Honey Meadows

(The moor at Lesvos)

You might not expect it on a Greek island, but well hidden amidst the light green pinetrees, heather fields colour their environment deep purple during these magnificent autumnal days. You may see some of these plants along the main roads, but the best heather experience you will have is at Alogeli, a little north of Megali Limni.

Finding your way through the pine forest, a melody plays high through the waving treetops, that might well be coming from the god and musician Orpheus, whose head and lyre came ashore at Old Andissa. It’s said that since then his music can always be heard. When arriving at the moors, another concert also plays: millions of heather flowers attract thousands of bees who – without a director – buzz madly along. The soft buzzing is another music to listen to and wonder about.

I imagine that bees buzz out of happiness, seeing those sweet scenting flower fields. The scientific explanation for their music however is less romantic: what you hear is the crackling of their skeleton. While a bee flies, their bones crack up and down a 190 times per second, a soft sound we interpret as buzzing.

Making honey will probably produce another specific sound, although I have never ventured close enough to the many beehives parked all over the island to be able to research this. As a child I learned from Winnie the Pooh that you could steal honey unpunished, but now I know better: many a tourist on Lesvos, curious about the beehives, has had to run, fleeing from a swarm of bees. Honey on Lesvos gets very well defended!

And on Crete: There Zeus was brought up with honey in a well hidden cave, prior to starting his career as leader of the Olympic gods. It is said that since then the bees stayed behind in the cave and attack anybody who dares to enter the cave. Four thieves thought to be clever and dressed all in bronze, but as soon as they had tasted Zeus’ honey, their bronze and other clothing fell from their bodies and huge bees started an attack. Zeus wanted also to punish them by sending deadly lightning, but Themis, goddess of fate, didn’t like the idea of people being killed in the sacred cave and changed the thieves into birds.

The discovery of honey was made by Dionysus, the bon vivantof the Greek gods. The less famous god Aristaeus learned how to keep bees. This very first bee keeper could not resist the beauty of the nymph Eurydice, but she was the promised bride of Orpheus, so she ran, not wanting to record another #MeToo. As she panicked she did not watch out and was bitten by a deadly snake and died. Orpheus was inconsolable and dropped all music, making the gods untuned. As punishment all the bees of Aristaeus died, which made him inconsolable. Orpheus could bring his bride back from Hades, provided that he did not look back, which he did by accident, thus condemning Eurydice to stay forever in the underworld. The gods also pitied Aristaeus and he was commanded to make an offering of 4 cows and 4 bulls whilst letting their bodies remain untouched. He succeeded in doing so and in the cadavers were born new bee peoples Aristaeus could place back in his hives.

Not many such stories are told about heather, even though it must have been a very satisfied god who created the heather fields as a reward for the bees: their nectar brought up more than one son of the gods and on many old Greek coins a bee is depicted. Was it Pontia, who during the Minoan culture was called Mother of the bees? Or was it Apollo, who got the gift of prophesy from three bees? Or from Demeter of Ephese who had a bee as one of her holy symbols? It is clear that the mythology here lacks some history.

Greece is the second country on the list of numbers of beekeepers per square meter (Hungary is first). So honey still is richly flowing. But the gods seem to care less these days: Greek bees also suffer from Colony collapse disorder. However, wandering along the Lesvorian moorlands, there seem to be still enough bees to provide the entire island and all the gods with this divine honey.