CULTURE

Organic honey is the buzzword on Cephalonia

When mathematician and long-time resident of Athens Thanassis Athanassakis made his home on Cephalonia 12 years ago, the result was the first wholly organic honey in Greece, a truly extraordinary feat when he relates both his adventures – and those of the bees. Modestly, however, he insists the organic honey is not his own achievement but the fruit of collaboration between a group of people who provided both practical support and morale when needed. As a result, he refers to the honey as a product of the DIAS apiary and offers photographs of the real producers of the honey – the bees themselves. On first settling on Cephalonia, Athanassakis started out producing honey with the so-called «traditional» methods used by all beekeepers. «I used a lot of medicines, and with scientific approval at that. Most of them were used preventively, because everybody said prevention was better than cure. When the hive falls sick, it’s already too late. Nobody mentioned there might be a different way; drugs were a cure-all. I’d have liked things to be different, but I lacked the means.» He read up on the subject and experimented to find his own solutions. Matters did not go well at first, but slowly he managed. At the same time, the attitudes of those apiculturists still in the business also changed. «Little by little, everyone started talking about the traces left in the honey by the medicines,» Athanassakis said. His main problem was tackling varroa, a honey bee parasite that hit Greek hives in 1982 and remains a scourge of apiaries. It was likely brought to Greece through imported queen bees. «Apart from varroa, there are essentially no other diseases. If the hive is strong and properly fed, it doesn’t fall sick easily, just like a healthy man,» Athanassakis said. To beat varroa, he uses a machine made with the help of scientist friends. «The machine blows hot air into the hive. The air is at such a temperature that it kills varroa without killing the bees as well. Because it needs electricity to work, I transport the hives near my home. Of course, I’m lucky, because my house is among surroundings that allow for organic apiculture; it’s not near a road and the plants nearby are organically cultivated,» he explained. European regulations on organic honey, apart from banning the use of chemical substances, stipulate that hives must lie 3 kilometers away from a highway and from conventionally grown crops. Queen bee Conventional means of combating varroa brought trouble upon the apicultural world. Athanassakis said: «The medicines made the hives very susceptible. A hive is a society which depends on cooperation and communication. Bees talk among themselves, through the pheromones they secrete or their dances. If you then pour parathion into the hive, quite apart from the traces left in the honey, you break the hive’s cohesion.» He can talk for hours about bees. He explained that the queen bee is very different in appearance and lives for five years, while the rest of the bees live for 2-4 months. If things go badly, the other bees kill her and replace her. As for the male drones, they are done away with the moment the hive’s food supplies begin to dwindle. In a hive, every insect has its place and role, and thus human intervention must not disturb this equilibrium. Athanassakis admits that organic apiculture needs more work and is more expensive that conventional beekeeping. Moreover, since EU regulations forbid feeding the bees on syrup (unless the hive is in danger of starvation), less honey is produced in comparison to conventional apiaries. But Athanassakis said: «It’s not how much you produce but what you produce. I sell all my honey immediately. Even if I had double the quantity, I would sell it at whatever price I wanted.» He has about 100 hives. The thyme honey of the DIAS apiary, which has been certified by the DIO organization, is sold direct in many areas of Greece by agreement with the producers. But it will soon be sold in organic food stores.