Honey purporting to be Maltese can be found on every shelf, dressed up in fancy logos and promoted as artisan ware, but be careful not to be sweetened by the labels.
It is sold in grocery shops, confectioneries, supermarkets and even at corner bazaars. But is it possible that Maltese bees produce so much honey? And is there any way to tell whether the honey we are buying has been produced by bees pollinating local flowers?
In Malta and Gozo there are approximately 2,200 colonies of bees. And, according to veteran beekeepers, our islands “would need to be triple the size” if all the honey being sold off as Maltese is genuinely local.
“You cannot have all this honey unless you have stretches of land providing vast areas of flowers for the bees to pollinate – and we don’t have this space,” one beekeeper said.
“Even if there were more bee colonies, given the size of Malta the bees would end up fighting each other for pollen and the same amount of honey would be produced,” another beekeeper said.
On the market Times of Malta has come across various brands, some claiming to be ‘pure Malta honey’ or ‘Gozo honey’ on the labels, while others carry the Maltese eight-pointed cross as a logo of their brand.
Some have brand names that are linked to the islands, such as Melita or Calypso, although the labels do not say they are made in Malta.
“It’s impossible for all the honey claiming to be from Gozo to be genuine... even if Gozo were emptied and turned into a giant open space for bees,” according to another beekeeper.
For the supply to meet the demand it is very possible that imported honey – from countries such as China, Romania, Bulgaria and Sicily – is being mixed with local honey.
Consumers, beekeepers are urging, should be more alert when buying products.
“Buy from producers you trust,” they warned.
Everaldo Attard from the University of Malta’s Rural Sciences and Food Systems advises consumers to read the labels carefully; although even this is not enough of a guarantee to ensure a genuine product.
“The label should clearly state the product was made in Malta. If it says the honey is a product of the EU or the EC, then the probability is it was not produced locally,” Prof. Attard said. Details of the beekeeper and his address and phone number should be included on the label, which should also say whether the honey was filtered or not.
“It should be written because if honey is filtered, then all the pollen and therefore the origins of the flowers, and by proxy the location, are untraceable. If filtered honey is imported from China, then it is difficult to trace it back.”
If they test the sample abroad, and they discover it’s not authentic, then we’d be in big trouble
Prof. Attard said generally Maltese honey was rather “fluidy” and is “less viscous” than Italian honey. It is also normal for pure honey to solidify. Crystallised honey is normal due to climate and floral sources.
The colour is not an indicator of the honey’s origins as it depends on the flowers the bees have foraged on. Spring honey tends to be light in colour, while the autumn one would be slightly darker because bees would have got their pollen from the darker carob flower.
Prof. Attard urged people to report to the Department of Agriculture if they suspected that the product bought was not authentic. The department then authorises the Department of Rural Sciences and Food Systems to scientifically test the honey contents and compare it against a library of Maltese flower pollen.
If it emerges that the pollen in the honey does not match with local flowers, then it can take the producers to court.
The scientific tests carried out follow the EU honey directive and include testing for pH acidity, the amount of water, the level of sugars, as well as pollen analysis.
The honey is analysed to ensure no glucose, dextrose, molasses, corn syrup, sugar syrup, invert sugar, flour, starch, or other similar product has been added.
Pure honey has to be made simply from the floral nectar gathered, processed, and stored in the comb by the honey bees.
“If the honey is fraudulent you can tell immediately because enzymes would be absent as there would be no intervention from bees,” he said.
He warned that producers ought to be careful because Maltese honey was very popular with tourists.
“If they test the sample abroad, and they discover it’s not authentic then we’ll be in big trouble,” he said.
Prof. Attard appealed for a standards authority to monitor the market, referring to the Naturalment Malti scheme – a quality standard for Maltese products – which was launched in 2012, but petered away before it took off.
The products carrying the Naturalment Malti sign would have had to be produced from products completely grown in Malta, in line with a series of technical specifications. A spokesman for the Agriculture Secretariat said it was now working on a scheme based on the registration of products and producers “whose methods of production will be controlled and guaranteed against these higher standards”.
“Once approved, these will be entitled to display the national quality logo on such products to enable consumers to easily identify products whose quality has been controlled and guaranteed in Malta,” he said.