The Hives and Honey of Palestine – in pictures

Written and photographed by EB

19 April 2011 | Palestine Monitor | April 19, 2011
Beekeeping is a Palestinian tradition nearly seven millenia old – the oldest archaeological remnants shows mud beekeeping in the Canaanite era in the Babb El Wad area, now called West Jerusalem. In the modern century, two Christian brothers from Bethlehem, Emeel and Philip, quoted beekeeping activity in Palestine in 1881.

Since these two brothers, beekeepers progressively organized themselves into cooperatives through Ottoman, British Mandate and Israeli colonial rule.

The first were created in Qalqiliya and Gaza around 1985; currently there are ten in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron, Ramallah, Nablus, Qalqiliya, Tulkarem, and Jericho, with two in Gaza. In 2009, there were about 1,500 beekeepers, fifteen percent of which owned three to ten hives, sixty percent owned ten to thirty. A quarter of them operate professionally with fifty or more hives. At ten kilos of honey per hive, Palestine produces 500 tons of honey every year from over 60,000 hives.

Although beekeepers are limited in their attempts to develop technical training exchanges and market cooperatives, they and their bees face a host of constraints hindering the quality and quantity of honey production in Palestine’s natural and political environment. Since the early 21st century, i.e. since the Second Intifada, the production of honey has continually fallen in Palestine: the average hive produces seven kilos of honey today, down from 1998’s average of twenty kilos.

“The occupation is obviously the main reason,” said Nassif El Dik, a passionate murab binahl, beekeeper, and member of The Ramallah Cooperative with fifteen years of experience. “As Palestinians are constantly evicted from their land, as about 60 percent of the citrus trees have been cut off or they are on the other side of the Wall or they die because of the lack of water.”

“The extension of settlements and [Bush’s] roadmap, the building of the Wall encroached on our fields. However the extension of Palestinians cities, towns and villages also irrevocably damaged our nature,” El Deik said.

Beekeepers are directly affected by the restrictions of movement. As a shepherd take his herd from a field to another, a beekeeper moves his hives following the flowers with the best nectar.

“Before the Wall, professional beekeepers used to go to Gaza on April-May. [Now] we are not able anymore to reach the greatest fields,” Nassif said. Those greater fields, and their pollen and nectar, are, like the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza, separated by barbed wire, concrete walls, remote-controlled machine-gun turrets, military forces and security checkpoints.

Israel’s occupation also infringes on beekeeper’s ability to import needed supplies from abroad. First, the import taxes are hardly affordable for small beekeepers. Secondly, Israeli custom authorities restrict Palestinians importation on queen bees and equipment. But, in addition to these severe restrictions on movement, Palestine’s beekeepers and hives are finding themselves in an increasingly hostile natural environment.

Pollution is wreaking havoc on the land, water and connected ecosystems of the hives. Particle-laden air, hydrocarbon-laced water, fertilizer-soaked fields, and climate change partly explain the depopulation of beehives. With Israeli illegal colonies continually expanding without environmental regulations mainly onto hilltops whose water and sewage runoff end up in Palestinian streams, the problem will not improve any time in the near future. The colonies’ impunity and traditional practices poisons the land and its creatures.

“The cooperatives attempt to work in collaboration with farmers and horticulturists to create a logical and healthy ecosystem,” El Deik said, “but they still use lot of fertilizers. Unfortunately, there is neither a strong environmental spirit nor a State to control here.”

Facing these issues, the Palestinian beekeepers have only their cooperatives to support them, as they do not receive any aid from the Ministry of Agriculture.

“Knowing that only three percent of the total budget is allocated to the Ministry of Agriculture, how could we expect they would devote a part to develop beekeeping sector?”El Deik said.

A few projects were funded by the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees, and international organizations as such as UE, Oxfam, and Acted, “but most of the activist beekeepers don’t agree with these projects implemented by international organizations because they don’t do it on a long-term sustainable perspective.”

“The candidates usually do a few months training, then they receive the beehives and they have to take care of it on their own. But they are not skilled enough and after one season most of their bees die,” said El Deik. “It is essential to support them on a longer time and to inform them on which flowers they should grow around, to advice them in the marketing of their production… But the most important point is the motivation of the candidates; they should love their bees as their children.”

Moreover, these NGOs occasionally work without proper knowledge of Palestine. They have given hives to Palestinians living in desert areas or to a village with few beekeepers or scant flowers.

Rima and Khitma are two beekeepers from Aboud who started beekeeping eight years ago through a project supported by the International Orthodox Christian Charities.

“They selected ten families, provided us a short training, gave us a hive and we had to make our own way. At the beginning it was hard, we didn’t know anything, and we lost lot of bees. But we persisted and increasingly improved our skills and production,” Rima and Khitma said. “Today, only five families from the project are still producing honey, the others either gave up and sold their hives or all their bees died.”

The five beekeepers in Aboud kept working hard and decided to gather in a cooperative in order to share experience and buy equipments. Rima and Khitma said that in another project funded by Word Vision few years ago, only three from thirty families still produce honey.

Palestine’s reduction in hive production has created a honey deficit. For now, 150 tons of honey is imported annually, as Palestinians consume 500 tons per year but make 350 tons of honey locally. Israel’s occupation has not only created this deficit, but has raised the price on what was once an establish regional trade.

Before the Oslo agreements, Palestinians could export large quantities of honey through Jordan to the Gulf countries. But since 1993, strict regulations on quality control made it impossible for beekeepers to continue exporting.

“Beekeepers need a support from the government to meet these conditions. We need laboratories to test each constituent before bottling in (50g to 1Kg); we need specific laboratories to pasteurize,” El Deik said. “Today, this control process at Birzeit University cost about 600 NIS per sample, [which] most of beekeepers can’t afford it. Nevertheless, there is no factory to bottle honey. The development of the sector requires a center of research to determine exactly the needs in our specific environment.”

Albert Einstein once said, “If bees disappear, man would have only four years to live.”

f we don’t protect the bee and develop beekeeping, all biodiversity and the entire food chain will disappear: pollination is necessary or useful to 80 percent of fruit crops. It is essential to promote such initiatives to preserve Palestine’s ecosystem while encouraging small businesses guaranteeing both income for the poor and locally-made products for Palestinian markets.

While the beekeeping sector has an economical potential to overcome livelihood loss, it remains in Palestine mostly a hobby, a non-professional side-activity. A comprehensive effort is needed to strengthen the production capacity (both quality and quantity), turning the beekeepers into pro-active small producers, turning their hives into productive assets, and generating substantial income for their families and communities. With this purpose, projects supported by large funds must make careful selections of participants and a evaluation of location to ensure projects’ long-term viability.

The Palestinian cooperatives are on their own, developing collaboration with others countries, notably through the Mediterranean Beekeeping Forum (MBF) to protect this activity from massive chemicals use and to develop skills and methods for producing and marketing honey.

“The MBF is very important as it gathers many countries where the bee sector is very strong; we have a lot to learn from them,” El Deik said. “Most of Palestinians beekeepers can’t study or follow trainings abroad; so through these exchanges we can share knowledge. It also provides us information about technological innovations, bee diseases and marketing of our products.”

Cooperatives also attempt to develop local initiatives. Last August, Ramallah Cooperative held the first Honey Festival: over three days, forty seven beekeepers and three hundred visitors from all of the West Bank. The next festival is planned for winter 2011.

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