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Honey in the Algarve

by Sun’s Dragon

Beekeeping is an art and the Algarveans have it down pat. And so they should, considering they have been doing it for centuries. In fact, honey making in the Algarve dates back to Roman times; since the 16th century honey has been produced in the Algarve as a business and continues to be an important part of the local economy.

Drawings of beekeeping have been discovered in ancient caves showing that even in the stone-age, man knew a good thing when he saw it. Honey is not only nutritious but is considered a super food, containing all the enzymes, vitamins, minerals and water we need to sustain life. Well we worked that one out long before scientists came along to prove it.

The dangers

Bees are in mortal danger nowadays with their numbers decreasing at an alarming rate.

In 2004 a nasty predatory species of wasp arrived in the Algarve from Asia, (Vespa Velutina) and has rapidly been spreading since then. These wasps kill bees and are most prevalent during the month of August, just when the bees are at their busiest.

Then there were the horrific fires in the eastern Algarve in 2012 which saw not only thousands of hives destroyed but the surrounding land was ruined and cannot produce the blossoms and flowers necessary for bees to pollinate, this will take three years to recover and produce new growth.

These disasters that befell the bees were only partially manmade, but harmful pesticides are also blamed for the destruction of bees throughout the world. Nicotinoids, along with other chemicals in their class, are highly suspected of wiping out whole colonies of bees; so much so, the European Commission has ordered a two-year ban on the use of nicotinoids.

We simply cannot afford to lose more bees; the crops most commercially important to the Algarve are almonds and citrus fruits which are wholly dependent on bee pollination to survive.

Bee hives Algarve PortugalThe world of the bee

Theirs is a fascinating society, where hard work, total commitment and real organisation, makes for an efficient and orderly existence.

Did you know that in a colony of bees (up to 60,000 bees make a colony) there are nurses, grocers, housekeepers, construction workers, guards, royal attendants, undertakers, foragers and so the list continues. There is only one Queen Bee in each colony though.

The Queen Bee develops when the female worker bees pick a particular larva and feed Royal Jelly to this one larva to ensure she becomes fertile and can produce the eggs to make more bees. The Queen may live for several years and is serviced by the males. She produces most, if not all, of the bees in the colony. This is her role in life and she is fiercely protected by the whole colony.

Bee pollination Algarve PortugalThe worker bees are all female, have a short life span and they willingly work until they drop to ensure the well being of their colony. Throughout the summer the female worker bees will collect the pollen and make the honey. Typically, they will fly approximately 6 miles, reaching speeds of 15 miles per hour, and visit anywhere from 50 to 100 flowers on each trip. All this effort will produce just one twelfth of a teaspoon of honey during her whole life. In the Algarve, the climate is so bountiful and the blooms so prolific, that the bee may work the whole year round. Now that is what I call dedication.

The males don’t work and can’t sting; so not much equality in the life of a bee then!

Honey production

Wild flowers Algarve PortugalThe Algarve has around 1,000 registered beekeepers, and 100,000 registered hives, that equates to a vast number of bees. Now that so much of the land is burned and scorched, the hives have had to be moved to productive areas, which means there are many areas where a huge amount of bees are buzzing.

The knowledgeable bee keepers place their hives where a certain flower or blossom is blooming and produce honey with that flavour. Then the hives get moved to where another species is blooming and a different flavoured honey is produced. This is all clever stuff and highly labour intensive.

Frames inside the hive are checked and when “full” are removed, the wax is scraped off each side of the frame and the frame is then placed in a centrifuge, spun until all the honey has been sucked out. This is left for a day for all the air bubbles to surface along with any debris of wax. And Bingo – you have raw honey!

Bees wax

We all know that the best furniture polish is made from bees wax and candles are made from it too. But did you know there are hundreds of other ways that this precious wax is put to use? Mixed with other materials (such as linseed oil or turpentine for instance) it is used in many diverse areas such as cosmetics, glass etching, mopping up ocean spills and covering cheeses and preservatives to stop them from spoiling.  A truly impressive commodity delivered to us by bees.

Bee theft

I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that bees in their hives are being stolen by the hundreds in Portugal and around the world. Whenever a commodity becomes rare or vitally important, thieves muscle in. Some beekeepers are resorting to putting a monitor in their hives that will activate a silent alarm when the hives are moved. The monitor will show the GPS position of the hive in order for the police to apprehend the thieves. I have no idea how successful this has been, but I am not sure I would want to intercept a lorry load of hives filled with angry bees!

Enjoy the feast

Honey Algarve PortugalAlgarvean honey is a wonderful, natural product including; rosemary, orange blossom, lavender and Alfaroba (carob) varieties. Unlike so many food stuffs that are good for us, honey tastes delicious and adds sweetness and flavour to so many dishes. Just check out some of the typical desserts in the Algarve and you will know what I mean.

So, the next time you go to the local farmers market and see all the beautifully decorated pots of Algarvean honey with all its different varieties and flavours; you will know just what hard work our busy bees have put into these marvellous productions.

Don’t forget that the ancient philosopher, Aristotle, wrote about the many nutritional and medicinal benefits of honey. And he knew his onions!


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