x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Bees: hard work, little play, end of story

Life is not all sweetness and honey for these busy creatures as their owners carry them around the UAE in pursuit of the nectar that becomes a delicacy thanks the insects' diligence.

Bee Keepers Ahmed al Houasiny and Bashir Qabil harvest honey from bee hives in Shahama.
Bee Keepers Ahmed al Houasiny and Bashir Qabil harvest honey from bee hives in Shahama.

The busy bees of Abu Dhabi are taking a break they deserve. The short life of these industrious creatures is an almost continuous round of work and travel, as they are carted by their owners from one emirate to the next in pursuit of the flowering plants that provide the nectar they turn into honey. Next stop will be Ras al Khaimah, in March. But for now, after a summer spent harvesting the sidr trees of Shahama, the last of the honey has been collected and the bees are repairing the damaged wax walls of their hives in preparation for a well-earned hibernation.

The bees will remain in Shahama until the beginning of January, when Bashir Qabil, their keeper, will load them on to his lorry, six hives to a crate, and drive them up to the lush areas of Khazna and Khatem, where rainfall will have prompted small flowers to bloom among the grass. It will still be a relatively lazy time for his bees. "They're still resting with a very light workload," says Mr Qabil, and the queen of the colony will be taking time out from her breeding programme. But "after that it's busy season for them".

Between February and April the bees will be divided up and distributed between RAK, Oman and Fujairah, taking advantage of the flowering simir trees. Come June 1 they will be returned to Shahama, for another summer of making sidr honey. Then, unfortunately for the bees, it all goes rather badly wrong: they die. "We bring new bees from Egypt on Sept 15," says Mr Qabil. "The bees we have now won't survive the heat to mate again."

Egyptian bees, descendants of European strains, are bigger and better at making honey than their local counterparts and are the bee of choice for most keepers in the emirates. The hardier UAE dwarf bee, of Asian descent, can endure the intense summers, but is not quite so keen on being put to work. "It is very hard to domesticate them," says Mr Qabil, who, like his bees, is from Egypt. "They just won't accept it. They live on their own."

The independent-minded UAE bees can be found mainly in the mountainous areas of Fujairah, where they build their hives in trees and in caves. Local people harvest this wild honey, claiming hives they find in trees and caves by hanging up signs with their names on them. They try to boost production by leaving pots of sugar-water for the bees to feed upon. UAE bees are not the only ones that are too hard to handle. "We brought Australian bees, but we couldn't work with them because they were too aggressive with us," says Mr Qabil.

Bees, like people, have national characteristics, says Faisal Mureiwed, a retired beekeeper and horticulturist who made a career of beekeeping in the Golan Heights of Syria and has had experience of many breeds. "The best bees are from the Caucasus and the Balkans," he says. "Ukrainian bees are excellent. Italian bees are wonderful too." But only up to a point. "When we brought them to Syria, they did excellent work in the spring," he says. "But once the red Syrian wasp started to come out, the Italian bees became too scared to leave their colony. The red wasp could kill them on the spot."

Sidr honey, which is what the bees produce while they are in Shahama, is reputed to contain more potent nutrients and antioxidants than any other variety. Connoisseurs prize its rich taste and the rare sidr from the Hadramout valley of Yemen is particularly sought after, especially in the US, where some importers sell it for as much as US$200 (Dh734) a kilogram. The simir honey, by comparison, is considered second grade.

Keepers such as Mr Qabil do their best to make life easier for their bees, providing them with a ready-made home so they can get straight to work and start making honey. "We supply them with the wax to make their life easier, because making wax is an arduous process for them," says Mr Qabil. For each kilogram of wax they make, bees have to consume 8kg of honey for energy. To get around this, the typical commercial bee colony comes complete with a wooden frame fitted with a sheet of beeswax - self-assembly furniture for bees. All the bees have to do is stretch the wax to make it fit better into the wooden frame and then fashion the hexagonal shape of the cells.

When the bees arrive in RAK next spring, they will set about their first task: finding the flowers they need. Until the 1970s, this mysterious process was not well understood, but in 1973 Karl von Frisch, an Austrian ethologist, won the Nobel Prize in physiology for his work unravelling some of the bees' trade secrets. He found that when bees arrive at a new location, they nominate a worker to act as a forager and explore the surroundings up to two kilometres away. When it finds flowers with good nectar and pollen, it returns to the colony. To pass on the news, and communicate the direction and distance to the flowers, the bee performs an intricate figure-of-eight dance.

The direction of the "eight" in relation to the front of the hive relates to the angle of the direction the bees must fly away from the sun to find the flowers, while the time the forager takes to perform the dance is linked to the distance the bees must travel. If the forager bee remains "indoors" for some time while performing the dance, it adjusts the angle of its figure eight to follow the changing position of the sun.

Such co-operation and dedication to the community, says Mr Mureiwed, is inspirational. "If people were like bees," he says, "it would be heaven on earth. You wouldn't see any poverty, despair or war. Everyone would know their purpose." relass@thenational.ae