Heat, drought pose threat to Iraq’s honey production
The central Iraqi province of Babylon is grappling with scorching heat and persistent drought, adversely impacting bees and honey production in the region.
Beekeeper Mohamed Aliawi, deputy director of a local apiarist association, witnesses the distressing situation firsthand as he tends to hive boxes nestled beneath towering palm trees in Al-Reghila village.
“Due to the absence of water, there are no flowering plants to sustain the bees,” Aliawi told AFP, expressing concern about the current conditions.
The parched earth, coupled with the daunting July temperatures that often soar to approximately 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit), poses significant challenges for honey production and the survival of bees.
For honey production, bees require a constant supply of pollen and nectar, which they collect through extensive foraging. Normally, bees travel distances of hundreds of meters to find their nourishment, but the drought forces them to travel up to five kilometers (three miles) for pollination.
Aliawi explained, “This has a direct impact on the worker bee’s lifespan,” referring to the female bee responsible for gathering pollen and nectar. Under optimal circumstances, a worker bee can live up to 60 days, but in the current situation, their lifespan is reduced to only 20 days.
Aliawi, who manages a private honey production facility, has taken measures to mitigate the impact. He has relocated dozens of bee hive boxes from central Iraq to seven different sites scattered across the cooler and greener mountains of the northern autonomous Kurdistan region.
“The bees suffer if we don’t move them,” Aliawi emphasized.
On a scorching day in July, Aliawi and his team donned protective headgear as they inspected the bee hives and honeycombs. They used a bee smoker to release smoke, a technique known to calm the insects.
Honey production in Iraq has seen a drastic decline. In the early 2000s, each bee hive yielded around 20 to 25 kilograms (44-55 pounds) of honey per year, but now the quantity has plummeted to a mere five kilograms, according to Aliawi.
Iraq ranks among the top five countries in the world most affected by climate change, as stated by the United Nations. The nation has been plagued by scorching summers, reduced rainfall, frequent sandstorms, and diminished water flow in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers due to upstream dams.
Despite these challenges, Hashem al-Zeheiri, the head of the apiarist department at the agriculture ministry, remains optimistic about honey production. He claims that production has been steadily increasing each year.
In 2022, honey production in territories controlled by the Baghdad federal authorities reached 870 tonnes, while in Kurdistan, 850 tonnes were produced—significant increases from the previous year’s production of around 700 tonnes in each region.
Zeheiri has conducted a study on the benefits of relocating bee hives between southern and central Iraq and Kurdistan, based on specific needs, to enhance honey yields.
Beekeeping in Iraq has a rich history, dating back approximately 8,000 years. Ancient Sumerian tablets reveal the existence of beekeeping traditions and the use of honey for medicinal purposes. While the practice has traditionally been male-dominated, Zeinab al-Maamuri has emerged as an exception.
Having developed a passion for beekeeping through her late husband’s hobby, Maamuri, now in her early 50s, manages 250 bee hives in Babylon province, with dozens of them housed in the family courtyard.
Maamuri mourns the impact of a warming planet on her bees, noting that rising temperatures disrupt their reproductive cycle. Additionally, frequent sandstorms in the country prove fatal for many bees, as they struggle to return to the hives.
The challenges faced by Iraqi beekeepers highlight the urgent need to address climate change and find innovative solutions to safeguard honey production and the essential role bees play in ecosystems.