation in Rhodes the craft of beekeeping survived from the Pre Roman Era to the post-Italian occupation period thanks to the unshakable, enthusiastic work of local farmers and teachers of the island.
Right after WWII the first-ever beekeeping school of Greece was established on Rhodes by the teacher, beekeeper Ioannis Segredos. Today the island’s labour office provides beekeeping studies for unemployed citizens.
The one and only Bee Museum of Greece was built on Rhodes (close to Pastida village) founded by the “Melissokomiki Dodecanese” (Beekeeping Company of the Dodecanese) in 2004, where the visitor can learn about local bee products, apiculture history, the biology of bees, pollination, hives, bee plants, local vegetation etc.
3. The use of honey in Rhodian traditions
The majority of the sweets of Greece (therefore Rhodes) has honey as the main ingredient already from antiquity. Not only Hippocrates of Kos (the father of medicine) emphasised the importance of honey for human biology, but also the followers of Pythagoras were promoting the nutritional value of honey and they used a diet based on honey and bread. Well, Rhodians today often eat the local village bread with honey on top. In many cases, they use tahini (sesame paste), or fresh goat cheese on the bread poured over with the local honey. This is called the beekeeper’s breakfast.
And now, just to mention a very few of the several local traditional sweets made of honey:
Melekouni is probably the most famous and unique to Rhodes (and from the Dodecanese). It is a special diamond-shaped traditional sweet with sesame seeds and honey originally related to Rhodian weddings. The ingredients of this sweet vary from village to village and from house to house but mostly includes (besides the honey and sesame seeds) cinnamon, coriander, lemon juice, nutmeg and almond pieces. Nowadays it is a common gift of baptism ceremonies, and in the old days, they were given as an invitation to weddings. If one family received two melekounia, then two persons were invited to the big fat Greek wedding!
Don’t confuse melekouni with the so called pasteli! Pasteli is a snack-bar usually with sesame or any other seeds and with high quantity of sugar, therefore it is hard and crunchy. Melekouni is always soft, has fantastic aromatic taste and it is never crunchy.
Probably the best locations on the island where one can find traditional melekouni are:
– Apolloniatisses – the women’s association of Apollona village
– Rodomel Melekouni Rodou – in Afantou village
– Filema Rodion – Rhodes Town
Xerotigana is a spiral-shaped deep-fried pastry poured with honey and sesame on top. Appears mainly in Archangelos village during important religious celebrations.
Loukoumades are the famous Greek doughnut balls consumed traditionally on Saint Andreas’ day, on the 30th of November each year.
Tiganites is a special one. When the women of Rhodes make the traditional bread each Saturday, they fry the remaining piece of bread pasty in olive oil. After that, they pour honey on top and eat it as a dessert.
In order not to forget about other bee products, we should mention the long thin candles in the Greek orthodox churches of Rhodes, which are made of beeswax. Beeswax is used as the main ingredient of natural skin cosmetics on Rhodes, specifically by the DM Natural Farming local firm in Kremasti village. This brand uses local organic medicinal herbs in its product having a huge organic herb farm as a basis.
4. Honey and the bee in ancient Greek culture
Honey in ancient Greece
In ancient Greece – where society and its culture were deeply embedded in its breathtaking fertile natural environment – bees and honey were represented in almost every segment of life: art, religion, music, healing, diet and astronomy.
Honey and beeswax were used in ceremonial activities. The sacred liquids of life (or the liquids of Mother or Earth goddesses) in ancient Greek religion were honey, milk, wine and oil, so they were used as a libation (liquid offering) for the different goddesses and gods. In the ancient world, there was no prayer without ritual. And rituals had the purpose of focusing the mind of the worshipper.
Sacred honey cakes with a triangular shape evalued from geometric meditations and were used in the worship of Aphrodite. We might have a feeling that melekouni of Rhodes can have its origins from that era…
External stimulants were always used in pursuit of higher consciousness and honey mead was one of the first ones in the history of humanity even before wine. Honey mead, the so-called “mad honey” is considered the first alcoholic drink made by humans and was related to ecstatic prophecy, divine intoxication. Ancient Greeks said that Melissa, the Queen Bee goddess taught mortals how to ferment honey. It was already used in Cretan rites of the Minoan culture.
Honey was a primary ingredient in ancient medicines. It was widely believed to be a source of divine nourishment. In ancient myths, honey often nourished a divine child raised in secret by a goddess in the depths of caves. The infant Zeus was fed by bees while he was hidden by his mother Rhea on Mount Ida. Just like the child, Dionysus was raised by the nymph Macris fed by honey. They thought that in order to gain wisdom and eloquence, the famous great poets and sages were also fed by bees during infancy.
Bees in ancient Greece
The precious products of bees (honey, wax, mead) induced people to appreciate bees as creatures with divine properties. Bees were worshipped in Minoan Crete as a symbol of eternity, wisdom, and prophetic abilities.
Of course, the rich Greek mythology has plenty of gods related to the bee and beekeeping.
Aristaios (Aristaeus) son of Apollo and nymph Cyrene spread the secret of beekeeping to the humans on the island of Ceos. He was considered as the protector of beekeeping, and also the rustic god of shepherds, honey, honey-mead, medicinal herbs, hunting and olive growing.
In the famous, secret Eleusinian mysteries the bee symbolized the circle of life and death itself, which is equal to rebirth. Demeter (a form of the nourishing Mother Goddess and a major mythical character of the Eleusinian mysteries) was responsible for the fertilization of plants, the flourishing vegetation. The priestesses of Demeter and her daughter Persephone were called Melissai (bees). Melissai are attracted to the heavenly fragrances of flowers, from which they make divine nectar: honey. And of course, while Persephone is below in the underworld with her husband, Hades during the winter months, her mother Demeter is sad, therefore the vegetation is dead, not flourishing.
If we look at the roles of bees in nature, we can easily understand the symbols of these ancient gods and myths.
Bee was the symbol of Artemis in Ephesus (the ancient Greek polis located in today’s Turkey). Her priestesses were also called Melissai or Melissonomos, and she herself was called the Queen Bee. She was different from the Greek Artemis of Hunt, and embodied rather the native Anatolian Mother goddess, that feeds and nourishes the entire world, whose sacred gifts are milk and honey. Remains depicting bee figures on different objects such as coins and jewellery were found in Ephesus in excavations. As the owl was the emblem of Athena at Athens, so the bee seems to have been the emblem of Ephesus.
Ancient Kameiros of Rhodes and Artemis of Ephesus
Kameiros, one of the three ancient Doric city states (polis) of Rhodes was excavated first in the late 19th century. During those excavations, archaeologists unearthed gold tiles that depict winged female figures with bee bodies and lotus emblems most probably connected with the worship of Artemis Ephesia, or Bee-Artemis, protector goddess of nature. The findings date back to 700-600 BCE (exhibited today in London, in the British Museum). Similar charms made of gold were found on the islands of Milos and Thira.
Kameiros of Rhodes has not been fully excavated until today, but one of the most breathtaking ancient sites of the island, truly worth visiting.
Finally I would like to share a proverb with you – related to honey – which I heard from a Rhodian farmer:
„Λίγα λόγια ζάχαρη, και τα καθόλου μέλι.”
“The few words are like sugar, but silence is like honey.”
After so many words, I have one final piece of advice for you: come to Rhodes, find local honey, explore the wisdom of the ancients, go out to nature and enjoy the silence of the Rhodian countryside, which is just as sweet as its honey.
Read more from Mariann by visiting her website Ilios Art
(1) Fani Hatjina – Importance of adaptation of bee populations on their local environment /presentation of the INTERNATIONAL SYMPOSIUM of BEEKEEPING IN THE MEDITERRANEAN SYROS, OCTOBER 9-11 2014/ (2) Gene Kritsky – The quest for the perfect hive: ancient Mediterranean origins: „These Egyptian reliefs illustrate that beekeeping at this time was already a complex process, supporting the hypothesis that beekeeping’s origin was much earlier.”
(3) Haralampos V. Harissis – Beekeeping in Prehistoric Greece: „So far, the earliest beeswax residue dates to the Late Minoan IA period and comes from lamps and conical cups found in Mochlos in Crete. The fact that in prehistoric Crete beeswax was used for lighting, which necessitated great quantities of beeswax, implies organized beekeeping and not occasional wild honeycomb hunting. (…) It is probable that the Minoans of Crete had acquired the knowledge of Egyptian apicultural techniques and adopted the use of the horizontal beehive.”
(4) Richard Jones – Beekeeping in the Mediterranean from antiquity to the present: „In a publication of 1682 George Wheler described a coiled straw hive (which could also be made out of willows) with flat sticks (top bars) which could be removed individually but “had to be separated one from another with a knife”. He saw the hive on Mount Hymettus.”
Layne Redmond: When the Drummers were Women
Beekeeping in the Mediterranean from Antiquity to the present – edited by:
Fani Hatjina, Georgios Mavrofridis, Richard Jones
Artemis Ephesia and Symbolic Bodies of Mother Goddesses by Carla Ionescu
Presentations and articles of Weiner Sennyey Tibor Hungarian writer, editor, poet, beekeeper
Several personal discussions with locals and local beekeepers of Rhodes
Bee Museum of Rhodes
Written by Mariann Lipcsei / 16th january 2022 / Copyright © / Unauthorized use and/or duplication of any photo, or written content on this website without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited.