Jordanian beekeeper flourishes despite harsh conditions

Umm Qais town produces some of Jordan’s best honey, but environmental threats abound

Panoramic views of the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights greet visitors to the now mostly empty Roman ruins of Gadara in northern Jordan.

Only a few tourists have been visiting the region since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Vendors who used to interrupt the serene views while peddling their wares have mostly vanished. The car park outside has a few vehicles, and no tourist buses.

But the pandemic has been good for business for Youssef Saiyahin, a beekeeper and native of Umm Qais, the modern town next to the ruins.

“We saw demand grow during the lockdowns, because honey is good for the immune system,” says Mr Saiyahin.

He is one of 2,000 beekeepers in Jordan, raising the insects in a country that has been affected by environmental degradation in recent years.

Many Jordanian farmers use chemicals in abundance. Illegal wells are dug for irrigation, emptying groundwater much faster that it is being replenished.

Lack of zoning enforcement has also blighted Umm Qais and much of the countryside near Irbid, Jordan’s third-largest city, with concrete buildings.

The chemicals farmers spray at the onset of spring, an important season of flower blooms for beekeepers, killed 5 per cent of Mr Saiyahin’s bees this year.

His loss is minimal compared to some beekeepers, who lost entire hives, he says.

The Jordanian Beekeepers Union has been complaining to Agriculture Ministry for years, hoping that the government would subsidise less harmful – but more expensive – alternatives to the chemicals.

“Many of the cells in beehives perished this year because of the spraying of chemicals. Lots of beekeepers lost large amounts of cells,” he says.

Mr Saiyahin first learnt about beekeeping when he was 12, from an uncle. It started as a hobby then became a business, which he combines with a bed-and-breakfast that he helps to run in Umm Qais.

He had also been doing “bee tourism”, taking customers from the B&B to the area where he has 25 boxes containing hives.

The tourists wear protective white gear as he shows them how bees behave.

“I call it the civilisation of bees,” he says, pointing out that the species survived for millions of years “by co-operating”.

His business is built on trust, with the market wary that many beekeepers in Jordan feed their bees too much sugar, especially considering how parched the country is.

Mr Saiyahin says sometimes it is necessary to feed the colony a little honey to prevent it from starving, or to promote breeding.

This is sometimes needed in August when there are no flowers from which the bees can collect nectar to store as honey.

But if the beekeeper relies on sugar, the output “is no longer honey”, he says.

Although there are beekeepers in other parts of Jordan, Umm Qais is regarded as one of the regions with the most diverse flowers, including irises in the spring.

The region mainly produces spring flower honey and later, in June and July, honey from thorny plants such as Syrian mesquite, silybum and Al Sider, known in the West as the Christ’s thorn.

Winter is a quiet season, except for carob tree honey and citrus honey in the Jordan Valley, although citrus farming in the region has been hit by worsening water quality.

The Romans, Mr Saiyahin says, “chose Umm Qais before us for its beautiful location”.

They were also known to appreciate good honey.

Updated: October 26th 2021, 3:07 AM