by Kerin Hope
A disastrous wildfire last August razed more than 50,000 hectares of pine forest and destroyed more than 10,000 beehives on the island of Evia, which produces over one-third of the country’s annual honey output. The recovery effort has turned a spotlight on a niche market with significant potential for export growth but constrained by poor EU regulation and a lack of incentives for producers.
Greece is one of the EU’s largest honey producers and until last year the thickly forested hillsides of northern Evia contributed some 40% of the country’s pine honey output. High-quality pine honey accounted for some 60% of production, followed by thyme and orange blossom honey with around 10% each.
Greece produced some 22,000 tonnes of honey in 2019, with pine honey from different regions accounting for 70% of total output, according to latest figures from FAO, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. Despite the sector’s fragmented structure, with a core of professional beekeepers and thousands of small-scale producers, Greece is the EU’s fourth-largest exporter of honey, selling about 10% of annual output abroad, mainly to Germany.
Nomadic producers, exceptional quality
There is plenty of room to increase exports, say apiculturists, with honey increasingly seen as a “superfood” thanks to its anti-oxidant and anti-bacterial properties. Greece enjoys a qualitative edge over other European producers because about 90% of its honey comes from uncultivated habitats that are free of agricultural fertilizers and pesticides.
“Nomadic” beekeepers regularly move their hives around different ecosystems between spring and autumn. As a result Greek honey is made from a wide variety of sources: wildflowers, fruit blossoms, heather and herbs like thyme and sage, along with pine, fir, oak and chestnut trees.
Pine honey production calls for a delicate three-way balance between bees, pine trees and the Marchalina Hellenica beetle which lives off the sap from mature trees. Bees collect the insect’s sugary secretions from the bark of the tree to make a honey that rivals New Zealand’s famous Manuka variety.
Northern Evia normally attracts several thousand nomadic beekeepers and 500,000 hives between August and November, according to Stathis Albanis, president of the Kypseli beekeepers’ co-operative in Istiaia. The region offers a bee-friendly microclimate with cooling northerly breezes in summer and a rich diversity of plant life.
Hit by climate change
But a record heatwave last year after months of drought meant that fewer beekeepers travelled to Evia last summer because of worries their bees might not survive the exceptional temperatures. Following the devastating wildfires, nomadic beekeepers will move this year to the Halkidiki region of northern Greece and the island of Thasos for pine honey and to Crete for thyme honey, Albanis said.
North Evia’s beekeepers were awarded €70 compensation for each hive from the agricultural insurance organisation ELGA, plus another €12 in European Union support. The private sector also stepped in with Heracles, the Greek cement company, providing 150 tonnes of winter feed for some 20,000 bees that survived the fires.
The Stavros Niarchos Foundation is funding training for beekeepers to build back lost bee colonies and a pilot beekeeping project on a private estate, as part of a €15 million recovery programme for the region. Thousands of new pine saplings have been planted.
But it will take over 20 years for these trees to reach maturity. In the meantime, several hundred Evia beekeepers will have to remain nomadic for several years, waiting for meadow vegetation to grow back so they can begin producing wildflower honey at home.
Extreme weather conditions across Europe, with more frequent periods of drought and flooding that reduced plant flowering periods, are blamed for a significant decline in honey production over the past three years, according to policymakers at COPA-COGECA, the EU farmers’ association.
Bee populations were already under stress with colonies declining because of pesticide poisoning, atmospheric pollution and a loss of habitats due to increasing urbanization.
Greek bee colonies have suffered comparatively less damage because beekeepers move their hives frequently during the spring and summer flowering season, ensuring that they forage on a wide variety of wildflowers and herbs in less populated areas.
Greece has an estimated 25,000 beekeepers managing 1.6 million hives, but fewer than one-third are professionals, with the majority producing only small quantities of honey to earn a supplemental income. By comparison, Spain, the largest EU honey producer, has 2.9 million hives but only 23,000 beekeepers according to EU statistics.
While honey remains a popular niche product across the EU, the decline in production has underlined “deep and structural market distortions” according to COPA.
The bloc is the second-largest global honey producer after China, but about 200,000 tonnes of honey annually –about 40% of consumption– is covered by imports of cheap honey which is often adulterated with sugar syrup. Exports to non-EU countries amount to around 20,000 tonnes annually.
Fraud is made easier because the EU directive on honey lacks rules on clear labelling of origins. Labels need to specify only that honey is produced in the EU, or from outside the EU, or blended. And the use of sugar syrup to adulterate honey is becoming harder for laboratories to detect, according to COPA.
With production costs in the EU averaging between €3.8 and €4 a kilo, beekeepers face problems with competition from cheap honey imports, mostly from China, which retail at less than €2 a kilo.
Yet consumption of honey across the EU remains low. Greeks and Austrians are the biggest consumers, getting through 1.7 kilos annually per capita, compared to the EU average of just 0.7kilos.
Only one Greek honey, made from fir trees around Vytina in the northern Peloponnese, has so far acquired an EU protected designation of origin (PDO) status. But a dozen others would certainly qualify if beekeepers were incentivized to apply.
Greek honey could also be exploited for its anti-microbial properties, according to a University of the Aegean study published in 2021.
Food scientists examined the anti-microbial properties of Lemnos blossom honey harvested in eight different locations around the island and compared them with medical-grade Manuka honey. Their results showed that all the samples had anti-bacterial properties, with two coming close to matching those of the Manuka sample.
This article is published in the March/ April issue of Greek Business File available here.