Beekeeper of Aleppo trains refugees to protect British hives

Inspired by UK weather, academic helping to replenish insect populations hit by climate change

When the war in Syria broke out, Dr Ryad Al Sous had to abandon his research into bees and flee the country with his family.

The academic, now 68, initially feared he was walking away from his life’s work. But as he stepped off the plane at England’s Manchester Airport and the rain struck his face, he realised he could use his almost 50 years of knowledge to safeguard British bees.

The inclement British weather led him to researching how the country’s native bees survive and how he could help protect them.

Two years later the Buzz Project was born in the northern Yorkshire village of Marsden, near Huddersfield.

“I have always studied bees and honey in my research,” Dr Ryad Al Sous told The National.

“Sadly the war broke out and we decided at that time to leave the country and come to Britain.

“I came here not knowing what I would do but when I arrived at the airport it was raining and I was shocked at how green everything was. I loved the weather and I wondered if the bees here could do a good job in the conditions.

“The bees in Syria would not be able to if they had the British weather. I then discovered the bees here can resist the rain, wind and cold.

“For two years I searched for a beekeeper here from whom I could gather information, I then found a beekeeper society in Huddersfield and I was born again in this country.”

Because of climate change, bee populations across the globe are declining. So Dr Al Sous decided to set up his own hives in Yorkshire.

Once they were established, he had the brainwave of helping other refugees by sharing his knowledge and giving them a skill.

“I was living in a community where there were lots of despondent refugees as well as unemployed people in the area,” he said.

“It occurred to me to try and get them together and teach them the principles of beekeeping so that they could get involved in a project, no matter how simple, so they could depend on themselves instead of government handouts.

“It was a success and now we have Buzz Projects in six other areas, including London, to help other refugees.

“A lot of the participants have gone on to become established beekeepers and now own a large number of hives and produce their own bee products.”

Dr Al Sous’s work is not only giving refugees a lifeline but also helping to protect native bees.

A recent study by University College London warned that bees face “mass extinction”.

It revealed that bee numbers have declined by a third since the 1970s and identified climate change as one of the causes.

Researchers found that in the course of a single human generation, the likelihood of a bumblebee population surviving in a given place has declined by an average of over 30 per cent.

“We were surprised by how much climate change has already caused bumblebee declines,” said Dr Tim Newbold, of University College London.

“Now, this is the first time that we have been able to really tie local extinctions and colonisations of bumblebees to climate change, showing a really clear fingerprint of climate change in the declines that we've seen.

“Our findings suggest that much larger declines are likely if climate change accelerates in the coming years, showing that we need substantial efforts to reduce climate change if we are to preserve bumblebee diversity.”

Using data on 66 bumblebee species across North America and Europe over a 115-year period, from1900 to 2015, the researchers were able to see how bumblebee populations have changed.

“We found that populations were disappearing in areas where the temperatures had gotten hotter,” said the study’s lead author, Peter Soroye.

“Bumblebees are the best pollinators we have in wild landscapes and the most effective pollinators for crops like tomato, squash and berries.

“Our results show that we face a future with many less bumblebees and much less diversity, both in the outdoors and on our plates.”

The researchers discovered that bumblebees are disappearing at rates “consistent with a mass extinction”.

“If declines continue at this pace, many of these species could vanish for ever within a few decades,” Mr Soroye said.

Back in Marsden, as Dr Al Sous’s bees land on him in seeming contentment, it is hard to believe the researchers' dire predictions will come to pass. But he has noticed the unusually high temperatures recorded in the UK this year did affect his bees.

“We have 90 per cent of native bees and this summer we have found they produced three times the amount of honey before the weather reached 28C,” he said.

“Some of the bees started to swarm because they were very hot. Our bees need a lot of care. We have to look after them.”

Despite the challenges, the man once known to his students as ‘the professor of bees’ at Damascus University is continuing to share his wisdom in the place he now calls home.

“Being a beekeeper is tough,” he said.

“It can be hard to bear unless you have a real love for it.

“I still learn from the bees, I live by the bees and I’m happy living with such an exemplary society, like these bees truly are. I love my work.”

Updated: September 15th 2021, 7:37 AM
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