Since antiquity, honey has played an integral role in Greek society. It was considered the food of the Gods of Olympus (ambrosia) and a symbol of health and well-being. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, recommended honey consumption for a long list of nutritional and medicinal benefits. Classical texts are filled with references to honey in pharmacological, social and religious contexts, many of which have been incorporated into modern life.
Today, apiculture (honey production) is an important sector of the Greek economy. According to National Statistics, there are approximately 2,000 professional beekeepers and 30,000 small-scale, local community producers in Greece maintaining 1,500,000 bee hives, yielding 11,000 tons of honey each year. Honey is the basis for many traditional pastries and certain savory dishes, but is also an everyday accompaniment to yogurt or wild mountain teas. The scientific community continues to confirm some of the ancient theories of its health benefits and it is an important component of the model Mediterranean Diet. Domestic consumption is comparatively high and principal importers of branded Greek honey are Canada, France, Lebanon, the United Kingdom and the United States.
There are several major producers-exporters of honey in Greece today. The largest is Bee Culturing Co. “Attiki.” Attiki was founded in 1928 by two brothers Alexandros and Panayiotis Pittas. They were the pioneers in packaging Greek honey in small containers, which was previously sold only in bulk – a cumbersome and sticky method of transport. Today, Attiki is still a family-run business covering more than 70% of the domestic market of packaged honey and exporting it’s products across the globe.
The Attiki family is involved in every aspect of maintaining national apiculture standards – from training and supplying beekeepers with information and equipment, hosting seminars, and funding university research projects relating to apiculture and environmental issues. Their vision, sustainability and marketing strategies are quite unique to Greece, and they hold many Gold Medals for quality from international competitions.
Below are excerpts from our discussion with Alexandra Pitta-Chazapi, Partner, Managing Director and Commercial and Export Manager of Attiki today. She is the daughter of Panayiotis Pittas. Alexandra’s daughter, Katerina Chazapi, assisted us in our research.
What difficulties did the company face during the many years in business?
The first period with problems appeared during WWII when the factory closed down. Then, in 1967, Panayiotis Pittas died. His children entered the business one by one. In 1972 Alexandros Pittas died too. The company continues to be a family one with Alexandros’ wife and Panayiotis’ children. The next important period was during the 80’s after Attiki became an S.A. The state was funding cooperatives without proper controls or planning. This resulted in the creation of problems in the prices in the market.
How has production changed over the years?
The production has become more professional. It is still a nomadic profession (the beekeepers travel around Greece according to the weather and the plantations) but the modern beekeepers are producing high and stable quality honey in larger amounts by following more careful production processes.
How many bees per hive/how much honey do they produce?
It depends on the time period. The number of bees may vary from 3,000 to 80,000 per hive and they produce approximately 20 kilograms per hive.
Where are the beekeepers located?
All areas. The most important ones are Argos, Arta, Crete, Evia, Halkidiki, Karditsa, Kos and Thasos.
What types of honey are specific to Greece?
Some honey varieties are unique in Greece such as thyme flower honey or very rare such as honey from coniferous trees. There are also various flower honey varieties. [Attiki produces both types: Honey Attiki is from the thyme flower and other Greek flora and Honey Fino is Greek forest honey.] Greek honey is unique to the world because it is created from pollen, which comes from a variety of wild bushes and flowers. In Greece, due to the fact that has high mountains close to the sea and hot weather shortly after rain, a large number/variety of plants grow close to each other. The polyflora of Greek honey comes in contrast with the European or Latin American honeys, which come from monoflora. These honeys, and due to monoflora origin, are very light in taste and color.
What’s the difference between commercially produced honey and organic honey?
Greek honey is organic because its origin is from uncultivated flowers and bushes or coniferous trees. Beekeepers follow traditional methods of production, which make Greek honey organic by origin. The difference with named organic honeys is the lack of standardized certification procedures.
In the domestic market, has the rate of consumption been steady throughout the years?
The consumption is steadily growing. We are the second market in consumption of honey per capita (after the German market) with consumption of a kilo of honey per capita per year. There was a decrease between the years of 1992-1998 due to economic reasons.
How does Greece rate on the world honey market today?
Production is large if measured according to per capita consumption. When compared with an international market, it is very small.
Environment: What are the problems beekeepers face and how can they be solved?
Forest fires, abrupt weather changes, decrease of plantations, high production costs (because of high costs of transportation), plant chemicals, and inefficient state controls. The survival of the bees as well as honey as natural, organic product make us act under the best possible environmental policies and
What do you think about the future of beekeeping — are there many people entering the field or is it a dying trade?
Beekeeping is a difficult job but you can earn a good living when you are involved professionally with it. Young people are starting to get involved with it. It is a profession, which has a future, because it is still unaffected with all the nutrition problems that have recently appeared. In order not to become a profession in extinction, the problems mentioned above have to be solved.
What community projects is Attiki involved in?
The company takes part in every conference in Greece that has to do
with Greek apiculture and honey. We organize meetings with professional Greek producers. G. Pittas is representative of the company at FEEDM (European Federation of Honey Packers and Distributors). Research projects supported by Attiki include:
University of Aegean – Department of Environmental Studies (Professor Margaris). The Limnos project to protect the wild thyme plant (1997-1999).
Pharmaceutical University (Professor Hinou). We are starting a study to prove the existence of flavonoids in honey.
Both Agricultural Universities of Athens (Professor Harizanis) and
Thessaloniki (Professor Thrasivoulou). Ongoing cooperation for the study of apiculture in Greece.
What are Attiki’s future plans?
Attiki supports all Greek apiculture. The producers produce and Attiki distributes. Attiki provides clean and new tins to be filled with new harvest and can provide advice, machinery and help to the beekeepers. It also controls all Greek production and pressures producers to follow European Regulations. Generally, it supports all efforts that help Greek apiculture.
Nikki Rose is a pro chef and food writer living in Crete. The focus of her work is the preservation of traditional food ways