The materials are published with support from donations and help from the volunteers, provided to the Centre Food Studies by the їzhakultura community. Support us on Patreon!


Ukrainian cuisine does not exist without honey. Old documents and ancient chronicles are peppered with references to honey wine, mead, “laid down honey” which is aged mead and “drinking honey”, a honey-based fermented drink. Honey cakes seasoned with poppy seeds and other types of ritual bread with honey was a popular dish on a festive table. Honey is associated with wealth and prosperity, as such it widely features in wedding traditions, the Feast of the Holy Transfiguration and Blessing of the Fruits as well as other family festivities and other red-letter days. Back in history honey farming has helped significantly fill the nation’s coffers.  

What are the ancient Ukrainian honey farming traditions and do they exist today? What is wild honey and how is it different from the regular honey? Read up on the subject in an article by Olexy Nahorniuk and Anastasia Pankova, experts on folklore traditions and honey tasters, who specialise in the Polissya honey. 


What is wild honey farming

It’s an ancient method of harvesting honey which continues to exist in the townships across the North of Ukraine and Southern Belarus. The original Ukrainian term bortnytstvo or wild honey faming comes from a word bort, which is a man-made cavity inside a living tree, a type of natural hollow which houses a colony of bees.

The borts are usually carved out inside tree trunks of old pine trees, linden trees or oaks, 4 to 15 meters off the ground. The trees are topped, to prevent them from collapsing during a wind storm. In fact, the bort does not damage the tree because the bees insulate the inside of the hollow with propolis, which prevents the tree from rotting. Some trees used for wild honey farming which still grow in the north of Ukraine are several hundred years old – they are the oldest and largest trees in the Polissya region. There is about a dozen trees known to be used for honey farming in the region around Rivne. Some of the trees are kept in the family and continue to be used by the ancestral honey farmer.

In time the farmers switched to using tree trunks and tree stumps to make mobile beehives. The apiaries were usually installed in a garden close to home or out in a forest. 



Wild honey farming in the Medieval Rus’

The first records about wild honey farming on the territory of modern-day Ukraine date back to the Medieval Rus’. In the early 10th century Umar Ibn Rustah, a Persian explorer and geographer wrote in his chronicles: 

“The country where the Saqaliba dwell is flat and heavily forested. There are no vineyards or cultivated fields. They have a sort of wooden box, provided with holes, in which bees live and make their honey; in their language they are called ulishaj. They collect around ten jars of honey from each box.”  


The Primary Chronicle, an ancient document written by the monk Nestor at Kyiv's Monastery of the Caves in the 11th and 12th centuries, says that the Kyiv prince collected tribute in honey and beeswax, and they also were used as an important export commodity for the Kyivan Rus’ and transported by river to Byzantium. The Primary Chronicle also mentions how in 946 the Drevlians, a tribe of early East Slavs, on the orders of princess Olha brewed large quantities of honey wine to be served during the death feast in honour of her now deceased husband - prince Ihor, assassinated by the Drevlians.



Honey and protectionist trade policies

The Rus' Justice, the first written legal code of the Kyivan Rus’, describes the types of punishment for wilfully damaging trees used for honey farming. The trees carried special markings. For damaging such a tree, the perpetrator was fined twelve hryvnya. Just to compare – for killing a serf, a tenant farmer with no property rights, the perpetrator was fined only five hryvnya. The legal codes of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania included detailed legislation governing the rights of honey farmers in relation to their ownership of apiaries and trees housing the bee colonies. For example, stealing a beehive together with the bees and honey was punished by death. 

The honey farming community which lived according to the ancient common law practices, continues to tell stories of harsh punishments exerted on the people burning the bees’ nests and stealing beehives. If the bee owner caught the thief up on a tree, the thief was forced to jump off a tree which in the best of circumstances resulted in severe bodily injury. There are recorded cases of public execution of thieves at the scene of the crime. One of the most recent executions was carried out in the 1800s in the Rivne suburbs. Also, the honey farmers utilised magic rituals to punish the thieves: the front part of the destroyed beehive which bore the markings of the perpetrator was buried in a graveyard. The ritual was accompanied by special chants and was aimed at causing the death of the perpetrator. 



Honey in food culture

The ancient hospitality practices continue to live on in the Polissya region, where it’s traditional to share raw honey with the others. Some honey farmers extract raw honey from the hives right on the spot in the forest and share it with the herders and other passers-by, sometimes they bring some honey back to the village and share it with the neighbours. 

The honey farmers from the Zaslavya village in the Rivne region describe special festive rituals involving honey. The raw honey in honeycombs being served was consumed by hand, following the meal the diners washed their hands right under the table. Water rich with honey dripped on the earthen floor and served as a ritual meal for the dead ancestors. 

Honey was an important part of festive family meals and red-letter days. Ukrainian Christmas carols often mention syta, which is honey diluted with water and seasoned with bread cubes. Back in the day the dish was consumed during weddings and death feasts. Language experts say, that the contemporary Ukrainian expression “do syta” means having your fill, doing something to your heart’s content. The expression has direct references to syta, the dish which was served at the end of a festive meal.



Wild honey vs regular honey: what is the difference?

Wild honey is produced almost without any interference from the bee keeper – this is the main difference between wild honey and regular honey. The honey farmer does not add any artificial beeswax the way it’s done when the regular honeycomb frames are used. The honey farming business is greatly affected by the weather conditions. The wild honey farmers say that the wild bees in the Polissya region are highly resilient and very productive. They first fly out of the beehive in early spring when the ground is covered with snow, continue foraging in the rain, and are able to withstand low temperature better than their hybrid counterparts.

Wild honey is also special because the bees get no help from the farmers in building the honeycombs. The traditional honeycomb frames are made with sheets of wax paper which have artificial additives and paraffin is the most common ingredient. But wild honey in honeycombs includes only the most nutritious sub-products provided by the bees, namely beebread, royal jelly, other nutritious ingredients included in the flower pollen, wax products and propolis, and nectar. As a result, wild honey has more intricate and delicate flavour and aroma.



The flavour of wild honey 

The Ukrainian wild honey hunting traditions have their roots in the Polissya region. The region is rich in honey bearing plants, which are different from the plant life in the Ukrainian steppe and wooded steppe. This is what makes the Polissya honey special and gives it an unmistakable flavour. The local Polissya honey occupies a unique niche on the national honey market, which overflows with buckwheat honey, honey from sunflowers, linden, acacia tree and wild grass honey.

The wild Polissya bees start foraging when the first flowers bloom, usually it’s buckthorn. In May wild rosemary blooms; wild bilberries and cranberries are flowering. Large swaths of azalea bushes grow in the meadows surrounded by pine tree forests. The Ukrainian heather blooming season starts at the end of summer when the meadows are covered with a carpet of purple flowers. These grassy meadows in the Polissya region covered in heather are the bees’ best foraging ground. The autumn honey from heather is clear and dark in colour, it’s known for its delicate aroma, and tangy flavour. However, it’s difficult to extract heather honey from the honeycombs and back in the day it was consumed together with the nutritious honeycomb. Sometimes bee keepers place the honeycombs on the stove where higher temperatures help to liquify the honey and extract it. 



Wild honey hunting today 

In the 1800s wild honey farming was at its lowest. It was mostly due to massive deforestation and destruction of old growth forests as well as the invention of modern honeycomb frame systems. The Bolshevik policy of collectivisation which came later followed by introduction of collective farming practices almost destroyed the wild honey farming traditions in Ukraine. The tradition was seen as old fashioned and bourgeoise. However, the local bee keepers in the Polissya region and Belarus managed to keep their honey hunting traditions and now these practices exist in their almost original form. During the 1990’s economic crisis more people in the Polissya region wanted to try their hand at bee keeping and these efforts helped keep the ancient tradition alive.

The wild honey farmers in the Polissya region usually first check up on the bees in the autumn and only sometimes in the spring. It is done in good weather starting from mid-September till mid-October but all activities seize after the Feast of Intersession. The farmers use special ladders – ostrovs or leather ropes, called lezyva. The farmers cut out the honeycombs with a knife and place them in linden bark boxes. Around one third of the honey is left inside the hollow so the bees are able to survive during winter.

Some wild honey farmers in the Polissya region manage up to two hundred beehives inside tree hollows, but wild honey is still hard to come by. It’s harvested in small quantities for personal consumption and non-commercial use. Back in the day, tree bee hives were a popular wedding present where the honey farmer continued to tend to the bees and the harvested honey went to the young couple. This is a generous gift which is about trust and respect.

Today the Rivne and Zhytomyr oblasts have over one hundred families engaged in honey farming. They continue harvesting from the ancient tree beehives which they inherited from their family; climb the trees using old techniques; construct beehives using ancient traditional tools; use their own beeswax to make candles, and share the honey with their fellow villagers and close family. And sometimes even a passing cultural anthropologist can get a taste.



Photo by Olexy Nahorniuk