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David Cramp BSc.






By European standards, Spain is a large country covering some 196,607 square miles. With her smaller neighbor Portugal, the country forms the Iberian peninsula,  separated from the rest of Europe by the Pyrennees Mountains, some 11000 feet high. This separation, together with the legacy of 700 years of rule by the Moors, has always made Spain 'a country apart'.  The geography and climate of the country would be immediately familiar to any visitor from the United States. A Californian would recognize much of the Mediterranean coastline. Anyone from Oregon would be familiar with much of the Pyrennees and  their hinterlands, and certainly anyone recognizing any badlands areas would feel at home in Murcia and Almeria, (where incidentally, Clint Eastwood made many of his 'spaghetti western' movies). In short, from alpine areas to deserts, Spain could be a USA in miniature.

                The people of Spain are equally as varied. From Andalucia (where I live), the proud conquistadores set sail to conquer much of South America. Streets of such elegant towns as Puerto de Santa Maria were totally familiar to the young Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci. Great and noble families controlled vast estates where some of Spain's poorest peoples worked the land until very recently. The ubiquitous 'gitanos' or Gypsies strut their flamenco and the dark faces of the descendants of the Moors are ever in evidence. Some of the music is almost pure 'Arabic' and indeed, from much of the coast of Andalucia, the African shore of Morocco can easily be seen. The two pillars of Hercules; the Rock of Gibraltar (from the Arabic 'Jbel Tarik' or 'Tarik's mountain', geographically part of Spain, but politically British), faces the equally imposing Jbel Musa in North Africa, adjacent to the province of Ceuta, which is geographically part of Morocco, but politically Spanish (confused yet?). Between these pillars, the straits of Gibraltar, about 10 miles wide, separate two continents, two seas and two completely different cultures.

                 In the North of Spain, the Galicians retain their Celtic traditions and the peoples of the Basque country speak a language that appears to have no known European roots and certainly is not Spanish. The Catalans of North East Spain also speak a separate language and regard themselves as the businessmen of Spain. These efficient, industrious people believe that they keep Spain afloat economically and because of the nature of Spanish politics, politically as well. In the center of Spain lies Don Quijote (the Man of La Mancha) country where the pure Spanish of Castille is spoken, and where the capital of this varied nation, Madrid lies. These various regions and peoples of Spain can be as different as chalk and cheese. Their traditions and ways of life have been conditioned by thousands of years of history, and to describe every facet of this would take more an encyclopedia than an article in this magazine. They are a people who enjoy the best of the modern world whilst respecting their old traditions and values.

A typical fiesta



Spain has a long and illustrious beekeeping history. Mesolithic peoples  between 3000 and 8000 years ago were illustrating their craft on cave walls. To the present day, beekeeping has played an important part in Spain's agricultural  history.

                Today, every aspect of beekeeping is carried out. Some of the beekeeping operations are recognized as amongst the most modern in the world, whilst others, with beekeepers using cork hives, produce honey 'para la casa' or 'for the house', rank amongst the most primitive.

                Statistics usually bore, confuse and can even lie, but I make no apologies for including some, simply to give a picture of the apicultural makeup of Spain. There are about 2,4264601 hives in Spain, of which around 67% are in the hands of professionals and semi-professionals. There are probably more, but perhaps tax considerations play a part in reducing the true figures somewhat (See above about statistics). Purely professional beekeepers form a small percentage of the total, whereas for the rest, beekeeping supplements other occupations, mainly agriculture. Of the professionals it is estimated that 60% are migratory and 'follow the bloom'.

                Total honey production stands at some 30,000 metric tons per year and the most common honeys are multifloral or 'milflores' (thousand flowers). The most important single source varieties come from sunflowers, followed some way behind by citrus fruits (mainly orange), rosemary, thyme and heathers. 

                Europe is the largest buyer of honey in the world and most of the honey that is exported from Spain goes to other European Community countries, the foremost of which is Germany, followed by the UK, France and Italy. Despite this, Spain remains an importer of honey and most of this comes from Argentina, China and Cuba.

 In recent years, many regions of Spain have taken enormous steps to raise the quality of their production and now pride themselves on the quality of their honey (a complete turnaround from 30 years ago, when local honey was a disgrace). Regulatory councils have been set up in many areas to award 'Denominacion de Origen' (DO) labels to individual honeys and certain honey producing areas. These awards, which are taken very seriously, are a copy from those awarded in the wine trade to the finest wines and wine growing areas. Checks on honey in these areas are very strict and an analysis of the honey to assess water content, HMF levels, diastase levels, acidity, color and even in some cases, electrical conductivity. Checks are carried out on the packers to ensure that the laws relating to hygiene are adhered to, labeling is correct, legal and appropriate, and that storage conditions are correctly controlled. Any and all checks can be carried out at any time during the production period with no prior notice.

               This system helps to ensure that firstly, the producer takes pride in the quality of his product (or he loses the label), and secondly, that the consumer knows it. It is still true to say though that many roadside stalls will be selling honey in ex fruit juice bottles (even using the old lid), without any form of label, and the vendors' hives and income are unlikely to be registered with anyone, especially the revenue service.

                Varroa is the chief plague of Spanish bees and when the mite arrived in Spain in the late eighties/early nineties, beekeeping declined. The most effective control is Apistan, but as this is expensive many beekeepers use Klartan, a fluvalinate used as an agricultural product to control mites on large animals. Wooden laths are dipped in the liquid, left for a few hours, then dipped again ('to make sure Senor'), and then inserted in the hives. These are often left there and, over the years, the accumulation of these sticks in the brood nest only comes to a halt when the bees can't move any more and move upwards. More and more emphasis is being placed on organic production with EU grants available for bee farmers using organic methods. There is even a complete department at the University of Cordoba dedicated to the furtherance of organic production.

Other problems are minor when compared to varroa, but all exist; AFB, EFB, chalkbrood, wax moth, nosema and the beautiful  Bee Eater birds. These latter are a delight to watch as they perform aerial ballets over apiaries, and the damage they cause is very much exaggerated. They also eat many wasps and other predators of bees. Tracheal mites exist, but cause few, if any problems. Insecticide spray damage affects many beekeepers, especially those that are unregistered. One beekeeper (also a bar keeper which is how I got to know him), complained bitterly to me that the 'disease' had killed forty of his hives that year. He went on to tell me that everything looked so promising. The orange and lemon trees had flowered well and that the bees had no competitors for the nectar from other insects, because the farmer had done his duty by spraying them especially well.....etc, etc. He also commiserated with me because my area had no fruit trees for my bees, only 'silly little wild flowers.' When I told him that my bees were alive and well because no one bothers to spray wild flowers, his reaction was astonishing.

                "The spray...do you think it's the spray. Every year the spray. Does it kill bees too? You, Senor, are obviously a professor. Come. We will go and inspect my dead bees now. No No, such a brain must be fortified with more beer first. Or wine, whichever you prefer". It went on in this manner for some time. The whole bar discussed this revelation over many more beers and glasses of the excellent, but deadly local wine and, although his bees were not inspected that day, (or ever by me). I'm sure he learned much.  The story does illustrate a fundamental problem of education and one that I know the authorities are trying to overcome.

                Pollination contracts for cash are few in Spain. Growers usually get their crops pollinated and the beekeeper gets the honey and pollen, (the latter being a major export for Spain). Professional beekeepers with over 100 hives do receive, however, a pollination subsidy from the government of around 10 dollars per hive (it varies according to province). This is paid up to a maximum of 500 hives. If the beekeeper is a member of certain cooperative associations, the subsidy can be more. This is a sensible solution to the problem of getting a decent return from beekeeping and the view seems to be that you can import honey in a free market, but you can't import pollination, so subsidize it. It helps everyone.

                Overall most modern methods used in Northern Europe or the USA, are known about and used in Spain and, indeed, much advanced research is carried out by Spanish scientific institutions and universities, but for some beekeepers, modern ideas still come as something of a shock. Annual or two yearly requeening being a case in point. Some do it. Most don't. The average Spaniard, though, is still closer to the land than most Northern Europeans and even though many still use primitive methods, their basic instinct and knowledge of the countryside is ingrained. I always learn something whenever I speak to them.


The more professional beekeeping enterprises tend to use the Langstroth or Dadant hives and a beekeeper from any advanced beekeeping society would recognize almost all aspects of these beekeeping operations. Many of these hives are modified for migratory beekeepers with each box having a revetment around it's base so that it 'slots' into the box below. This simple feature ensures that the boxes don't separate during transport. They do also, however, prevent some manipulations, such as staggering the boxes so that bees can fly direct to an upper box during a heavy flow. Some of these hives also come with fixed floors, which, whilst easy to move around, make hive floor hygiene and box reversal manipulations very difficult.  The Langstroth hive was baptized the 'Perfeccion' soon after it's introduction, due to it's revolutionary features, and is still called so today by many beekeepers and producers of beehives. After hearing this, the Rev. Langstroth commented with customary modesty that, '...nothing in life is perfect. Only God is perfect'. He was right, because as usual, the exact dimensions of these hives seem to vary with the number of manufacturers.

                Another popular hive, especially amongst migratory beekeepers is the 'Layens' type. This is a single story hive with a hinged lid, a fixed floor and 12 to 14 large combs. These hives can be moved rapidly and easily from crop to crop and combs of honey removed as and when the hive becomes full. It seems to fit the bill with many beekeepers, but, to my mind, cannot compete with stacking hives in terms of production, hygiene, or number of useful manipulations. The government is trying to persuade beekeepers to change to either Langstroth hives or Dadant types.

                Many types of primitive hive are also used for producing honey for the family. In the far South of the country, where there are huge cork oak forests (I live in one), round cylindrical hives made of cork are popular. Cross sticks are placed in the hive for the bees to hang their combs on, a lid and floor also made of cork are nailed on, two small holes are made near the floor, and there you have it, a cork hive. Honey is removed by cutting out the combs and squeezing out the honey. Increase is made by attracting swarms to the hives. Other hives are merely a variation on this, using wood for construction, and would be similar to the 'gum' hives that used to be used in the USA. 



EB Wedmore commented in his extensive but now very dated book 'A Manual of Beekeeping'(1), that the Spanish bee is 'somewhat aggressive', and I know to my cost how easily they can penetrate beesuit, trousers and underpants in one swift and flowing movement. He also adds, however, that they are suited to the country and are slight swarmers. The bees (Apis mellifera iberica) are black, small and with short cover hairs.To put the facts relating to the bee into a more scientific context, JM Cornuet and J Fresnaye of the Estacion de Zoologica y Apicultura INRA, France, carried out a detailed biometric study of  these  bees (Apis mellifera iberica) from colonies throughout Spain and Portugal. (2). The study took into account: tongue length, color, size of hairs, measurement of the tomenta, and two wing venation indices. They found that there was a gradual progressive change in various morphological features from the North African bees, Apis mellifera saharensis-intermissa through A. mellifera iberica, to Apis mellifera mellifera in Northern Europe. They believe that this shows a continuous chain of races from Africa to the Urals. This agreed with Ruttner et al (1978) (3) who had earlier suggested that the evolution of the bee is a result of a unidirectional evolution from the subspecies saharensis-intermissa-iberica-mellifera. To the beekeeper, it is small, black, and a good honey producer, but you don't beekeep in shorts and a T shirt.

                Beekeeping in Spain is an important agricultural pursuit that, in many parts of the country, can justifiably claim to be up with the world leaders in the use of the latest ideas and technology. In areas of bee research too, Spanish scientists can also claim a place in the front rank, but for me, the pleasure is working my bees whilst gazing at a view of two great seas and two great continents, in a country that combines a wish to retain and respect the old ways of the countryside, with an eagerness to take up and at times initiate new ideas.

                Should anyone wish to read more about beekeeping in Spain, I recommend the magazine 'VIDA APICOLA'. It is a full color publication that comes out every two months and includes features on coming events, honey production, scientific papers, varroa, pollination, flora, beekeeping in other countries and all the subjects one would expect. Many of my statistics were taken from its pages.                                                                                                



1. Wedmore, E.B. A Manual of Beekeeping. Third Edition reprinted 1988 and published by: Bee Books New and Old, of Tapping Wall Farm, Bridgewater, England.

2.  Cornuet,J.M. et Fresnaye, J. (1989). Etude biometrique de colonies d'abeilles d'Espagne et du Portugal. Apidologie 20:39-101.  

3. Ruttner, F.: Tassencourt, L. et Louveaux, J. (1978). Biological-statistical analysis of the geographic variability of Apis mellifera L. Material and methods. Apidologie 9:363-381.


David Cramp is a British beekeeper in Southern Spain running Langstroth hives dedicated to the production of organic honey. He is a correspondent for the American Bee Journal, The Beekeepers Quarterly and edits the online beekeeping magazine Apis UK. He also writes for smallholding journals in the UK and is the author of ‘The Beekeepers Field Guide’. He is about to move to New Zealand as a beekeeper with his wife and two small girls aged 3 and 9.





Grafting in the field (Author)
Waxing up in the field (Author)


Photos by David Cramp

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