The sweetest job in Iraq – beekeeping in the Ninewa Plains

Posted March 5, 2020

Photo: Marley Tinnock/UNDP Iraq/2019

“One teaspoon of honey each day will ensure a healthy life,” says Farman as we watch a golden waterfall form a pool on the plate. As he pours honey, his wife Khame and daughter Zena hand us each a small piece of bread, gesturing to taste. “This is raw honey,” he says, as we watch the impurities glisten in mid-afternoon sun.  

At their home in Alqosh, in northern Iraq’s Ninewa Plains, Farman, Khame and Zena tend to 22 hives. They produce enough honey to rely solely on beekeeping – or apiculture as its formally known – for income. “I also sell new colonies to fellow beekeepers,” explains Farman. “We break our existing hives in to new ones each year – they just keep growing.”

Photo: Marley Tinnock/UNDP Iraq/2019

Beekeeping has existed in Iraq in one form or another for an estimated 8,000 years, with ancient Sumerian tablets carrying recipes that use honey for medicinal purposes – treating skin infections, ulcers and disease.

Today, beekeeping is resurging following a stark decline throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, primarily due to recurring conflict, disease, displacement, and the increase in chemicals used for agriculture. Whilst the practice has come a long way, shifting from the use of mud and straw hives to the modern style racks of wood and plastic, the number of local beekeepers selling commercially in Iraq, remains low.

For Khame, her bee allergy hasn’t prevented the family from wholly adopting the beekeeping lifestyle. “It’s psychological with bees,” she says. “Once you overcome the fear, you’re calm with the bees – they can sense how you feel.”

Photo: Marley Tinnock/UNDP Iraq/2019

Farman, Khame and Zena received five hives in 2017 as a part of a vocational training programme led by local NGO, Zhako Small Village Project (ZSVP), with support from UNDP Iraq and the Government of Germany. In total, 200 households across the Ninewa Plains and Dohuk were selected to receive hives, along with safety clothes and tools, and training on apiculture, business management and post-harvest marketing. Households were selected based on both a financial needs assessment and the interest and motivation of recipients; which included vulnerable host community members, returnees and IDPs that otherwise would not have access to sustainable livelihoods opportunities.

This project came at a time when the liberation against ISIL was nearing an end. Previously displaced populations began returning to their homes, often to a community with little left in the way of business and employment opportunities. Small-scale agriculture – including poultry, vegetable farming and apiculture provided opportunities to families not only to earn an income, but re-engage with neighbors, and in taking ownership of their own food production, empower individuals, whilst providing nutritional benefits!

In the sweeping grasses of the Ninewa plains, these bees continue to thrive. Unlike the higher-altitude-loving bees of Sinjar and Choman, the bees here produce a less floral – but no less sweet - honey, feeding mostly in vegetable gardens.

Photo: Marley Tinnock/UNDP Iraq/2019

Protecting the hive

It’s not far between villages before the distinctive hum of a beehive is heard again. “We started with five hives, but now we have 15,” explains mother-of-two Farida. “I feed them pollen and put out water. The kids help too of course!” 

Farida, her husband Amin and their young children supplement this work with livestock and small-scale vegetable farming. “We also just love producing our own honey,” smiles Farida.

We watch as the family creep from hive to hive looking for a large wasp that zoomed by moments earlier. “Wasps are the worst enemy of bees,” says Amin. “Farida will get rid of it!” he exclaims as she draws a small straw broom from her hip and swats away the wasp. It’s sent tumbling on to the dirt just moments before it enters the hive, hunting for a queen.

Photo: Marley Tinnock/UNDP Iraq/2019

Photo: Marley Tinnock/UNDP Iraq/2019

Photo: Marley Tinnock/UNDP Iraq/2019

Committed to the colony

For each beekeeper, the yield will differ from year to year, so it’s common to see families supplement their hives with additional agricultural activities. Beekeepers face a number of challenges – not only wasps. Surrounded by agricultural land often ripe with nasty chemicals designed to expel insects, and waste piles produced from the growing peri-urban communities drawing in bees that are vulnerable to disease and predators, beekeepers become attune to their craft and creative in finding solutions.

“I started noticing my bees would disappear each afternoon. I couldn’t see any flying around the fields,” explains Farman. “One day I followed them, and I saw that they were feeding on waste. A small shop would dump organic waste on the street each day – drawing bees and wasps to feed,” he continues. “This is bad news for bees – not only are the wasps able to kill them more easily, but the honey will not taste so good!”

Farman began returning daily to cover this waste with soil, deterring the bees and forcing them to return to the fields to feed, “I want my honey to taste good, so that my customers come back!”

Photo: Marley Tinnock/UNDP Iraq/2019

But how do they get to market? Many families find the best way to sell honey is by word-of-mouth. “In our small communities, everyone knows where to buy the best honey. I just receive calls and deliver my honey to families from nearby,” explains Ameen, another beekeeper from ZSVP and UNDP’s 2017 initiative. Ameen boasts 24 hives today, split from the original 5 he received almost 3 years ago. “Our honey sells because it tastes good. This is the best way to market, sell a high-quality product,” he says. “We have built networks to sell our honey to people living in nearby communities.”

The next step in the value chain

Since 2017, the beekeepers from this project has continued to thrive. Each year, keepers are splitting hives and growing their income. Whilst many still remain small-scale and local, the yields are growing, as are the number of neighbors and friends. But, with increased interest and technical expertise, beekeeping in Iraq has a sweet future.