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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Wild Icelandic Honey (Rima Villihunang), Southern Iceland

When you think of Iceland- land of fire and ice- honey and honey bees probably aren't the first things that come to mind. Might not even be in the top 100. With its cold, rainy climate, long winters and majestic, wind swept landscapes of lava flows and snow capped peaks, it may be hard to imagine that Iceland produces honey at all, but it does. 

Iceland & Europe
Iceland lies on the 66o latitude, the same as Alaska, but the Gulf stream works its magic and produces more moderate, and warmer temperatures than you'd expect. The summer average temperature is 58 oF and winter temperatures, at least in the southern part of the island, generally hover around freezing, making honey production a possibility.

As you can imagine, though, Iceland posses many challenges for bees and beekeepers. For one, honey bees are not native to Iceland. Bees are imported from Sweden and Norway (Buckfast bees) where they are hardy enough to withstand challenging weather conditions. 

Which brings us to the weather. And it isn't so much that Iceland is cold, but windy. The wind blows incessantly which is a problem if you are bee out foraging. And the harvest season is short. Spring comes late and summers only last a few weeks, so there isn't much time for the hive population to get big enough (or strong enough) to survive the winter. To address this beekeepers use hives (polystyrene langstroth hives) that are designed to shelter bees from the windy, rainy, cold conditions. The hives also contain sensors that allow beekeepers to monitor the hive conditions remotely, giving them early warning if a colony is in trouble. 

Vegetation on lava flow (September), near Husafell
On the plus side, summer days are (very) long in the land of the midnight sun allowing bees to be out and about foraging nearly nonstop during the foraging season. Furthermore, the bees are virtually disease-free (import requirements for bees are very strict) and as a result, no chemicals are used in beekeeping. So, for bee survival in Iceland it all comes down to whether summer gains can overcome winter losses.

Beekeeping in Iceland is not for the faint of heart. There is a small, but by all accounts, resilient and enthusiastic group of apiarists who make up the Icelandic Beekeepers Association which was most recently reinvigorated by Egill Sigurgersson in 2000. The current iteration of the group has its beginnings in 1998 when Dr. Sigurgersson moved back to Iceland after his medical training to begin his practice in Iceland. He brought with him bees from Sweden to start a few hives. It took six months to get all the permissions needed, for licensing and certification of disease free status, and then, sadly, within two seasons all had died. He tried again, changing how he sheltered and winter fed them, but with the same results. He next tried bees from Norway and made other changes with some success. It seems that the trick for sustainability is to have at least 70-80% of the bees survive the winter.

Southern Iceland (September)
As alluded to, beekeeping in Iceland goes back a bit further. According to "The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting" by Ethel Eva Crane, some (unsuccessful) attempts were made in the 1930s to import European honey bees to Iceland. These were followed by others, notably in the 1950s, with hives surviving a few years. I read one account of an Austrian, Melitta Urbancic (poet, actress and sculptor), living in Iceland who had brought bees from Austria. She was the original founder of the Beekeeping Association of Iceland in 1952. Unfortunately authorities banned bees as being "too dangerous" in 1960 after a swarm (an impressive phenomena when upwards of 10,000 bees mass migrate to form a new hive) created concern about public safety. 

Currently things are on the upswing for Icelandic beekeepers. There seems to be about 15-20 beekeepers across the country with about 250 hives. Most are found in the southern part of the island, near Reykjevik. They have a thriving association, and interest within and outside of Iceland. They also have a facebook page
Gullfoss Falls

There are no large crops grown in Iceland so no mono-floral honey. Floral sources are those naturally found in the landscape: dandelion, salix (willow), blueberries, arctic angelixa, millefolium, white clover, and heather. With so few hives making a very limited amount of honey, Icelandic honey is not easy to find- it is only sold  in a few shops and markets- and is expensive when you do. However, you may be able to buy some by emailing the Beekeepers Association (

I bought my honey at the gift shop at Gullfoss falls in September (2016). It is a tiny jar (30 mls)- perfect for a souvenir- and was about 14 Euros.  It is Rima Villihunang (wild Icelandic honey) from Rimi, Grimsndsi (not sure of the spelling) in South Iceland and distributed by Urta Islandica, Hafnarfjordur. The tag on the jar says that the floral sources are wild berries, willows and heather and that the honey is raw and unrefined.  

Wild Icelandic Honey (Rima Villihunang)
It is a mellow, opaque, yellow color. It has already crystallized all the way through (although best before October 2019). It has a strong, warm floral scent (the scent of summer). The crystals are medium to small, and dissolve quickly. It is not overly sweet with a floral, fruity flavor, a little like summer ripe black grapes with a tangy, almost salty after taste. Unusual and very nice indeed. Well worth the price! Next time I'm in Iceland I'll make a point of getting a larger size(!) 

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