x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Disease is a sting in the tail for Jordan beekeepers

Mites and viruses are paralysing and deforming the insects, threatening honey production and making cross-pollination more difficult.

Bee colonies across the country are being attacked by parasites.
Bee colonies across the country are being attacked by parasites.

AMMAN // When Ahmad Daour was only 10, he saw a bee swarm buzzing near his house in Qalqilya, a town in the north-west of the West Bank. He asked his father if he could keep the bees.

"He encouraged me," Mr Daour, 56, said. "But then I ran home crying after I was stung many times. I could hardly see and I started to vomit. My life was hanging on a thread then. I didn't know I was allergic to bees, but luckily I survived." "I was stubborn then. And after I developed a resistance after many bites, I started beekeeping as a pastime." In 1983, when Mr Daour moved to Jordan, he started a business in beekeeping and honey producing. He is now one of the main beekeepers in the country, and owner of Honey House, a shop on the outskirts of Amman.

Like most beekeepers in Jordan, he is concerned after deadly viruses wiped out nearly half of the bee population in the region in the past two years. Varroa mites, parasites that suck the bee's blood and shorten its lifespan, and viruses that attack honey bees and eventually paralyse them and deform their wings were identified in Jordan by the Bee Research Unit at the country's National Centre for Agricultural Research and Extension Research.

"We were all affected by the diseases ... So I got rid of 10 to 15 per cent of the infected beehives and I isolated five per cent," Mr Daour said. "But it wasn't such a loss compared to small beekeepers when it comes to diseases we cannot identify, this is where the fear lies." "These diseases are blamed for the 45 per cent drop of the bee population in the northern parts of Jordan along the border with Syria and Israel in the past two years," Dr Nizar Haddad, who founded the Bee Research Unit in 2002, said. "These numbers are very similar and very close to the bee losses in the southern parts of Lebanon and Syria ... In Halabja in northern Iraq, 90 per cent of the bees died," he said.

Efforts are underway to prevent the disease from spreading further and threatening Jordan's estimated 60,000 beehives. A new lab that opened last month at the research unit with a US$500,000 (Dh1.83 million) grant from the US Agency for International Development is trying to help researchers from Jordan, the Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq to understand why the bees are dying and boost their knowledge of bee diseases.

"We are hoping that the lab with its specialised equipment would help us better diagnose the viruses. Before we were able to diagnose two or three bee samples a week," Dr Haddad said. "We want to help beekeepers to select bees resistant to diseases and parasites to ensure that there are enough bees in the country for pollination and honey-production purposes. "We also aspire to be a regional research-based centre that would promote sustainable beekeeping for poverty alleviation and technology transfer."

The research unit is working to educate as many of the country's 3,000 beekeepers on how to prevent the diseases from spreading. "It is like educating the public how to prevent Aids. The proper beehive management could help control the spread of the viruses. But there are misconceptions among some beekeepers here and in the region that we are trying to counter," Dr Haddad said. Mr Daour and other beekeepers applaud the work of the new lab, where four researchers and four research assistant work. But they are particularly concerned about the importation of bees from Egypt, which they say are infected with a hive beetle, a pest that invades and scavenges on honeybee colonies.

While 20 per cent of the honey consumed in Jordan is produced within its borders, between 3,000 and 5,000 packaged bee colonies are imported each year from Egypt. Jordanian beekeepers are lobbying the ministry of agriculture to ban the imports. "If they enter the country they can destroy the bees and the hives and threaten the crop pollination. "We can identify these disease with the naked eye," Mr Daour said. "I raise queen bees from a good breed. But the mating takes place in nature, and they can infect our bees," he said.

"With a new lab, whenever there is a disease we cannot identify, at least we can send samples for testing and take the necessary precautions. But we cannot stop the Egyptian male bees from mating with our queen bees if they are not banned from entering the country." smaayeh@thenational.ae