Located only 90 minutes from Downtown Dubai, Hatta appeals to residents and visitors looking for a break from everyday life. While the area presents plenty for adventure lovers – from hiking to kayaking – it also benefits from a thriving, or rather buzzing, honeybee community.
In September, JA Hatta Fort Hotel launched its Get Your Buzz On package in collaboration with neighbouring bee sanctuary Hatta Honey, in a bid to support local and save the bees while attracting staycationers with a sweet deal – Dh199 for unlimited honey-infused drinks for 24 hours upon check-in. Guests can also visit the honeybee farm during their stay.
Nestled within the exclave that sits on the border of Oman, Hatta Honey rears the all-important insects and produces honey in a sustainable manner, as well as welcoming visitors – of the hotel and otherwise – to learn more about this precious industry at the sanctuary's bee garden. Guests can also browse and purchase varieties of honey and honey-infused products at the discovery centre. The highlight of my visit is the opportunity to get up close to creatures behind it all, with tours of the bee farm cost Dh50 per person.
Getting to Hatta Honey requires you to take the road less travelled, quite literally. The entrance sits along a gravel path that’s best visited with a 4x4 although, as I discovered, a normal car can make the journey at a slower pace with welcome views of the rugged Hajjar Mountains for company.
Into the hive
The tour begins with putting on protective gear – tightly zipped, bright yellow, full-length hoodies, complete with netted face shields.
Then Mohamed Ouertani, garden manager at Hatta Honey, informs us of the three main trees in the area and the flowers from which honeybees get their nectar. "Samar is a desert tree well suited to the dry weather," Ouertani explains. He says the honey made from it has antibacterial properties. Meanwhile, the honey derived from the evergreen sidr tree, he says, is the most famous and most expensive, as well as rich in iron, potassium and magnesium.
And then there’s the ghaf tree, declared the UAE’s national tree in 2008. Honey made from the flowers of these trees is rich in protein, says Ouertani, while the leaves are sometimes used in salads.
The taste and texture of honey changes depending on the tree it comes from and hives are relocated based on seasonal output. Hatta Honey also produces wildflower honey, which is derived from numerous species of flowers or blossoms and can be collected all year round. This is also the sweetest variety of honey, adds Ouertani.
A crash course on hives follows. These can be made from wooden crates, hollowed palm trees or stone, the last being a material more commonly used in years gone by. At Hatta Honey, the hives are made of plastic and foam, and can hold up to 10 frames at a time.
Finally, it is time to meet the bees. Ouertani uses a metal cylindrical smoker over a hive and its bees to "reduce their nervousness". With the bees sufficiently lulled, he pulls out frames buzzing with the insects, pointing out the hexagonal cells within, some of which glisten with honey.
At this point, with the bees buzzing around me, I begin to truly appreciate the protective gear. Encouraged by the fact that nothing is getting into the suit, I inch closer to get a better look.
Hatta Honey is the first centre to breed the Saskatraz queen bee outside of North America. The best thing about a hive, Ouertani explains, is how organised it is. “As we know, worker bees collect the nectar while drone bees mate with the queen. Here, everyone has a function based on the needs of the hive. Bees have to work their way up, you see,” says Ouertani.
He points out the queen bee in the hive, which stands out because she is bigger and also sports a bright blue dot of paint, so beekeepers are able to identify her easily. “Queen bees are the most important part of the hive. One queen lays between 1,200 and 1,500 eggs in a day and the survival of the hive depends on her. Simply put, if you have good queen bees, you have good honey.”
Hatta Honey has a queen bee rearing programme, growing breeds such as Omani, Yemeni and Italian, as well as Saskatraz.
It is important to support breeding programmes such as this as they address the diminishing bee populations that are a real cause for concern. Scientists around the world have pointed out that if bees disappear from the Earth, mankind will not survive much longer, a fact that Ouertani reiterates: “Seventy per cent of all pollination of trees happens because of these creatures. So no bees, no trees, no food, no oxygen,” he says.
The last leg of the trip allows guests to explore the equipment required in an apiary, from the smoker to extractors, the machines used to draw out honey from the hive, after which it is filtered to make it fit for consumption. “When extracting, we are careful to always leave more than enough honey for the bees as it is their food,” says Ouertani.
A tasting session is also on the agenda back at the discovery centre. “The best time to have honey is a tablespoon in the morning, when your stomach is empty,” says Ouertani. “You can use it in your tea or sandwiches, or to sweeten any dish. You really can remove all the sugar in your kitchen if you have [good-quality] honey.”
From bee farm to dining table
Sufyan Marikkar, executive chef at JA Hatta Fort Hotel, says there is a big difference between cooking with honey found on supermarket shelves and using the fresh stuff. “The texture and taste are completely different, which makes for superior, high-end dishes,” he says. “We primarily use sidr honey although we are sourcing other varieties from the bee farm.”
Unlimited honey-infused drinks aside, the Get Your Buzz On package includes sweet and savoury concoctions such as feta and honey pastry, honey-glazed chicken satay skewers, honey-roasted nuts, and honey-infused ice lollies and sundaes.
The hotel is also planning to store and display bottles to raise awareness of the farm – and give guests a souvenir to stock up on upon check out. It’s definitely a sweet way to end a visit to Hatta.