This time, food heritage expert Zeinab Jeambey traces the early uses of nature’s natural delicacies and meets with beekeeper and honey producers around the country.
Mentioned in religious texts as a celestial food and praised for its health and medicinal properties, honey collection from natural beehives can be traced back to the late Stone Age. In the ancient Middle Eastern region, honey was used as a sweetener for food and wine and in the Sumerian and Egyptian civilizations it was a main ingredient in medical prescriptions to treat ailments such as eye and skin diseases, coughs, ulcers and stomach diseases. Egyptians also used it as a preservative agent in the process of mummifying the dead (“Honey and healing through the ages,” Richard Jones, International Bee Research Association.)
Honey: production and characteristics
Honey is produced by honeybees mainly from the nectar of flowers and honeydew, a product of sap-sucking insects left on the plant for bees to collect, like the honeydew found on oak, cedar and juniper trees in Lebanon. Honeybees extract these sugary substances and bring them back to the beehive where they process them by adding enzymes and extracting water in order to slowly transform the nectar, sap and honeydew into honey. Honey is then stored in wax cells, and sealed as storage food for the bees in times of nectar shortage. It comes in different colours, depending on the source of nectar or honeydew the bees collect.
Honey is considered a nutritious food, mainly constituted of sugars such as glucose, fructose and sucrose, water and small amounts of amino acids, minerals, aromas and enzymes. Though only found in traces, the enzymes bees add to honey are of important nutritional value because they produce the antibacterial agent, hydrogen peroxide (H2O2), that inhibits the growth of certain food-born bacteria such as E. coli. These enzymes are heat sensitive. A temperature of 40 degrees and above destroys them, thus causing the loss of their health benefits.
Many consumers, and unfortunately, unknowledgeable beekeepers, believe and vehemently argue that honey crystallization is a sign of honey adulteration with sugar and corn syrup. This misbelief has become widespread in our society. In fact, honey adulteration can only be detected by laboratory tests. Honey crystallization, on the other hand, is a natural process that occurs due to many factors such as the nectar source, the ratio of different sugars found in honey and the presence of sediments that might stay in after honey extraction and that help initiate the crystallization process. Different honeys crystallize at differing degrees with oak, acacia, citrus, eucalyptus, thyme, sage and rosemary honeys having a low crystallization degree, while sunflower and alfalfa honey crystallizing more rapidly. Crystallization does not affect honey’s nutritional value.
Here and there: beekeepers and their stories
Fady Daw – Fatri, Mount Lebanon – 80 hives
Fady Daw remembers his grandfather’s beehives in clay jars; the trade skipped a generation and was taken up again in the family by him. He’s now been a beekeeper for 24 years. Owner of Adonis Valley, a company producing and selling organic foods, Daw began beekeeping in his second year of university as an agricultural engineer.
Daw specializes in black oak honey. He explains that, Lebanese consumers favor it, because of its mild sweetness and low crystallization. Daw places his beehives around his village Fatri in Adonis Valley and rarely moves them during the year. For him, the geographical location of Fatri endows it with a natural wealth of oak trees and wild medicinal plants such as thyme, sage and oregano that make the perfect pasture for his bees.
Having completed his diploma thesis on black oak honey, Daw’s something of an expert on its properties. “It is one of the most nutritious kinds of honey because of its exceptionally high mineral content, almost double the amounts found in lighter coloured honey,” he says.
What’s more, it’s richer in pollen, meaning richer in amino acids, as well as enzymes and flavonoids, which are the antibacterial, and antioxidant agents found in honey
Daw says to treat a sore throat, heat a tablespoon of honey with apple vinegar or lemon juice for 20-30 seconds, gargle and swallow. Follow twice a day for two days.
For orders: 09 420910, 03 456336
Raed Zeidan – Mresti, Al Shouf – 80 hives
Raed Zeidan never originally thought of becoming a beekeeper, but after his father suffered an accident, he found himself assisting with the family beekeeping business. In 1992, Zeidan discovered and gathered a naturally occurring beehive, motivating him to start his own beekeeping business. Twenty years on and Zeidan now teaches beekeeping in the technical agricultural school of Baakline – Al Shouf, passing on the trade to new generations. He moves his bees several times a year, allowing them to forage on the flowers from which he wants to produce honey; from orange blossoms located east of Tyre to wild flowers and thistle blossoms at mid and higher altitudes. Towards the end of September, Zeidan places his beehives in areas where Inula blossoms, so that his bees collect their winter reserves from the nectar of this nutritious plant.
According to Zeidan, diabetic patients often choose jurdi honey because of its low sucrose content and milder sweetness. It is also commonly used to treat stomach ailments such as food poisoning. A daily intake of one teaspoon of honey in the morning and at bedtime treats asthma and allergy problems as well as colds and influenza.
For orders: 70 309439
Johny Abou Rjeily – Broumana, Mount Lebanon – 400 hives
Johny Abou Rjeily’s love for agriculture, wildlife and bees in particular naturally brought him to begin a beekeeping business in 2007 when he bought his first three beehives. What began as a hobby, rapidly evolved into a professional business. For orange blossom honey Abou Rjeily places his hives around the region of Tyre, for oak honey, in Broumana, Ennaya and Aley and for wild flower and thistle honey, in Dhour el Shweir and Akoura. Abou Rjeily encourages consumption of all types of honey since each has its own health benefits.
For orders: 03 140898
Mix honey with ginger and lemon to treat colds and with cinnamon for all kinds of ailments.
Nayef Al Rassi – Aitanit, West Bekaa – 300 hives
Since the ’80s, beekeeping was Al Rassi’s main source of income until changes in Lebanon’s agricultural landscape started affecting his levels of honey production. He currently places his hives around Tyre to collect orange blossom honey and in the highlands of Saghbine and Aitanit to collect wild flower and thistle blossom honey. Al Rassi explains that when in season, the highlands of his village are abundant with eryngo (eryngium cretinum) as well as wild mint, wild berries and globe thistle blossoms which make a rich-tasting summer honey. Al Rassi believes that honey is a very nutritious food and makes sure his grandchildren eat a spoonful every morning before school.
For order: 08 650597
Maurice Habib – Jdeidet el Metn, Mount Lebanon – 450 hives
A beekeeper for 36 years, Habib’s first connection with beekeeping was with his father, in his teen years. Since, then it’s the only trade he has known. He moves his bees several times a year, so they forage on a variety of blossoms such as loquat, inula, apple, orange and eucalyptus. He places some of his beehives in regions with many oaks and cedars to benefit from the honeydews that form. He also places other beehives in the highlands so that the bees forage on thistle blossoms such as eryngo and globe thistle.
Cedar honey has health benefits for the arteries and is prescribed for people with high blood pressure. It also provides a protective coat for sensitive stomachs. Orange blossom honey is beneficial for rheumatism and eucalyptus honey for allergies and asthma
For orders: 03 512446
This article was published in Lebanon Traveler magazine