Yemen’s beekeepers pushed to the brink by conflict and climate change

Landmines and drought threatening ancient art of honey production in Yemen.

There are records of beekeeping in Yemen dating back to beginning of the 1st millennium BC, and for centuries, it has been an indispensable part of economic life in Yemen, with around 100,000 households relying on honey production as their sole source of income.

The honey produced in Yemen is globally renowned for its distinctive flavour. Bees collect nectar exclusively from the flowers of the Sidr tree, which is referred to in the Quran as one of the plants of paradise.

But now this ancient practice is under threat due to the ongoing conflict: active frontlines and the widespread presence of landmines and other unexploded ordnances (UXOs) are making it too dangerous for beekeepers to move around the country to graze their bees and in some cases get their products to market.

And for those that can produce enough honey to sell, customers are few and far between because honey is now considered a luxury item for Yemen’s impoverished millions struggling to afford even basic food items after eight years of conflict.

Taiz, a mountainous governorate on Yemen’s west coast with a long history of honey production, has been badly affected by the war.

“This area has been a battlefield for eight years,” explained Amin whose bee colony was recently destroyed when it was hit by a rocket. “It was the worst day of my life,” he said. “The bees are disturbed; the business is no longer lucrative and life has gone from bad to worse.”

Youssef, a beekeeper from Hajja, an area north of the capital Sana’a, said the ongoing violence and prevalence of UXOs meant it was no longer safe to move around the country as he had done in the past.

"I'm forced to stay in my area which is also forcing me to depend on only one season of production and that is not enough to be able to support my children," he said.

Climate change is also taking its toll, reducing rainfall and raising temperatures. As water tables drop, once fertile areas are turning into dusty wastelands and the impact this has had on pollination is reducing honey yields, making it harder for farmers to earn from their bees.

"I don't only blame the conflict for what happens to us. There have not been any rains in months, and there are fewer flowers," said Amin. "My children have had to drop out of school to work in other sectors as my business is no longer enough to meet my family's needs.”

In a bid to support Yemen's ailing beekeepers and protect their livelihoods, the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) has been providing equipment, donating bees, and delivering training in bee management and honey production. 

“The ICRC is supporting sustainable income-generating activities, such as beekeeping, to empower Yemeni people and help them to be more independent in the long run,” said a spokesperson for the organisation, a major provider of healthcare, food support, and water sanitation projects in the country.

Eight years into a bitter conflict between the Houthis, Iranian-backed rebels, and the government, supported by a Saudi-led coalition, more than 20 million Yemenis are dependent on emergency aid.  

The country, which has long held the unfortunate moniker of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, is currently witnessing an alarming level of food insecurity with more than 16 million people classified as “food insecure”. In Hajjah, Amran and Al Jawf alone, there are nearly 50,000 people living in famine like conditions according to the World Food Programme.

An estimated 17.8 million people lack access to safe water and adequate sanitation services in Yemen and the current water network reaches less than 30% of the population, forcing millions - mostly women and children - walk for miles to fetch water.

The lack of access to clean water has resulted in several major health outbreaks, including in 2016 the worst cholera outbreak in modern history with 2.5 million cases reported, and more than 4,000 deaths. - PA