Beekeeping in Malta has a long history. The Greeks called the island Melite (Μελίτη) which derives from the Greek word meli (μέλι) that means honey. This name was also used under the Romans and was changed during the Arab rule to Malta.
A sub speicies of the honey bee (Apis Mellifera Ruttneri) is endemic to the Maltese Islands. This was always found in the wild and sometimes still can be found although now is rare to find becaouse of diseases.
During the many colonisers which dominated the islands, honey from Malta was considered as a delicacy and also used to be an export product from the island.It is regarded that the Phoenicians introduced the domestication of beekeeping in apiaries and earthenware jars and some Punic apiaries remain. During the Roman times Cicero in the case of Gaius Verres accuses Verres that he had stolen many jars of honey. The islands at that time fell under the jurisdiction of Sicily where Verres was a Roman magistrate.
In the countryside one can find apiaries called 'Miġbħa' that date to Punic times.One of them is the Xemxija apiary that is one of the oldest and best example in the world. In theory this apiary is still in a state of use although the way beekeeping is done today have a different technique from that time as now we use movable frame hives. Till the 1950's in Malta, bees where kept in earthenware jars. These type of jars where made of clay and had no bottom and at their mouth they had a closure with small holes. These where kept under trees especially under carobs as these trees cover a good area and thus the jars are covered and protected from the sun. Sometimes they where also put in niches in the rubble walls made especially for these jars. But those who had the means used to build apiaries in their fields. These where specially built rooms or caves which had their opening closed by a wall. Where the jars where put there was an opening in the wall where the bees could enter and leave the jars and a kind of shelving at the back where the jars rested and the jar extension can be put. These apiaries sometimes used to be rented to beekeepers from other locations. In my family they used to transport the jars to Mellieħa for the Wild Thyme honey season. They used to tight the jar to a piece of wood so it will stay in an upright position and close the mouth and bottom of the jar with sack cloth. Beekeepers that didn't have an apiary in their property and left their jars under trees or behind walls used to cover the mouth of the jar and thus the bees started to use the bottom side of the jar as an entrance. A piece of wood with a stone behind it was put to the bottom of the jar to reduce the entrance to few centimetres. There was not much manipulation on the bees when they used to be kept in jars but the production of honey was much less than today although they rendered allot of beeswax after the gathering of honey. In general, honey was gathered once a year after the wild thyme honey season. They used the Feast of St. Anne (26th July) as the honey gathering day.The beekeeper when seeing the bees developing he started to add extensions to the jar. These where like rings of clay about 12 inches long although they differed in size, without any bottom or mouths which where put after the jar. Sometimes rings of metal taken from 5 gallon tanks where used. Some old beekeepers told me that they added up to 3 or 4 extensions when it was a good season. This also depended on the strain of bee housed in the jar. Gathering of honey was a little bit messy. A long knife was used to cut off the combs with honey which where than put in a pail or a pot and covered. Before bee smokers where available the beekeepers used to burn some grass in old cooking pans and extinguish it to make some smoke.
The best jars to cut the combs from where those that the bees had built their combs parallel to the entrance while the others like the one in the photo where a headache for the beekeeper. The beekeeper used to cut the combs till he met the combs containing the larvae. The beekeeper sometimes when he used to see a jar with it's combs being built perpendicularly, tried to change the way the bees built the combs by cutting a comb from another jar and place it parallel to the entrance so maybe the bees change the way they are building.
These techniques started to change in the 50's as the first movable frame hives, and tools began to appear. These generally where imported from Britain. The hives where than copied from them and crafted locally. Till today the British Standard hive is common in Malta. The biggest drop in the use of jars was in the early 1990's when the varroa mite was introduced in the Maltese islands and eliminated about 2/3 of the entire bee colonies in the islands.
Here is important to say that honey was a commodity in old times. Before the invention of sugar refining honey was the only means of sweetener and also for a time it was also cheaper than cane sugar. Some farmers kept few jars of bees so that they have some honey for their consumption, and not as a business. Wax was also priced as it was used for moulding, arts and also produced one of the cleanest candles.
I wrote this, so one can understand the heritage of beekeeping we have in Malta. Today many things changed but one cannot forget our fathers that without any modern knowledge and tools managed to place Malta in the world map of honey. Till today Maltese honey is regarded as one of the best around the world.