Turkey’s beekeepers see grim future after life's work is devastated by fires

There are fears that the ecosystem they depend on will not recover for up to 80 years

Beekeeper Guven Karagol shows the remains of his beehives in Kalemler village of Manavgat, Antalya, Turkey. AP
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Turkey’s bushfires have left little behind but ashes, turning green forests into barren hills.

For the country's beekeepers, who have lost thousands of hives, and the pine trees and insects on which their bees depend, the destruction is hard to take.

Twelve days of deadly bushfires have dealt a blow to Turkey’s honey industry and its long-term prospects appear bleak.

Nearly all of the residents of Osmaniye, a neighbourhood in Turkey’s south-western Mediterranean resort of Marmaris, are beekeepers.

Their hives once looked out to the green hills of Mugla province and provided the main income for many families.

Ali Kaya, 33, is second-generation beekeeper. After his father’s death, he inherited the family business set up in 1979.

This week Mr Kaya lost 250 hives in Osmaniye to the fires, and the ecosystem on which his bees depend, so buying more hives will not solve his economic troubles.

He said the region was in shock.

“There is nothing left here, no trees left. Animals burnt. Some people’s homes and roofs burnt,” he said. “I have no idea what we’ll do.

"Our heads are all messed up, our mental outlook destroyed. We can’t think clearly here in Osmaniye.”

The red pine trees of Anatolia span the Taurus mountain range. They can be seen along Turkey’s coast from the eastern Mediterranean to the northern Aegean Sea, including a great number around Mugla.

The pines provide a habitat for scores of shrubs and make an ideal environment for bees.

Bees in Mugla produce a pine-based honey.

Unlike most bees, which make honey from the nectar of flowers, those in Mugla collect the secretions of Marchalina hellenica, a scaly insect that lives on pine trees and feeds on their sap.

What they leave behind, the bees take to make a nutritious honey.

The fires across Turkey started on July 28 in a heatwave and raged for days across more than half the provinces.

As of Sunday, fires were still burning in the provinces of Mugla, Aydin and Isparta.

Eight people and countless animals have been killed. Villages and resorts had to be evacuated, with some people fleeing to beaches to be rescued by boats.

The fires also threatened two coal-burning power stations.

The government promised to rebuild the many burnt homes and compensate villagers for their animals, as well as providing other aid.

But it has been criticised for its lack of firefighting aircraft, poor planning and inability to stop the fires.

Samil Bestoy, who leads the Environmental and Bee Protection Association, said hundreds of thousands of hives were saved by an accident of timing.

Many nomadic beekeepers, including some from Mugla, each year move their hives to Turkey’s inland upper plains in the spring and go to Mugla from mid-August on for the pine trees.

Those beehives were spared from burning but their production cycle has been disrupted.

“Now they don’t have anywhere to come back to, there are no forests left,” Mr Bestoy said.

“The bees and the beekeepers are waiting at the plains with no idea of what to do.”

They cannot remain on the plains for long because of feeding needs, so the association was working to find healthy, temporary forest locations in Mugla, which is already highly populated with hives.

It is a short-term solution to save the bees but shows the need for co-ordination between the government, beekeeping associations and beekeepers to chart the way forward.

Workers may have to find new beekeeping routes or jobs in other industries.

Even before the fires, Turkey’s beekeepers were suffering the effects of climate change, when droughts and high temperatures would reduce the pine trees’ sap and kill the insects that lived on them.

“Beekeeping is a fundamental culture of Anatolia, and we were already warning that we may lose it to the climate crisis. These fires have added fuel to that,” Mr Bestoy said.

Further to the east, forests in Antalya’s Manavgat district were also incinerated. Beekeeper Guven Karagol had to leave his hives behind when those flames neared.

“The fires came quickly and my beehives were burning. I could only watch. Six years of my work, this year’s labour, burnt,” Mr Karagol told Turkey's IHA news agency.

When he returned at daybreak after the fires, he saw some bees emerging and realised that 20 of 100 hives had survived.

“I thought that I can’t do this in a completely blackened nature. My hopes were shattered,” Mr Karagol said.

“These 20 hives gave me hope.”

The government has said the burnt woods would be reforested and groups have launched campaigns for saplings, but many experts said the forests should be left to regenerate.

Medine Yilmaz, another second-generation beekeeper in Osmaniye, lost her hives and spoke to government officials who visited the area.

Ms Yilmaz wanted the remaining trees to be kept upright to see if they could regenerate, but she said authorities were planning to tear everything down.

“We rose up as younger people and stopped the bulldozers. If they come again, I will lay down in front of them and not let them cut the trees,” she said.

Her husband, Yusuf, was heart-broken.

“I don’t care about the houses that burnt. Our only sadness is that nature has disappeared. Our only livelihood were these pines,” he said.

“Homes will be rebuilt, wounds bandaged, but nature will not heal for 70 or 80 years.”

Updated: August 09, 2021, 3:35 AM