7 minute read

Zoom in to Syria

Gilles Fert, France

Syria is a dream place for those interested in beekeeping. Syria has a specific race of honeybees, large melliferous areas, and traditions that have remained unchanged from long ago- all these contribute to a desert land buzzing with life.

Geographical situation

Syria is situated in the heart of the Middle East; it is a mountainous country crossed by the Euphrates River coming down from the Turkish mountains in the North. Desert covers 60% of the country's surface area. The fertile Euphrates Valley produces cotton and sunflower seeds, and Syria's coastline stretches 180 km along the Mediterranean, giving the country an important commercial outlet.

This coastal area is the most important area for Citrus, grapes, olives and many other fruits. The well developed irrigation system of the valley is admired by agronomists the world over.

The Euphrates Valley is the birthplace of farming: 12,000 years ago humans settled in the fertile crescent and developed the first sowing and harvesting techniques. Just like farming, the technique for breeding honeybees in terracotta hives was first developed in this part of the world.

Some traditional apiaries made of horizontal hives still exist. In the desert areas of the Eastern part of the country, hives are made of interlaced plant material covered with mud. However, increasingly the cork tree trunk hives and the terracotta hives are now replaced by simple wooden boxes one metre long and 15 cm wide. These are always placed horizontally and piled up to constitute apiaries of over fifty colonies. In these hives the honeybees make small honeycombs better able to resist strong heat. In the region of Maaloula - near the Lebanese border - the colonies are placed in niches inside house walls: sometimes there are up to a hundred hives per house, thus protected from high temperatures.

Indigenous honeybees

Syria belongs to one of those countries lucky enough to still have an indigenous species and race of honeybee: Apis mellifera syriaca. These are found everywhere in the country as well as in Jordan, Lebanon and the northern part of Iraq. These yellow-coloured bees look like Italian honeybees (Apis mellifera ligustica), but are slightly smaller and with the last two tergites grey. The bees are very gentle in the eastern and southern parts of the country where the race has remained genetically pure. In addition, they are well adapted to their habitat and are resistant to droughts, unlike foreign bees which never survive more than one season. It is only on the Mediterranean by beekeepers. This, unfortunately, produces an aggressive breed which needs to be fed with sugar syrup during the winter season. This is the reason why most Syrian beekeepers wish to go back to the original indigenous bees and would like to start selecting a breed to be as productive as the foreign bees.

The local beekeepers have observed three ecotypes of bees. These observations have been confirmed by Dr Hicham Al Rouz's studies on the subject. The first ecotype Sayafi (sabre), builds honeycombs that run parallel to the walls of traditional hives. The second ecotype Ghanami (sheep) builds combs perpendicular to the walls. The third ecotype Kamari (moon) builds in an arc. Mr Said al Attar has observed that when a colony of local bees was transferred from a Sayafi type of hive to a Ghanami type of hive, the normally peaceful bees would become very aggressive.

Flora

The main honey flows are from anise, Citrus, cotton, Eucalyptus globulus, Euphorbia spp, fruit trees (almond, apple), heathers Erica and Calluna, mountain herbs (Cistus, rosemary, thistles and thyme) and sunflowers.

Syrian beekeeping

There are 365,000 hives and the official honey production figure is 1,750 tonnes a year. Movable-frame Langstroth hives account for 80% of hives; the rest are local styles. Beekeepers can live off their production when they own at least 100 hives. Migratory beekeeping produces an average of 20-25 kg of honey. Compared to the international market prices, the local honey selling price is high - from 7 Euros/kg for cotton or sunflower honey to 24 Euros/kg for thyme honey. This honey is sold in specialised shops and in the numerous soukhs of big cities. A significant volume is used to make glacés fruits, but contrary to the Maghreb countries, honey is hardly used to make pastries. According to the first writings of Abu Hamid al Ghazzali and Abu Kaim al Jausieh, honey has always been regarded as a supreme medicine in Syria. Some fine honeys such as thyme honey are exported to the Gulf countries but this only represents 30 tonnes a year.

No treatments

The special feature of Syria is the low use by farmers of pesticides because they cannot afford their high costs. The large fields of cotton that are grown on the banks of the Euphrates therefore allow migratory beekeeping: this is quite an amazing fact as cotton is usually one of the most chemically treated plants. The same thing applies to the hillsides of the volcanoes in the eastern region of Stuweida where the numerous orchards of apple trees produce totally ‘organic’ apples. To guarantee better pollination of crops, the government is encouraging beekeeping projects and for the past 10 years has been giving five year loans for hive purchase. Five workshops with a production capacity of 10,000 hives a year have been created. The cost of buying a hive is the same as selling 3 kg of honey. About 100 experts in beekeeping teach new apiculture methods in 20 specialised centres. They breed bees and sell swarms for 30 Euros and stocked hives for 50 Euros. These 20 centres can have up to 300 trainees a year. The aim of the government is to eventually have 500,000 colonies spread out on the crops in order to guarantee good pollination and to help 15,000 young beekeepers to start in apiculture, in a country where unemployment reaches over 30%. The government has the ambitious project of afforesting the mountain areas with Acacia and Eucalyptus trees and these new areas of melliferous plants would increase the migratory beekeepers’ season.

Syrian beekeepers meet the same kind of problems as other beekeepers around the Mediterranean Basin. Varroa is fought with either acetic acid or Bayvarol. The presence of bee-eaters (Merops apiaster and Merops superciliosus) is a real problem, and the beekeepers sometimes have to move apiaries. In the southern region of Suweida and in the border region with Iraq, jackal attacks on hives can cause damage comparable to those made by badgers in East Africa. With regard to the high number of wasps, problems occur only with the imported bees and their hybrids, and they do not affect the indigenous Syrian honeybees which are perfectly adapted to their environment and can get rid of the wasps.

Queen honeybees and royal jelly

Some beekeepers are specialised in the breeding of queen honeybees and in royal jelly production. The technical level of these new kinds of exploitations is remarkable. About 300 kg of royal jelly are produced with a retail price of 2 Euros/gram in the local market. Apis mellifera syriaca honeybees are particularly well adapted to this production and quickly fill the plastic queen cups.

Apiculteurs sans Frontiéres

People involved in Apiculfeurs sans Frontiéres have been working in Syria for the past five years. These volunteers have given their time and shared their knowledge in apiculture in Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Syria. With regard to Syria, this constructive exchange is the fruit of the work of both Mr Said al Attar from Syria and Mr Robert Yvrard the French Chairman of Apiculteurs sans Frontiéres. Their mission ranges from the popularisation of basic beekeeping techniques - such as the production of honey in traditional hives - to the breeding of queen honeybees and the teaching of instrumental insemination. The aim is to develop and make the most of the region's beekeeping resources while at the same time respecting local customs. It also aims to help with the selection of the indigenous honeybees to avoid any dependence on importations.

SYRIA

Population: 16 million inhabitants 

Density: 83 inhabitants/kin2

Area: 184,000 km²

Capital: Damascus

Main towns: Homs, Aleppo, Hama

Average monthly salary: 120 Euros

Main language: Arabic

SOME FIGURES

Hives 365,000

Beekeepers 15,000 including 5,000 professional Honey

Production - 1,750 tonnes/year

Retail price - 7 to 24 Euros/kg

Royal jelly Production - 300 kg/year

Retail price - 2 Euros/gram

Langstroth-type hives 80%

Stocked hive: 50 Euros€)] = US$ 1.214