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Sphakia Survey: The Internet Edition

Traditional Bee-Keeping in Sphakia, SW Crete

Lucia Nixon

Here I discuss bee-keeping in Sphakia in the 20th and 21st century, and and where possible in the Turkish period (in Sphakia Survey chronology, A.D. 1669- 1900). I am grateful to Mr Chrestos Zymvragoudakis, former Bee-Keeper of Crete for the Greek Ministry of Agriculture. Simon Price and I visited him in September 2000. He showed us his collection of beehives and other bee-keeping equipment, and gave us much information about bee-keeping.

1. beehives in Crete, late Turkish period - 21st century.

Beehives in E Crete were traditionally always ceramic. They are known as solines (pipes) and set horizonally (Baumann 1993: 166). Both interior and exterior are completely plain. Some examples may have handles (e.g. the drawing in Blitzer 1984: 50).

In W Crete, beehives can be made of several materials, including terra cotta, wood (cut planks, often cypress, or sometimes hollowed trunk sections), and wicker. They are usually vertical, and belong to the top-bar type. The drawing done by Sir George Wheler of a basket hive on Mt Hymettos shows that the general type was known in the Greek world in the 17th century (Crane 1999: 395).

Other equipment included ceramic smokers (to get the bees to leave the hive), and honey-strainers. There were also special pithoi for storing honey, of various sizes.

2. the changing location of hives in Sphakia

In Sphakia, people built stone bee enclosures (to melissokipo), at the top of a set of agricultural terraces, or on uncultivated slopes where thyme bushes are abundant. At the moment there is no way to date these enclosures. Inside, bee enclosures have terraces, consisting of parallel lines of stones on which the hives can be placed. A small room or cupboard for storing equipment is sometimes built in one corner.

Frequently there is a tree or trees growing inside the enclosure (e.g. a pear tree). Trees provide shade, and flowers in the spring; they can be a landmark for the bees to sight on as they return to their hives. Bee enclosures also provide shelter from the wind, which bees dislike. Because wooden hives disintegrate relatively quickly, the stone bee enclosures are virtually the only material evidence for bee-keeping in Sphakia before the 20th c.

Whatever the material used for to make them, hives placed in bee enclosures were put there permanently. When European box hives were introduced after World War II, they too were put in bee enclosures. Since motorised transport became common in Sphakia, bee-keeping has changed. Few bee enclosures, sited mainly on footpaths, are used. Instead, box beehives are placed in locations near car roads, and they are moved to other locations depending on what is in bloom; the practice is called migratory bee-keeping (nomadiki melissokomia). This development is the reverse of the change in pastoralism, another important economic activity in Sphakia, which has moved from predominantly transhumant to predominantly stationary pastoralism.

3. the cultural significance of bee-keeping and bee products

Crete was different from Cyprus in that sugar cane never became a major crop (Jacoby 1994). Honey remained the main sweetener in Sphakia until after World War II. Only in cities which had 'sugar shaperies' (zakharoplasteia) were sugar-based cakes commonly available. Honey production is still economically important in Sphakia, though on a smaller scale than before. Culturally it remains significant in the menu at Sphakiote dinners following engagements, weddings, and christenings, when the first course consists of local honey dribbled over local sheep's milk cheese (graviera); cf. Horden and Purcell 1999: 225, 227.

Honey is not the only bee product. Wax is another, and it too remains culturally significant for candles in churches and other religious settings, even though people now have electricity.


Baumann, Hellmut 1993. Greek Wild Flowers, London: Herbert.
Blitzer, Harriet 1984. Traditional pottery production in Kentri, Crete: Workshops, materials, techniques, and trade, in East Cretan White-on-Dark Ware, edited by Philip P. Betancourt, Philadelphia: University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, 143-58.
Crane, Eva 1999. The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting. London: Duckworth.
Horden, Peregrine and Nicholas Purcell 1999. The Corrupting Sea. A Study
of Mediterranean History, Oxford: Blackwell.
Jacoby , David 1994. La production du sucre en Crète Vénitienne. L'échec d'une entreprise économique, in Khrysa Maltezou (ed.), Rodonia. Time ston M.I. Manousaka, Rethymnon: University of Crete, vol. I, 167-80.


This is an abstract from "Bee-keeping in the Graeco-Roman World", a conference organised by Simon Price and Lucia Nixon at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, on 7 November 2000.



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