Culture
The sweet land of honey: meet the Maltese honey bee
Discover what makes them so special!

Melanie Drury
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The ancient Greeks called the island Μελίτη (Melitē) meaning ‘honey-sweet’. The endemic Maltese honey bee is responsible for Malta’s reputation for delicious, abundant honey even in Roman times, when this rock in the Med became known by the name Melita. Roman apiaries, such as the one in Xemxija, still survive today as legacy of a time when apis mellifera ruttneri was highly regarded for its delicious, sweet nectar bearing a taste of flavour from the Mediterranean flora.

When the Mediterranean sea rose above the passage to Sicily, isolating Malta from mainland Europe, bees on the island evolved into the Maltese honey bee subspecies (apis mellifera ruttneri). It is closely related to the North African bee (A. m. intermissa) and, to a lesser degree, with the Sicilian bee (A. m. sicula).

For a very long period, apis mellifera ruttneri was the only species of honey bee in the Maltese Islands. Until, that is, the Varroa mite devastated about 4000 colonies in 1992 and queens and bees had to be imported. The Maltese honey bee, however, remains the dominant species.

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The Maltese honey bee is small and blackish in colour, with shorter legs and narrower, shorter wings when compared to the North African bee and the Sicilian bee. It has a particularly wide abdomen which is covered in long hair.

The Maltese honey bee tends to be rather aggressive. It acts defensively against wasps, mice, beetles and other perceived threats and may get very aggressive with beekeepers and trespassing people. Colonies have also developed resistance to Varroa. The subspecies has had to adopt harsh behaviour to survive harsh conditions, such as dry, hot summers and cool winters, adapting to the seasons and brooding all year round. The Maltese honey bee is very hardworking and productive, out even on strong windy days and in hot weather ‒ no wonder the islands were named after its great yield of honey!

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A distinct strain has also emerged from breeding with an Italian subspecies. This variety defends well against Varroa, makes a good yield of honey and is less aggressive than the Maltese honey bee. It has been observed, however, that this genetically distinct entity is endangering the Maltese sub-species and turns into a very aggressive hybrid after a few generations.

Even within the colony, things are not always sweet as honey. When there are enough stores before summer and winter, when the queen reduces egg laying and stores extra honey in the brood chamber instead, swarming and superseding the queen is not uncommon. Swarming, when the queen leaves the colony with a swarm of hundreds of thousands of worker bees and a new colony is formed, tends to happen in spring. Meanwhile, autumn may see a queen superseded, or replaced, even if she is still young, vigorous and laying well. The Maltese honey bee is known to make a lot of queen cells and a colony sometimes has more than one swarm. If continuously disturbed, the bees will abscond the hive. If at home, the hive is kept very clean.

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The Research Trust Malta includes a research project on the endemic Maltese honey bee, aiming to carry out both morphological and genetic studies and generate pure colonies of A. m. ruttneri to ensure the conservation of the endemic Maltese honey bee which has strongly adapted to the increasingly harsh weather conditions of the Maltese islands. It encourages conservation of the Maltese honey-bee and ensures pollination which benefits the local flora and agricultural crops.

Tasting the delicious honey of the Maltese honey bee while appreciating the hard work and conditions employed by thousands of worker bees to produce it, is key to the Maltese experience! 

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13th April 2019


Melanie Drury
Written by
Melanie Drury
Melanie was born and raised in Malta and has spent a large chunk of her life travelling solo around the world. Back on the island with a new outlook, she realised just how much wealth her little island home possesses.

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