Yemen’s itinerant beekeepers must follow the flowering season. But this nomadism, essential for their bees to produce this liquid gold known around the world, is hampered by the nation's ongoing civil war.
SHABWA — You will meet the beekeepers late at night on the roads, stacks of wooden lockers stowed in the back of their pick-up trucks. In war-torn Yemen, with its endless checkpoints and occasional explosions, no one travels as much as the beekeepers — migrating with their hives, chasing the flowers.
Honey is a serious business in Yemen. In this sparsely industrialized country, with its dizzying winding mountain roads, this liquid gold is reputed to be one of the best in the Middle East, if not the world. There is no need to engage in the national debate about which region holds the prize for the finest honey.
The soldiers at the roadblocks are clued into the situation: beekeepers can make a very handsome living, but it would be unwise to put a ransom on these farmers. "In any case, they are afraid of our bees. We usually pass by unchecked," laughs Saïd Al-Aulaqi, 40, a beekeeper in Shabwa, in the south of the country.
This little man, full of energy and good humor, is eager to take his bees from his region and this valley, a few kilometers from the departmental capital, Atak. The flowering season is over here, so he must bring his hives elsewhere. But, for the time being, "that is not possible ," he says, grumbling. Battles between the army and the Houthi rebels prevent him from taking the road linking Marib, the large tribal town in the north, to the mountains that surround the capital, Sanaa.
"When you're on the move, bees become unpredictable: it's hard to guess what they need," explains Farea Al-Muslimi, a hive owner in Wessab.
Saïd Al-Aulaqi has a method for traveling with a bit more certainty: he carries his bees at night while they sleep. If he isn't settled by dawn without having installed them properly, they could flee, disoriented. If he keeps them locked up in the hives, the heat would put their wax to the test.
Beekeepers travel in pairs or trios, but they need to talk to everyone.
The beekeeper stays up-to-date with the situation the war's front lines by way of WhatsApp groups. There is a very strong community spirit in this trade. Beekeepers travel in pairs or trios, but they need to talk to everyone else to find out where flowering is good, whether rain is causing flooding in the valleys, and where it's okay to congregate since the bees circulate between the hives. Al-Aulaqi also warns his neighbors when he gives sugar or medicine to his bees: they will either take advantage of it or choose to move away.
Photo: Mohammed Dahman Xinhua/ZUMA
On his WhatsApp group, Al-Aulaqi dissuades colleagues from joining him in a place where there are already too many of them. Today, he's looking for jujube trees, a thorny tree bearing a kind of bland and chalky type of date fruit.
Farea Al-Muslimi, founder of an independent think tank, the Sana'a Center, and beehive owner in the village of Wessab, says the more time one can stay in the same location, the better you can manage your bees. "But when we move around, the bees become unpredictable: it's hard to guess what they need," he explains.
In the summer, the beekeepers move to the Ibb Mountains in Dhamar, Al-Bayda. Winter is spent on the southern coast, near the ports of Aden, Moukalla or Bir Ali. In order to find a place that is not too cramped, that is away from livestock and from recent pesticide sprays, Saïd Al-Aulaqi and his companion, Adel Saleh Saber, don't speak with political authorities but instead with tribal chiefs. "Travellers are welcome, especially in the North, where tribal traditions are still strong," Al-Aulaqi said. "They are not racist towards people from the South."
The war has introduced new complications for these relationships. At the start of the conflict in 2015, Saïd Al-Aulaqi joined the fight against the Houthi rebels, who are originally from the North and who had taken control of Sanaa. They were heading towards his hometown of Assaib in the south and so the beekeeper left everything behind — his family, his hives — to join the fight on the frontline.
Wounded, Al-Aulaqi was immobilized for many weeks. "I lost 300 bees, they died without my care. It took me two years to recover," he says, lamenting "these useless wars."
Since then, he has been focused on trying to modernize his craft, which he learned on the job with his uncle. He admits he covets the more productive European beehives and is hoping to attain a higher quality honey in the large market of Atak, an important region in the south that enjoys relative peace.
The stings don't even make my skin swell anymore.
Saïd Al-Aulaqi's low-grade honey market segment is now becoming crowded. Throughout Yemen, men are leaving the cities, where jobs are scarce, to become farmers and beekeepers. "The market is flooded and our bees don't have enough to eat," says Al-Aulaqi. Prices have fallen by one third since the beginning of the conflict in 2015, according to merchants in Atak. Hei now sells his production at 200 Saudi riyals per kilogram (44 euros), while better quality honey can be exported to Saudi Arabia at up to 130 euros per kg.
On this November day, he and Saber are harvesting their second crop of the year, following the one in early spring. They open their small wooden crates, which they keep out of the sun under a blanket, a carpet, and a braided mat. They keep the bees apart with branches of oiled grass, smoking them with a mat rolled into a stick and set on fire like a big cigar.
Both men work unprotected. "The stings don't even make my skin swell anymore," says Al-Aulaqi, stretching out his uncovered arm. "I'm immune."
At night, alone under breathtaking skies, the two bee business partners talk politics and personal plans. Saber, who is 28, is counting on this harvest to finance his marriage to a woman from the neighboring province of Abyane. Al-Aulaqi, for his part, says he sees his wife and five children only about once a month. But, he adds: "It's better than working in Saudi Arabia."