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Beekeepers feel sting in northern Syria

Beekeeping in northwest Syria, which was once a traditional industry, faces challenges due to the war and its repercussions amid a lack of support.
A Syrian beekeeper picks honey from his hives.

The Syrian war has had a clear impact on the beekeeping sector along with its honey production and trade in northwestern Syria, as beekeepers have lost important pastures and vital projects over the years.

With the relative calm prevailing in the area recently, beekeepers in the Aleppo countryside — which is under control of the Syrian opposition — now hope to compensate for their losses.

Although the opposition-controlled countryside of Idlib and Aleppo, namely Afrin, is rich in flowers and nectar and the climatic conditions are suitable for beekeeping and honey production, beekeepers still face challenges.

Ahmed al-Ahmed, an agricultural engineer and beekeeper in the Aleppo countryside, told Al-Monitor, “There are common diseases that affect beehives, such as American and European foulbrood, and Nosema — which is one of the most dangerous.”

Ahmed noted that the failure to rationalize the use of pesticides by farmers causes great harm to bees that depend on field flowering crops such as coriander, anise and black seed.

The Syrian native bees (old breed) are distinguished by their adaptation to local environmental conditions, quality, resistance and vitality. However, beekeepers in the Aleppo countryside have started abandoning local breeds that have low production and fierce tempers and have resorted to hybrid breeds (yellow and black) that are more productive and calm. Beekeepers have also started bringing in queens, bringing the production of one hive to over 50 kilograms of honey annually compared to about 35 kilograms for the local breed. The price of the local hive ranges from $30 to $40, while the price of the hybrid hive is $125 at the beginning of spring and $60 after the end of spring.

Ahmed explained, “Demand for hybrid breeds is very high, although the native breed is globally registered among the pure breeds. However, the government paid no attention to it in terms of establishing special reserves for vaccination, which led to a decline in breeding and an even lower production.”

According to estimates by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization issued in September 2019, beekeeping was a traditional industry in Syria before the war in 2011, and there were over 700,000 beehives producing honey and royal wax.

The report also stated that a beekeeper could live off of his production if he owned at least 100 hives, which could produce an average of 20 to 25 kilograms of honey per year per hive.

Mohammed al-Hussein, head of the Free Beekeepers Association in Aleppo's countryside, lost many hives and huge sums of money after trying to establish 170 divisions (a project to propagate new hives from a large hive for a new year). He succeeded in making 140 divisions only by spring. And he had to combine two or more hives to form a productive hive, merging 104 hives into 43 hives to achieve reasonable productivity.

“Beekeepers have incurred huge losses over the past two years due to climatic conditions and weather fluctuations that affected pastures and flowering, negatively affecting production in addition to leading to a decrease in the number of hives due to the decline in green spaces and the difficulty of choosing the right place to feed the bees and preserve the hive,” Hussein told Al-Monitor.

“Many beekeepers have also been displaced and local authorities offer no support, which is much needed, especially in the time of pandemics and diseases that affect bees, with the exception of negligible support provided by the Turkish government, which offered 200 hives one time in 2017,” he added.

Hussein pointed out that the 140-member Free Beekeepers Association was established in 2017 via individual efforts after the area was liberated from the Islamic State. The association was licensed by the Syrian opposition-affiliated interim government and the Free Aleppo Provincial Council affiliated with the Syrian opposition.

The association aims to exchange experiences, information and consultations, in addition to organizing lectures and seminars on beekeeping and on ways to combat diseases and improve breeds and pastures, without receiving any support from any official or unofficial body, he added.

Hussein said that there are no official statistics on the number of hives, apiaries and honey production in the countryside of Aleppo since many have left this profession due to heavy losses or displacement.

He added, “One of the most important obstacles facing beekeepers is the high prices of imported medicines and equipment. For example, the price of hive wood used to cost $24 and currently costs $42. This is in addition to the decline of green spaces and pastures. Previously, we could roam freely from Daraa in southern Syria to the coast and the mountains in western Syria to find the nectar of citrus fruits and the western countryside of Damascus to find anise, as well as along the Euphrates River, and Raqqa in northeastern Syria where the cotton season blossoms. Currently, the spaces and pastures are very narrow in the countryside of Aleppo.”

The price of a kilo of honey in 2020 was about $6 wholesale and $8 retail. This year it reached $8.5 wholesale and $10 retail, but the demand has become very low, Hussein noted.

Providing markets for honey, facilitating imports and securing queen bees, providing vaccination centers and equipment, and imposing control over the spread of adulterated honey are among the solutions that could solve many problems, he said.

The responsibility for addressing the problems facing the beekeeping sector falls primarily on the shoulders of the Ministry of Agriculture in the interim government. The ministry is currently working on developing cooperative programs with local councils and organizations with the aim of planting nectar trees that benefit bees. The ministry is also deploying efforts to protect natural reserves in the Afrin mountains in Aleppo's countryside, on the Syrian-Turkish border.

Basem Mohamed Saleh, director general of Agriculture, Livestock, Irrigation, Food Security and Livelihoods Projects in the interim government, told Al-Monitor, “The lack of capabilities and funding prevents us from supporting the beekeeping sector in terms of establishing reserves and providing supplies and facilities.” 

He noted that the directorate has presented many supportive projects to local organizations, but the latter are currently focused on projects related to growing wheat.

Saleh added, “The beekeeping sector is heading toward further deterioration, especially since honey is considered a complementary and not an essential material. So there is weakness in sales, disposal and consumption in a society that already lacks the minimum necessities of life.”

Saleh stressed that the absence of agricultural guidance and awareness and the migration of agricultural experts has left farmers and beekeepers in a dire situation, especially since many unqualified people have been randomly prescribing pesticides and medicines that affect bees and destroy entire hives.