In 2019, ‘Honeyland’, a documentary produced in a little-known country in what the United Nations calls East Central and South-East Europe, earned wide critical acclaim and won international awards. It tells the poignant story of one beekeeper in North Macedonia. In the documentary, greed and the lure of easy profit swiftly eradicate traditional knowledge and respect for nature, ending in tragedy for both Man and Honeybee.
Contrary to widespread perceptions, it most probably was not Albert Einstein who predicted that humanity would die if bees went extinct. But the cause-effect relationship is true nevertheless. Surely you have heard the saying that if you teach a person how to fish, you feed them for a lifetime? The saying makes sense – at least until our seas and rivers can no longer provide enough fish for a sprawling and hyper-consuming human race. The same is true about teaching people to grow food or keep honeybees; how long before the planet is unfit for both our crops and our honeybees?
Now, consider that crops and honeybees cannot exist without each other. Honeybees have been here for millions of years, and primitive beekeeping dates back at least 10,000 years. But only a century ago did scientists begin to understand the true gift of bees: pollination, and why we would die without it. Around three-quarters of our crops depend on pollinators like honeybees to yield fruit and vegetables.
So yes, we should be very worried about going hungry. As the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference takes place, agriculture and food security find themselves once more on the sidelines of top discussions, and honeybees are nowhere to be heard. A silent spring without these striped pollinators would spell the end of food security faster than anticipated.
Magic seeds and other grim tales
This scenario is not based on conjecture or fantasy. In the past two years, the number of people facing food insecurity worldwide has almost tripled to reach 345 million, according to the United Nations World Food Program. While conflicts, COVID-19, and climate shocks have exacerbated this food crisis, it is becoming more apparent that the fault lies with the currently prevailing food system.
For the past 50 years, what started as the “green revolution” has promoted industrialized agriculture as the solution to world hunger. The model for this food system relies on intensive practices of planting large monocultures of single crops, supported with fossil-fuel based and chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and other “ides.” Initially, this model concerned food crops, but it soon spilled over into non-food crops like cotton, cattle feed, biodiesel raw materials, and so on. And what if the production of these crops is threatened by conflicts? Pandemics? Climate change? Use more chemical inputs or more resistant seeds, says “Big Agriculture” and its minions. As recently as September 2022, Bill Gates pitched bioengineered (read: genetically modified) “magic seeds” able to resist climate change as the only solution to world hunger. Who would control these seeds? Can they really solve hunger? We are not sure.
We are even less sure about the fate of honeybees. We have witnessed industrialized agriculture initiatives like the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa fail to alleviate hunger. What we should now start worrying about is how it actually destroys ecosystems that nurture honeybees and other pollinating insects, but also birds, bats, microscopic organisms, and even larger mammals – all of which make up the ecology of natural life-sustaining systems.
The Syrian honeybee (Apis mellifera syriaca) is the native honeybee subspecies of Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and Syria. It is ideally adapted to dry climates, resistant to pests, and blessed with a profusion of endemic nectar-bearing plants. Today, the Syrian honeybee is all but gone. Over the past century or so, it has been replaced or cross-bred with imported Carniolan honeybees (Apis mellifera carnica), a subspecies of bees from Europe that is much tamer than its local cousin. Recently, other “immigrant bees’’ have been flown in from Egypt and the United States, promising higher honey yields and less stings.
Why is this a problem? Mainly because of a lack of education or responsibility. Few beekeepers or project leaders acknowledge that the close proximity of beehives from different producers makes bees susceptible to disease and loss of genetic traits. First, female queen bees mate with any male drones brave enough to approach them (the mating ritual is intense and lethal for males). A pure-bred queen may take on undesirable traits from a male. Beekeepers often have to buy queens from specialized breeders (local or overseas) to ensure their bee stock stays pure.
Second, newly introduced bee species are less resistant to diseases and pests, requiring beekeepers to import expensive treatments and equipment. Worse, if bees are not treated for these diseases, they can easily contaminate beehives of other beekeepers. By the time beekeepers realized the benefits of the Syrian honeybee’s resilience and sought to cross it with their own weaker breeds, the original subspecies breed had been largely diluted or gone.
Third, the number of beekeepers continues to swell through well-intentioned livelihoods programs financed with foreign aid. This means more bees competing for food in decreasing natural spaces due to rampant urbanization and climate change, leading to lower honey yields each year. The old-timey solution of feeding “sugar-water” to bees as an alternative to flower nectar is no longer economically viable due to the devaluation of the Lebanese pound and rising commodity prices. More outlandish solutions from misinformed beekeepers included planting such exotic species as eucalyptus trees to feed bees.
Meanwhile, illegal hunting, spraying, and burning of green spaces is seriously reducing biodiversity. In such unbalanced ecosystems, there are fewer animals, birds, and insects to cull honeybees’ natural predators like wasps and hornets.
The bee road ahead
The main takeaways from above can be summarized as another bullet point in Lebanon’s rising food insecurity. A comprehensive analysis of the problem would entail a treatise on botany, zoology, agriculture, sociology, and climate change, but there is neither time nor space here.
The sad reality is that the life of honeybees around the world is growing more precarious by the day. Even as internationally-funded programs continue to position honey production as a means to ensure food security or improve livelihoods through exports, the appeal of beekeeping is dwindling.
If things are left unchecked, the best scenario we can hope for is one where only the most resilient (read: US dollar-backed) beekeepers remain in operation to produce a luxury product: Lebanese honey. This would of course require strict regulations on honeybees’ health and honey quality to be able to position this product among global competitors like Yemeni or Manuka honey. For the sake of sustainability, this would ideally require reintroducing the native Syrian honeybee and limiting honeybee and beehive imports, the way Europe is trying to protect its near-extinct black honeybee (Apis mellifera mellifera). Even so, we would only be treating the symptoms of the problem, not its root causes.
Threats to honeybees and to food security cannot be dealt with separately, nor independently of the threat of climate change. In our interconnected world, no place is indefinitely safe from conflict or contamination by disease to the Honeybee, Livestock, Crop, or Man. And even the most adapted and adaptive species – humans included – cannot stave off climate change forever. Worsening climate disasters and extractive industries have brought the stingless honeybee (Melipona beecheii) of Mexico’s near-isolated Yucatan Peninsula to the brink of extinction.
The only way to address food security effectively is through the lens of agroecology. This approach involves science, practice, and a social movement, and considers food systems as both social and ecological systems, from production to consumption.
What this means is that Lebanon is not out of the woods yet – not by a long shot. But we can allow ourselves to imagine a coalition of farmers, beekeepers, shepherds, dairy workers, economic and social activists, lawyers, journalists, environmentalists, researchers, and more coming together to discuss solutions. Their perspectives may seem different, but once they understand that these all fall under the same principles that agroecology upholds, perhaps a movement can be born and join global voices to preserve our planet with its previous humans, bees, animals, plants, soils, water, and natural resources.