Making a beeline for liquid gold in the Emirates

High in the mountains of Ras Al Khaimah an indomitable woman is on the trail of the elusive, irritable and increasingly rare Emirati honey bee, its numbers and its sweet product both in sharp decline because of reduced rainfall and the destruction of its habitat.

Sheikha Ali Saif Al Qaydi showing the raw honey and filtered honey at her home in Al Munai village in Ras Al Khaimah. ( Pawan Singh / The National )
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

High in the mountains of Ras Al Khaimah an indomitable woman is on the trail of the elusive, irritable and increasingly rare Emirati honey bee, its numbers and its sweet product both in sharp decline because of reduced rainfall and the destruction of its habitat.

It takes a lot to keep the Mother of Honey, or Umm Al Aasal, from her precious quarry.

Certainly more than the broken leg she suffered after a fall in the mountains while looking for wild honey, requiring an emergency airlift from Ras Al Khaimah's helicopter rescue squad to bring her to safety.

Two years later, her right ankle now held together by pins, she is back in the game, waiting only for the beep of her mobile phone with news of another find to send her out the door in pursuit of one of the country's rarest resources.

But these days, the calls are less and less frequent. Wild honey, along with the bees that produce it, is vanishing. A decline in rainfall, the death of trees and wild flowers and the destruction of habitats by construction and quarrying have all taken their toll over the past decade. The last time wild honey was found in abundance was in 2005.

Which makes the call this morning to Sheikha Ali Said Al Qayedi - her real name - all the more significant. The buzz of her phone indicates the arrival of a photograph, in this case sent by a cousin. The image does not look like much: a circular clump of something brown and white and sticky, but this is a beehive built inside a cairn of stones.

"It is a big one," says Mrs Al Qayedi, with obvious satisfaction. "The Emirati bees like to build their homes in difficult places, because they are difficult bees," she observes. "They get irritated fast and like their privacy."

And with that, the time for talk is over. Within seconds, the whole household is woken up, and the sleepy mountain village of Munai in the south of Ras Al Khaimah has come alive despite the scorching noon sun. After a quick phone call to her cousin, Mrs Al Qayedi says she knows "roughly" where the honey is and cannot hide her excitement.

She and her husband, Mohammed Al Qayedi, almost run to their 4x4 car to set out for the honey. Sometimes a whole gang of their grandchildren will come along for the hunt.

"It is getting harder and harder to find wild Emirati honey," she had explained earlier. "So when there is a sighting, we go to it fast, before something happens to it or someone else gets to it. But usually, I get there first."

When not chasing around the mountains of the northern emirates, Mrs Al Qayedi, 50, looks like a traditional Emirati housewife in her long white cotton thoub, topped with a matching wrap in colourful floral and arabesque designs. Her green metallic burqa cannot hide the smile as she offers her visitor one of her special homemade desserts.

Not can it disguise the sparkle in her eye as she asks: "Can you guess what is in it?" The dish is sweet, but not as sweet as most traditional Emirati desserts, and with a distinctive kick. The answer comes in visual form, as the screen of her mobile phone suddenly lights up with the image of the honeycomb.

It takes 10 minutes to drive to the approximate location of the hive. On her daily hunts, Mrs Al Qayedi will set out at 5am, on trips that can last several hours. This time she and her husband climb effortlessly, despite the stifling heat, and find the bees within 20 minutes.

This is the last month that the Al Qayedi family can hunt for honey, with the higher summer temperatures combined with the month of Ramadan putting a temporary halt to collecting.

"Whatever we have stocked up will be used in Ramadan when we break our fast on bread and honey," she said. "It is one of the best things to eat on an empty stomach."

Mrs Al Qayedi has been collecting honey since she was 10, and is understandably proud of her tracking skills. "Never underestimate a bee," she warns. "It is quite intelligent and smarter than a lot of people I know."

On her phone are at least 100 photographs of bees, honey, hives and nests collected during her searches. She has found honey in trees, burrows, in small cracks between rocks and stones and even inside abandoned cars.

Often the hives are built high off the ground and in the hot months are designed to avoid the full blast of the sun's rays. In the cooler winter months, though, nests are built to take full advantage of the sun.

"Bees are amazing engineers and we have a lot to learn from them," Mrs Al Qayedi says.

Depending on the source of the nectar, the flavour and the colour of the honey will change. In the mountains, the honey is made from rare desert flowers and trees such as the ghaf (Prosopis cineraria), sdir (Ziziphus spina-christi) and samar (Acacia).

Not as sweet as honey from the mountains of Europe, Emirati honey has a strong taste when fresh, and grows sweeter and darker with time.

Mrs Al Qayedi is hesitant at first to share the clues she uses to find honey, but eventually explains how she looks around for markings left behind by the bees.

"We call it tabawul, where the bee pees," she reveals. Almost impossible to find, unless you know what to look for, are tiny dots on the rocks. A single circular dot of yellow green colour is called Al Neqt, and usually indicates that the honey near by is small in amount.

When the mark left behind is like a line, called Al Riza, it indicates there is an abundance of honey.

"The bee is very smart, it will leave marks leading back to its home, but never too close, for it doesn't want someone or something else to find its home," she says.

Mrs Al Qayedi has seen "non-Emirati" bees buzzing around, imported by those farming honey in controlled environments, but she says they don't last long in the harsh weather and terrain.

"The local bee is small but tough, it is made to withstand high temperatures," she says.

Much smaller than foreign bees, the Emirati species is a paler yellow and grey striped cousin to the typical yellow striped honey bee. It also has something of a temper. "I have been stung hundreds of times," says Mrs Al Qayedi. "So I don't swell up or have any reaction any more.".

Mrs Al Qayedi and her husband, who serves in the Army, are adamant that when they collect honey they are gentle on the bees, moving them slowly with sticks, careful not to disturb "their babies' home".

"It is cruel to damage the whole site, I just cut out a bit of the honeycomb, and leave the rest. The bees sometimes come back to the same spot to rebuild honey," said Mr Al Qayedi.

He is particularly angry at what he calls "amateur" honey collectors who scare away the bees and often hurt them.

"They are sacred creatures, there is a whole chapter in the Quran named after them," he says, praising what he calls the "army like" efficiency and order of their lives.

He recites the verses from surat Al Nahl (bees): "And your Lord taught the Bee to build its cells in hills, on trees and in (men's) habitations; then to eat of all the produce (of the earth), and find with skill the spacious Paths of its Lord: there issues from within their bodies a drink of varying colours, wherein is healing for men: verily in this is a Sign for those who give thought."

Despite being diabetic, Mr Al Qayedi eats honey and says he never suffers any complications. "The natural pure honey is not damaging like the ones you buy from supermarkets," he insists.

Wild honey also helps with asthma, coughs and toothache, he says, and is good for digestion and boosting the immune systems.

One of the easiest ways to check on the purity of honey, he says, is to put it in the fridge.

"If it freezes and gets hard, then it has been tampered with by adding sugar or sweetener," said Mr Al Qayedi, demonstrating how liquid and soft natural honey is. "If it is thick and dripping slowly, also it is not pure natural honey."

Mrs Al Qayedi always has a honey jar open while cooking to add as an ingredient or as a quick salve for burns or cuts she might suffer while preparing the family's meals.

The couple, who belong to Al Qayedi tribe and are related by marriage to Al Dahmani tribe, feel a duty to protect both the bees and the mountains, and keep an eye out for strangers who might be hunting for honey. "Stay away from our honey, you honey hunters," Mrs Al Qayedi warns.

Those coming to take wild honey are usually looking for a quick profit: a litre can sell for up to Dh1,500.

"The problem is they hurt the bees and their babies in the process, because they don't care about them," Mrs Al Qayedi explains.

At times the fight to protect the dwindling supplies feels like a losing battle, but the couple refuse to give up.

"We will keep looking for our wild honey, and protecting it, as it is the secret to a long and healthy life. Our ancestors lived up to 100 and more, because they lived on honey and dates," Mrs Al says.

"I want to live to 100," she adds, dipping her spoon into her latest find.