Beekeeping traditions trace back millennia in Syria, but the recent civil war, economic collapse, and new weather patterns have devastated beehives and the beekeepers who rely on them.
“The war bled us dry,” beekeeper Ibrahim Damiriya, who has hives on parched land near the Syrian capital of Damascus, told France 24. “We could barely keep our beekeeping business afloat, and then the insane weather made things worse.”
Syrians are the heirs to millennia-old beekeeping practices, wrote Syria Direct in 2022. Before the civil war began in 2011, the country had around 635,000 beehives and Syrian honey, once renowned for its high quality, sold for prices above the world average. “But both large and small-scale beekeeping declined over the course of the war in Syria, mostly due to economic hardship.”
The country now has around 400,000 hives—more than the 2016 low of 150,000 at the height of the crisis, but honey yield is now about 1,500 tonnes per year—half of the country’s pre-war production.
“Before, a good beekeeper could recover the initial investment within a single year, given the high price of honey and the productivity of bees,” said Ali Yousef, an agricultural engineer working for the Syrian government. “Now, a modern hive costs around US$40, to which you must add the cost of wax frames, the cost of transporting the hives to the field, and the labour force.”
Plus, global bee populations have been declining for decades, ever since synthetic pesticides became common in agricultural systems. “A long time ago, before the war, the Syrian government sent a plane over our fields to spray pesticides,” Ahmad Muhammad, a 70-year old beekeeper in Himo, told Syria Direct. Although the spraying took place kilometres away, all 35 of Muhammad’s bee colonies were exterminated. The agricultural practice of prioritizing a select few crops over the diversity of plants that healthy bees need has also led to a decline in their numbers.
Widespread death and destruction from the civil war also played a part in Syria’s beekeeping slump when it reached honey producing regions. Bombs contaminated the environment, and then pesticide misuse and a proliferation of parasites accelerated the decline of hives.
Accumulated pollution made matters worse—especially in northeastern Syria, where there is abundant oil but limited infrastructure to minimize the impacts of extraction, refinement, and transportation.
“There are a lot of informal oil refineries and oil wells, and a great number of generators running on mazot [a cheap, low-quality type of locally refined diesel],” said Yousef. “Finding a suitable place with clean water, clean air, plenty of flowers, and away from pollution sources has become a challenge.”
The civil war, which has killed more than a million people, also precipitated an acute economic crisis made worse by sanctions from Western countries. With many borders closed to exports, Syrian beekeepers are stuck selling domestically where few people can afford honey—now a luxury product.
Damiriya can barely afford to tend to his hives, which were donated by the International Committee for the Red Cross, writes France 24.
Poor weather conditions have made the situation worse, with unusually cold springs and drought harming the flowers that bees feed on. Extreme weather in spring has been especially devastating to bees, as it is the most important time in their life cycle.
Forest fires have also become increasingly common alongside rising temperatures. Coupled with desertification, Syria’s agricultural production as a whole has nearly halved in the last 10 years. Impacts on the cultivation of other products like fruit also adversely affect beekeeping.
“For about five years, we have had unprecedented droughts and desertification, and this year the spring was unusually cold—the fruit perished,” said farmer Ziad Rankusi, who tends to the remaining 400 trees in an orchard where more than 1,000 trees once stood.
“When trees and flowers disappear, bees can no longer feed. They either migrate or die.”