From loss of habitat to pesticides and even the dreaded colony collapse disorder, the decline of bee populations worldwide has hit the headlines over the past decade. Without bee pollination, ecosystems would change rapidly, some of our favourite foods and flowers would be wiped out and many animals would become extinct owing to gaps in the food chain.
Encouragingly, efforts to manage bee populations, including a rise in amateur beekeeping, also known as apiculture, have helped to stabilise some species, and has even led to a rise in numbers in some areas.
In Bahrain, where climate conditions already make farming difficult, bees are vital to growing fruit and vegetable crops, and there are several organisations committed to their survival.
Sami Al Mandeel is a retired civil engineer who runs Bahrain Line Apiary in Hamala, on the island’s west coast. He and his business partner Fadhel Bin Radhi are on a mission to promote the importance of bees to Bahrain’s natural environment and to decrease farmers’ reliance on pesticides.
“They’re the biggest nightmare for everyone in beekeeping,” says Al Mandeel. “Farmers were having problems pollinating their crops because there were no bees. Then they would use more pesticides to offset this. Of course this led to a further decline in yield.”
The pair have been working to encourage farmers to put hives in their fields and stop using chemicals, even going so far as to offer them some hives and bees for free, but some have been sceptical. Al Mandeel recalls speaking to a sweet-melon farmer who had suffered consecutive bad harvests and was using more pesticides to compensate.
“We gave him two hives and told him to stop spraying. His production went up fourfold. People are seeing results and perceptions are changing.”
Through Al Mandeel and Bin Radhi’s guidance, apiculture has grown substantially in Bahrain. Now, there’s a real appetite for the pastime not only among farmers, but also among the wider public wanting to live a more sustainable lifestyle or get more involved with the natural world.
“We had a few individual beekeepers who were just doing it on a small-scale at home with two or three hives,” says Al Mandeel. “We brought our first 50 hives over from Egypt and sold them straight away. People were just waiting to own bees.”
Why do they import bees rather than using local ones?
“The local bees – which you’ll see in every tree in Bahrain – are wild and cannot be domesticated,” he explains. “They are declining, too, because of pesticides, but also because they are targeted and sprayed by people who think they are dangerous wasps. The fat, black ones that people see at this time of year are not wasps, they are pollinating bees.”
One of the biggest roadblocks to the duo’s mission has been communication.
“There is a lot of information online, but it’s in English. For Arabic-speaking locals this was a bit of a barrier. We started WhatsApp groups and then began training interested people. Now, on our database, we have around 150 beekeepers, from only two when we started. That number includes men, women, young people, and they are using every single inch in their houses. On top of the garage, on the roof, everywhere.”
Another Bahraini apiarist is Juma Maki Juma Hamada, who runs Hamada Bee in Barbar, on the north-west coast of the island. The business was founded by his father 13 years ago. He keeps more than 300 hives and also educates local schoolchildren about how to get started in the hobby. His business sells everything from honey and pollen to hives and equipment for budding beekeepers.
Hamada emphasises the care individuals and farmers must put in to protect the bees from predators and the environment.
“You must put oil under the legs of the hives so that ants cannot climb up and kill the bees. Also the bees must be kept cool in the shade with plenty of water, especially in the dry season.”
Becoming a beekeeper might seem like a mammoth – and expensive – task, but in Bahrain it’s cheaper and easier than you might think. Both Bahrain Line Apiary and Hamada Bees sell hives with bees for about 50 Bahraini dinars ($132), and both can offer advice and help on setting up your colony.
The businesses also sell protection for those worried about stings, but Al Mandeel tells people not to be concerned about this unless they have an allergy.
“People worry about being stung, but the venom is the most expensive product of the bees,” he says, explaining that it is used for pain relief and allergy desensitisation, among other things. “As long as you’re not allergic, a few stings won’t hurt. They’ll itch for a few days, but then be gone.”
Gloves and a special smoker to calm the bees are also required (and will decrease the amount of stings you get).
Extracting honey is obviously a major part of the appeal for those new to the hobby, and it’s often a communal affair. First, smoke is used to get the bees out of the way, then the wax seals on the honeycomb are removed to let the honey flow. There are many ways to remove the honey from the hive, but the simplest is to squeeze the comb in a colander with some cloth, or simply eat the whole thing.
While honey will be the most abundant outcome, there is also the potential to gather royal jelly, which some believe to have medical benefits, beeswax, which can be used to make cosmetics such as lip balm or candles, and propolis, also known as bee glue, reputed to have healing benefits.
Not to mention apiarists will also be giving a home to creatures that can help Bahrain’s ecosystem. The bees will head out to pollinate local plants, meaning lush gardens could be a welcome side effect of bee ownership.
Nasima, a Bahraini woman from Isa Town, started keeping bees three years ago. “I started with one hive. It doesn’t really require too much work, you just need to check it every week or so and make sure the bees have clean water and shade,” she says.
“I have two now, but because I live in the town I can’t keep more. I’d really recommend [it to] everyone who can to have a hive in their house. It teaches patience and I got about nine kilograms of honey in just six months.”
Marianne Pasmans, a Dutch expat from Maastricht who has lived in Bahrain for 40 years, is also a recent convert, thanks to the help and advice of the guys behind Bahrain Line Apiary.
“I wanted to do something for the environment and sustainability,” she says. “When I’d seen beekeepers in the past you were never allowed to go near the hives so you had no idea what to expect, but Sami and Fadhel have taught me so much. It’s bigger and better and more interesting than I’d thought. It’s humbling to work with bees.”
Conditions are key, she says. Every morning she checks to see if the bees are still there, as swarming, where bees leave the hive to go elsewhere, can happen frequently in hot conditions.
“I check the water, and feed them protein. You also need to keep the area around the hives clean and monitor the balance of honey, pollen and eggs. When you see a thriving hive or colony, it’s nature in its perfection.”