The taste of Sicilian honey …

29 April, 2011


“If the bee were to disappear from the surface of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left.”  – Albert Einstein


I have always wanted to keep bees, so when I saw a notice in the morning paper about a guided tasting of cheese and Sicilian honey, I was keen to read on.  The guiding was to be done by Carlo Amodeo,  who, according to the notice, is a very special bee keeper, largely responsible for saving the Sicilian black bee (Apis mellifera sicula) from extinction, and now producing highly prized honey using typical Sicilian plants – from orange blossom and mandarin to loquat; red clover and thyme to chestnut.  For me, this was clearly an event not to be missed!

And it proved to be every bit as interesting as the notice had promised.  We had the opportunity to try most of the honeys, learning to match the stronger flavoured honeys, such as chestnut, with mild cheeses and the more delicate honeys, such as orange blossom or loquat, with stronger cheeses.  But it was the story of the Sicilian black bees and Carlo Amodeo’s role in saving them from extinction that really captured my attention.   

Carlo says that he came to bee-keeping almost by chance, never dreaming that his future might lie in his taste for honey and passion for bees, a passion he had acquired from one of his university teachers, the Sicilian entomologist, Pietro Genduso.   It was thanks to Genduso’s study and research that the black bee had originally been saved from extinction, and when Carlo decided to become a professional apiarist he decided to continue to work with the black bee.  Now, many years later, he is one of Sicily’s best-known apiarists and the Sicilian black bee is the subject of a Slow Food* Presidium i.e. a project that aims to reintroduce the species into Sicily, or at least into those parts of Sicily where contamination with other bees is unlikely.  Normally Slow Food Presidia have at least four or five producers, but, at this stage, Carlo continues to be the only Sicilian black bee producer.  He is hopeful that that will change.

The black bee, which had existed in Sicily for thousands of years, began to disappear in the 1970s and 1980s when Sicilian beekeepers ceased using their cane hives and  began to import bees from north Italy (most commonly, Apis mellifera ligustica, known as the Italian bee).  At this time the black bee risked total extinction, which was avoided only through the work of Pietro Genduso.  The last hives of pure black bees were found in a farm at Carini, just out of Palermo, where an old farmer had several hives and was still making honey using the ancient method.  When Carlo decided to become a professional apiarist, he decided to take several hives of black bees to the Aeolian Islands of Vulcano, Alicudi and Filicudi, off the north east coast of Sicily, where they could breed in isolation without the risk of contamination by other bees.    Today, the honey produced by these bees is the only Sicilian honey produced entirely by the black bee.

The Sicilian black bee obviously differs from the Italian bee in colour – whereas the Italian bee is yellow and black, the Sicilian bee is much darker.  But there are other differences.  The Sicilian bee has much smaller wings and a much more docile nature – it is not necessary to wear masks when removing honey from the hive of the black bee.  Perhaps more importantly, the Sicilian bee is very productive even in temperatures above 40 degrees, when other bees stop producing.  It also tolerates changes in temperature well, and consumes less honey in the hive.    

The honey that Carlo produces is all carefully produced, single flower honey.  The jar I bought was loquat honey, already a rare honey and likely to become rarer as the areas of production continue to be reduced.  Because it is made in the winter – loquat trees flowering from October to December – this is a honey that crystallises quickly, but it is wonderfully perfumed, with a sweet and delicate flavour.  The brochure says it is an excellent sweetener for tea and tisanes and I’m sure it would be – but it’s also absolutely delicious eaten straight out of the jar!

 * Slow Food is a global organisation that began in Italy to counter the rise of fast food and the disappearance of local food traditions.  It grew out of an organisation, Arcigola, that had been formed in 1986 by Carlo Petrini to oppose the opening of a McDonald’s outlet near the Spanish Steps in Rome.

8 Responses to “The taste of Sicilian honey …”

  1. Sally F Says:

    Good for him – and good for Slow Food, doing things that really matter in this case instead of bickering and politicking as they seem to have done in the UK somewhat.

    • kateludlow Says:

      I very much admire what he’s doing – and it’s good to see he has the support of Slow Food. Interestingly, though, he says that in Sicily there’s not nearly as much interest in Slow Food as there is in the north.

  2. Cate Says:

    Very interesting and inspiring. I love reading about people with such passion and dedication to something so worthwhile. Learning to match various honeys with cheese sounds fun too!

    • kateludlow Says:

      I agree, it is inspiring – I’ll be seeking out these particular honeys in future to provide a little support. Learning about the various honey and cheese combinations was interesting too. Many thanks for the comment.

  3. richmondrambles Says:

    You quote by Einstein is a powerful reminder of our fragile world and the black bee is certainly a survivor. I wonder if it would transport to other countries – I like the fact that they are docile and tolerates temperature changes. This is a project for you if and when you ever return. Jan

    • kateludlow Says:

      The black bee does seem well adapted for survival – if left to itself! I don’t know whether it would travel to other countries – or whether it would be a sensible thing to try. Other countries have native bees, but I don’t know whether it’s feasible to collect honey from them. It’s something I’ll look into when I leave the city!

  4. bettina mcnulty Says:

    “Who killed the Honey Bee?”a documentary on BBC 4 this week, gave up-dates of the tragic story of honey bee loses in the U.S, in the United Kingdom and beyond. Professionals pondered the cause:climate change? pesticides? (which?), trucking of hives from place to place?, electric power lines and other electrical suspects?, etc. No satisfactory explanation is found.
    Fast forward to Australia where honey bees are flourishing. Here, weighed lots of these healthy bees are shipped to destinations all over the world. Their life expectancy in a new enviornment? Unknown as yet. But the sting is the cost of security to keep any affected honey bees from entering Australia.

    • kateludlow Says:

      Thank you for this interesting update. I immediately went to the BBC website to see the ‘Who killed the Honey Bee?’ documentary, but although it’s available for a few more days, it’s unfortunately not available for viewing in Italy. I did read a related link which pointed to research suggesting that restricting bees to one type of plant may be weakening their immune system. It’s probably not the only cause, but it does sound plausible.

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