The United Nations has declared May 20 as World Bee Day, to highlight the essential role that bees and other pollinators play in the global ecosystem. Agriculture data from the UN indicates that a third of all food produced in the world is directly dependent on pollination.
At a time when bee populations worldwide are in decline as a direct result of climate change and other encroaching human activity, the protection and preservation of these little creatures is a critical issue for global food security and environmental sustainability.
Mohammed Al Najeh, founder of Al Najeh Honey – now part of the ANHB Group – has been at the vanguard of developing the beekeeping industry in the UAE. His father and uncle moved here from Egypt when Al Najeh was a boy. The family's business used to produce honey exclusively for the royal family in the days of Founding President Sheikh Zayed.
Understanding bee colonies
Today, the company not only farms honey on a grand scale, but also breeds and sells Saskatraz, Italian, Carniolan, Yemeni local and Omani local queen bees, and Al Najeh’s work has been instrumental in engineering and distributing bees that are more resilient to the challenges presented by the climate of this region.
Al Najeh says he has loved bees since he can remember and believes bees set an example for us all. "This is not just an insect or a creature, it's a bee kingdom, it's an empire. The queen is the management and everyone has a role, has to sacrifice and has to work hard. There is no place to be idle," he says. "Some people have horses, some people have camels, but the beekeepers, they are special; from this small creature, you will learn. It's a very decent, civilised and organised society."
The queen bee has a singular and highly sophisticated role within the hive, and will live for five or six years, in contrast with the worker bees, which have a lifespan of just 40 days. When the queen gets old and can no longer control or govern, the bees will instinctively decide to raise a new queen. Once she emerges, her first job will be to fight the old queen and throw her out of the hive. Sometimes it works the other way and the old power is not yet ready to step aside, in which case the new queen will be ejected from the hive along with worker bees. These will then move away to start a new colony.
The challengers for bees in the UAE
In the UAE, beekeepers used to accept that it was inevitable that their bees would simply die in the summer months, a result of the high temperatures and shortage of food, and that hives would have to be restocked at the start of the next season. It simply was not commercially viable or practical to do otherwise.
"It was a shame; after all, our name is beekeeper," Al Najeh says. In 2015, he took the view that as a keeper of bees, he had an inherent responsibility for keeping his colonies alive from one year to the next.
The main issues in the Emirates were insufficient resources of pollen over the summer months, along with the heat, and so Al Narjeh worked at how to tackle this by looking at how bees could be bred to make them more resilient to the prevailing climate, while also consuming less.
In addition to the development of more hardy bees, he identified and sourced a high-quality pollen substitute with the requisite profile of amino acids produced from organic plant ingredients. Typically, bees must have six to eight different pollen types to make an optimal diet for honey, and because this is not always available in this region, it is necessary to supplement the bee’s diet to sustain it.
Despite the challenges, of the 500 hives Al Najeh trialed that year, he did not lose one, and the bees continued to be healthy, shiny and in good condition. Building on this success, Al Narjeh Honey is now a global breeder and exporter, flying out many millions of bees each year to apiary operators across the region. In the early years of conducting a bee business from the Emirates, the logistics for large-scale air freight of bees was still uncharted territory.
"There were no books for transporting bees, so much of it was done by experimentation on a small scale at first, to ascertain optimum conditions and temperatures for exporting bees," says Al Najeh, who went from one government department to another for the necessary import-export paperwork, because there was no specific category that covered bees at that time, and authorities were uncertain how to classify his shipments.
Ultimately, he found his niche at the location for perishable fish and vegetables at Dubai Flower Centre; because temperatures there were more controlled, his precious cargo could now survive international flights and clearance through customs.
Working with bees locally
Another local resident who is also working to get bees the care and attention they deserve, is beekeeping hobbyist and founder of the UAE Beekeepers Association, Jocelyn McBride. Currently based at Sustainable City, the Beekeepers Association is a go-to hub for sharing local knowledge, and gives talks and demonstrations to interested groups, as well as offering help, advice and courses for those wanting to set up their own hives.
A new scheme for residents of Sustainable City will shortly be available, where families can buy ownership of their own uniquely numbered hive, assured in the knowledge the honey it produces will be pure, unadulterated and exclusively for their use. Plans are also in place to expand the programme and make it accessible to other residents across the UAE.
Currently, the association has about 50 members, and McBride says getting a mentor when starting out will help the newbie beekeeper to avoid rookie errors. The Beekeers Association is also able to advise new beekeepers on a suitable starter kit of essentials, the beekeeping equipment of bee suit, gloves, smoker, a couple of hives and bees . There is one queen, and between 3,000 and 15,000 bees per hive.
It is important to work with the seasons to give your new bee family its best chance of survival, so wait until after the summer, and think about setting up from September, working towards two harvest cycles, the first in January and the second at the end of May.
Thereafter, you’ll need to support your hives through the heat of the summer months to help them survive until the next season. McBride says they have had a representative from the municipality attend the Beekeepers Association to potentially start some dialogue on urban beekeeping, but for the moment there are no specific rules in place.
However, before setting up a hive in an urban neighbourhood, it is wise to check with your building or community management for any necessary permissions, as well as letting neighbours in adjacent gardens know. Consideration should be given to ascertain if anyone in the immediate vicinity has any allergies.
Local farmers may be amenable to having hives on a corner of their land because these can help to increase crop yields.
If wild (Arabian dwarf) bees begin to swarm in your garden, McBride advises that provided they aren't bothering you, they be left in situ because they are docile as long as they are not made to feel as if they are under attack – in other words, knocking or swatting at the swarm, or setting fire to a hive is best avoided. Bees are fine if they are left alone, and the productivity of your vegetable patch may improve as a consequence.
However, if the new bee presence is unwanted, instead of calling exterminators, contact either the Beekeepers Association or the Dubai Bees Facebook page, and their teams will come and remove the swarm, and take it to wild areas for the creatures to continue on their merry way.
Urban gardeners can also support local bees with a variety of flower planting. Particular favourites are locally adapted species of buddleja (or buddleia), Indian basil or any other plants with blue-coloured flowers. Bees are up with the sun and go back to their hives at dusk, so if gardeners feel spraying pesticides on their plants is absolutely essential, this being at a time when bees are likely to be safely back at the hive will have less effect on your garden pollinators.
A global movement to care for the little insects has spawned the #SaveOurBees hashtag, a sentiment that should speak to all of us. Our very survival depends on it; if they go, so do we.