By Joe Snell MENA reporter for Al-Monitor and contributor to The Assyrian Journal
Only after Aysen Sameer Uoshewh was stung in the face five times did he realize he was ready to become a beekeeper.
As his face grew swollen and he couldn’t open his eyes, he was forced to stay home for an entire week. But those pains, he said, were encouraging.
“One of my biggest fears when I started beekeeping was that I would have allergies and couldn’t work,” he said. “I was lucky to find out I didn’t have any.”
For years, beekeeping was just something Uoshewh did to help his grandfather, Touma Yusuf Mamuka, in the northern Iraqi village of Qaramlesh, an agricultural area in the Nineveh Plain located less than a 45-minute drive from Mosul.
But as the coronavirus pandemic sidelined his usual academic studies and pickup games of volleyball, the work with his grandfather increased and with it, so did his interest in bees.
IRAQ’S HONEY HISTORY
Beekeeping in Iraq has existed for 8,000 years, according to UNDP Iraq, when Sumerian tablets carried recipes that used honey to treat skin infections and disease.
Increased conflict, displacement and the use of chemicals beginning in the nineteenth century severely reduced the practice. It wasn’t until the 1980s that beekeeping once again flourished as new technologies simplified the production process. At one point in the 1990s, over 500,000 hives were active across the country.
At one point to sidestep sanctions placed on Baghdad following the Gulf War, it became trendy for families to buy and maintain personal beehives on their rooftops.
It’s a trend that appears to be reemerging. The cultural and environmental importance of bees can’t be understated, said Dr. Hashim Najim Khthur al- Zuhairi, the head of the beekeeping department of plant protection in the Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture.
“There are a lot of benefits that are countless,” Zuhairi said. “This wealth must be taken care of because it is very important in the country and is considered the same as any wealth in Iraq.”
There are about 6,000 registered beekeepers today with the Ministry of Agriculture, Zuhairi said. He hopes that number increases through increased workshops on the education of proper beekeeping and the emergence of new technologies.
BUILDING A BEEKEEPING EMPIRE
Beekeeping in Uoshewh’s family traces back to 2003. As an agricultural professor at the University of Erbil, Uoshewh’s grandfather was assigned on a project to study bees. Mamuka’s research led him to invest in bee cells. He soon recruited family members for help maintaining the growing hives. By 2014, he managed a small empire of 30 hives.
At the height of this project, however, it was abandoned as the rapid advance of the Islamic State (IS) into Qaramlesh in 2014 forced Mamuka’s entire village to flee.
Three years later when Mamuka returned, he found the hives destroyed.
With the help of his grandson in 2017, Mamuka slowly began rebuilding the colony. It took years to grow back the hives, Uoshewh said, as they faced a number of fresh challenges, including decreased amounts of rain that make it difficult to plant flowers and the illegal importation of synthetic honey claiming to be 100% pure that drives down costs.
The Ministry of Agriculture is now trying to tackle another growing issue, the spread of diseases among bee hives.
“The beekeepers need supplies that can be provided by the Ministry of Agriculture in a subsidized or free form so that it will become popular,” Zuhairi said.
The Ministry received requests to develop laboratories dedicated to combating diseases that affect bees, he said. These sites would also provide artificial insemination to produce fertilized queens.
Iraq isn’t alone in fighting these challenges. The Ministry receives support from international aid groups to champion campaigns to revive the practice. The Zhako Small Village Project (ZSVP), with support from UNDP Iraq and the government of Germany, selected 200 households in 2017 across the Nineveh Plains and Dohuk to receive a small number of hives along with safety clothes, tools, training and business management including marketing honey in offseasons.
INTRODUCING NEW TECHNOLOGIES
The market is now swelling with new beekeepers, Uoshewh said. To keep up fresh competition, he helps his grandfather install new technologies, including a device that detects the purity of honey, designing different styles of cells to improve efficiency, and digitizing recordkeeping of each cell to review which are spreading diseases and which are producing the most honey.
They also find other ways to monetize their business, creating and selling online candles with the beeswax.
Sales blossomed as Uoshewh introduced his grandfather to an online marketplace that was craving the honey. They recently began shipping orders internationally.
The family now produces enough honey to make beekeeping a full-time profession. That’s not an easy feat to accomplish. Beekeeping is largely season. The grandfather-grandson duo are busiest in the springtime, working around-the-clock to produce enough honey to sustain them through the slower winter months.
The constant labor does have its minor drawbacks. Uoshewh admits he gets stung at least once a day. “It’s a little pain, and then it just goes away,” he said, and admitted he no longer notices the relentless buzzing of the colony.
Joe Snell is MENA correspondent for Al-Monitor. You can follow him via Twitter @joesnell03 and contributor of The Assyrian Journal. Founded in 2017, The Assyrian Journal is an independent news organization that remains a source of comprehensive and original reporting on the global Assyrian community.