To bee or not to bee: why we should value the humble honeymakers
“If we go, we’re taking you with us,” say bees everywhere. Or at least this is what the London-based street artist Louis Masai imagines they are saying.
“Bees are in decline across the world, and crops are being messed about with. That affects the bees, and whatever affects the bees is eventually going to affect the rest of us,” says Masai, who has been at the forefront of a social-media campaign, supported by his art, to raise awareness of colony collapse disorder (CCD), a global phenomenon that’s seeing seemingly healthy bees abandoning their hives and queens, en masse, never to return. A small matter, you might think, except that the list of crops that won’t grow without bees is exceedingly long. To give you an idea of the numbers involved, it’s estimated that the United States could lose a whopping US$15 billion (Dh55bn) worth of crops if bees weren’t around to pollinate fruits and vegetables.
Masai is one of a growing number of people around the world dedicated to protecting bees, and his efforts have helped spawn the #SaveOurBees campaign. “My work is all about endangered species; bees are in massive decline, and we should do something about it,” he says.
The bees of this region are no less important or worthy of protection. I meet the Yemeni honey importer Riath Hamed, the managing director of Balqees Honey, who lives in Abu Dhabi, to learn more about local bees, the honey of the Arabian Gulf and how we can promote and protect the good health of our local bee populations.
“Yemeni honey is considered to be the best in the world, and is a highly prized commodity across the Middle East,” Hamed says. “It gets its rich and unique flavour from the ancient Sidr trees, Ziziphus spina-christi [also known as the Lote tree], which grow in the area where it is produced.”
The Sidr tree has grown across various parts of the Middle East for thousands of years, and is mentioned several times in the Qu’ran, where its leaves are used for soap. But in the case of Yemeni honey, “it is the combination of the climate in the Arabian Peninsula, as well as the mineralised soil of the Doan Valley, which is 900 kilometres from the Arabian Sea and high up in the mountains of the Hadramaut region of Yemen, which come together to create the unique flavour”, Hamed explains.
“When the bees forage in areas where a particular plant, such as the Sidr tree, eucalyptus or lavender, is concentrated, it will impact on the flavour of that honey. As with orange blossom and milk thistle, there are thousands of varieties of plants and flowers, with concentrated nectars that will influence the taste of local honey production.”
Hamed doesn’t believe that CCD has been observed in the Arabian Peninsula, as yet. Possibly, this is because of the nature of local agricultural practices or the fact that the environment is so different in the first place. However, this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be mindful and protective of our bees.
“Local bees are living well and produce good honey in Ras Al Khaimah, Al Ain and parts of Oman, where they have a big tradition of beekeeping, as well as in Yemen. When you know what to look for when you are out and about, you can sometimes see bee colonies forming little hives, and you might see a honey comb hanging off trees or telegraph poles.”
There is a well-known quote, sometimes attributed to Albert Enstein, that says: “If the bee disappears from the surface of the Earth, man would have no more than four years to live.” Bees are responsible for pollinating large numbers of fruits and vegetables species, so reductions in their numbers will directly affect our ability to grow food. Their value in the ecosystem is unique.
“There are various theories behind the causes of colony collapse disorder from the scientific community,” Hamed explains. “Global warming, which is believed to accelerate the growth of pathogens, mites and fungi, is believed to be directly affecting the health of bee colonies. Then there are also concerns that there is such an increase in the use of chemical pesticides, which the bees ingest, that this is adversely impacting bees and causing them to die. There is also thinking that cites increases in electromagnetic radiation in the environment, because of the use of cellphones and wireless-communications towers, which may affect the bees’ ability to navigate through the air and back to their hives.
“There are a variety of explanations, depending on which school of thought you subscribe to, but I personally think farming methods have to be a big thing, along with the chemical pesticides that are being used. It’s a no-brainer that the level of these being used is aiding the deterioration of bee populations.
“You need bees and insects. You can’t get plants to self-pollinate. If these unbelievably important creatures are not being looked after, there are obviously going to be dire consequences to the environment, and globally.
“I remember growing up in the UK, and when you were walking in the park in Sheffield, you would almost be fighting wasps and bees as you passed some plants, and you just don’t see those insects in the same numbers any more. It’s not rocket science – if there are all these different chemicals used in agriculture which are potentially impacting people, it is not surprising that the insect population is also being impacted.”
So, if you have a garden, what can you be doing on a macro level to support bees and other pollinators? Peppers, pumpkins, squash, watermelons and marigolds are all plants favoured by bees that grow well in the UAE. Also, try growing flowering herbs such as rosemary, lavender, fennel, mint, sage, thyme and coriander. You don’t need a garden; a window box or pots on the balcony will also attract and feed the bees.
Remember, not all bees produce honey and not all pollinators are bees. You can also help preserve the habitat of solitary bees, which ordinarily live in stone walls, reeds or snail shells, by installing a bee brick or bug box in a sunny spot in your garden, which will act as a small bee hotel.
Bees travel to forage for nectar and pollen, and are able to go long distances, visiting 50 to 100 flowers on a single collecting trip, according to the International Bee Research Association, which adds that bees will travel up to a 6.5km radius to collect nectar and pollen, potentially covering 20,000 hectares.
Hamed says it’s feasible to set up garden hives on a domestic basis in the UAE. However, if there are young children in the household who might potentially gain access to the hive’s operation and disturb the bees, he would advise against it.
There are people who keep bees on balconies and on rooftops – in London there are even hives on the roof of the Bank of England. “There are urban beekeepers working all over the place. It is entirely possible to keep bees in most places, you just need the will to do it,” says Hamed.
He doesn’t currently keep hives at his own home, but is working with Abu Dhabi farmers on local organic honey production, with bees feeding on the Sidr tree. He also visits friends in Italy and beekeeps there.
“It’s amazing collecting the honey when you are dressed up in the bee armour, as I call it, and you are in the middle of a swarm; it is just unbelievable. All those bees all around you, and there’s that sound,” he says.
“One of the interesting things about bees is that they fly about 90,000 miles, which is three orbits around the Earth, to collect 1kg of honey. Imagine that. It’s amazing what they get up to, bees.”
To learn more about bees and Yemeni honey, visit www.balqees.com, or meet Riath Hamed at the Farmers’ Market on the Terrace when it reopens at its new location in Business Bay in Dubai at the end of November.
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Updated: September 17, 2015 04:00 AM