Beekeeping in Lebanon: Problems and perspectives

by Rashid Yazbek

Honey, Beehives on Vintage Pickup in Lebanon Yazbek Honey

In 1938, the agriculture programof the American University of Beirut included new courses to teach modern techniques in the field of beekeeping. Dr. Talhouk and Dr. Najjar were the first teachers, and Youssef el Semrany and Rashid Yazbek the first students.

Before that, beekeeping in Lebanon had been primitive, although practiced in most villages in the country. About 80 per cent of the bees were kept in clay jars and 20 per cent in boxes or baskets covered with a layer of cow-dung. Honey could be taken out from both sides of the boxes. Some farmers used to carry their hives to the high mountains on donkeys. However, this means of transport resulted in the deaths of several donkeys when the piece of cloth covering the hive entrance brushed against a shrub and was removed, causing the bees to attack the donkeys, which consequently ran off through the trees and stones.

Traditional beekeeping

From the beginning of the summer onwards, honey was sold direct to consumers, who would order in advance. The average honey yield was one kilo per jar and two kilos per box. Frames were not used, and the honey, together with its pollen (if this had not been eaten in the comb), was pressed by hand. Even then, a fair amount was known about bees, especially concerning swarms and queens. For example, if the swarm was have at noon it produced its combs perpendicular to the entrance to permit air to circulate, and was called siyafi, which means “like swords”. If, however, the swarm was left on the tree and hived in the evening, it produced its combs parallel to the entrance to prevent air entering the hive, and was therefore called ghannami, which means “like sheep”. The Lebanese bee is brownish or yellow, sometimes small and sometimes also very vicious if not kept well. The empty combs were cut out of the jars or boxes and the honey harvested from the front one year and from the back the next.

The jars were kept in gardens, with their entrances facing east. The boxes were stacked on a shed under a canopy of branches behind the farmer’s house. The bees did not suffer from any diseases and their only enemies were wasps and wax moths.

Rashid Yazbek imported equipment and techniques to encourage beekeepers to improve this industry. He lectured about beekeeping in most schools, and visited villages for the same purpose. At the same time, by means of television and radio broadcasts, journals and books, he taught the new beekeeping methods. Moreover, he proposed new and necessary laws to improve beekeeping, protect the interests of country beekeepers and stimulate and help new beekeepers interested in applying new scientific methods and approaches.

Yazbek is at present in the process of establishing a new apiary in Sierra Leone. He was also the founder of the first modern apiaries in Damascus (Syria) and Dammam (Saudi Arabia). Every two years, he attends the Apimondia Congress, which enables him to contact scientists, importers, exporters and manufacturers in the field of beekeeping, such as Baxter Woodman from Grand Rapids, Michigan (USA), Maurice Vernet, owner of the famous French company Cire Vernet, and Max Carl Fritz from Melbrichstadt (FRG).

The beekeper in the economy

With its favourable climate and rich variety of flowers, Lebanon, as Brother Adam wrote in his famous journal The Bee World, has better beekeeping conditions than any other country in the Middle East. In fact, beekeeping has grown in Lebanon at a significant rate, from 10 beekeepers owning 500 hives in 1938 to 5000 beekeepers owning 50,000 hives in 1985.

In 1975, 90 per cent of Lebanese honey was exported (83 per cent to Kuwait, 10 per cent to Quatar, 5 per cent to Saudi Arabia, 1 per cent to Africa and 1 per cent to the USA). The largest proportion of this honey was produced from the orange flowers in the coastal area, especially around Tyre in the South (70 per cent) and Tripoli in the North (25 per cent). This honey is very clear and tastes delicious.

Since Lebanon enjoys 300 days of sunshine a year, Lebanese honey is very thick. In winter, 50 per cent of the hives are transported to Tyre. There, each colony is fed with ten kilos of sugar from 15 January to 15 February, and the population is doubled in a high super (41.4 x 50.5 x 24 cm) on an excluder. Some beekeepers transfer all the capped brood to the super and put empty combs in the bottom. It depends on what the beekeeper wants first; a large population after the harvest, in order to collect another crop in the mountains, or a smaller population with more honey per colony. Normally, the honey is harvested after forty days, on 10 April, with a yield of between ten and thirty kilos per colony. On 1 May, all the apiaries are transferred to 500-meter high hills to gather honeydew in the pine and oak forests, or directly to the high mountains to gather nectar on the clover and thistles there. The mountain honey yield is ten per cent lower than the spring yield on the coast but consumers prefer it. One kilo of mountain honey costs two dollars, while littoral honey is sold at only 1.5 dollars.

As president of the Lebanese Beekeepers’ Association, Yazbek lobbied successfully for a tax on imported honey to finance a campaign to promote local honey. He also succeeded in having seeds of nectar flowers dropped on forests from aeroplanes, in making the transport of apiaries to new localities subject to Ministry of Agriculture approval, and in establishing a beekeeping research centre and honey laboratory.

Varroa outbreak

In 1985, however, a disastrous outbreak of varroa hit the flourishing Lebanese beekeeping industry. The disease was accidentally transported from Syria to Akar, in the North of the country, by two Lebanese beekeepers, one of them from Zouarieb Akar and the other from Kesrouan Ghadir. These beekeepers used to transport hundreds of colonies every year, which explains why hundreds of beehives in Akar and Kesrouan were destroyed in the first year after the advent of the disease. The rapid spread of the disease meant that 80 per cent of the beehives in Lebanon were destroyed. Of 50,000 hives, only 10,000 were left.

Owing to the complete ineffectiveness of action taken by Lebanese ministries, and especially the Ministry of Agriculture, and because beekeepers had little knowledge of how to control this deadly parasite, Rashid Yazbek took the initiative and asked for help from various world institutions and organizations concerned with beekeeping and/or research.

As a result, the FAO sent information on the life-cycle of the varroa and how to control it, and the GTZ gave practical help in combatting the disease with Folbex VA. The GTZ also funded the training of Lebanese beekeepers at a course, given by Dr. Ritter of the Tierhygienisches Institut in Freiburg (FRG), on alternative methods of fighting varroa.

As the head of the first group to be trained, Yazbek put all his experience at the beekeepers’ disposal. He used the media (television, radio, journals, lectures, etc.), published all the new methods he had learned in the FRG, and won the gold medal of the Agriculture Magazine of the Middle East for his article “New Research on Varroatosis”.

Today, three years after the epidemic broke out, Lebanese beekeepers are confident of winning the struggle against varroa and have started dividing their colonies in order to repopulate empty hives. Unfortunately, of the 10,000 swarms we made last spring, 25 per cent died the following September, weakened by wasps, foulbrood and treatment.

A further campaign against varroa, using Perizin, was financed by the GTZ. We have imported Apistan on PVC strips and have treated bees ourselves using Mavrik. In this case, we either treat pieces of wood (18 cm x 3 cm x 3 mm) with 3 ml of Mavrik solution (one part Mavrik to three parts water) per piece, or spray Mavrik solution (three drops per lifer of water; 50 ml per colony) directly on to the bees. However, this work has to be done by a specialist to ensure that no resistant strains of varroa survive. We hope that we are now winning this struggle.