Beirut: Like hard-working bees everywhere, Lebanese bees pollinate essential vegetables and fruits such as broccoli, asparagus, cantaloupes, cucumbers, pumpkins, blueberries, watermelons, almonds, apples, cranberries, and cherries.
They do a whole lot more, of course, as they also produce honey, which they consume during winter season as food, though humans are equally fond of the amber.
It is a little known fact that Lebanon is one of the only countries in the world where bees can find natural sources of nectar all year long.
Because of the diversity of its altitudes (from 0 to 3000 meters), its position on the Mediterranean, its 4 distinct seasons, and the diversity of its flora, flowering seasons occur almost all year long.
As a result, Lebanon’s honey is one of the best in the world.
As described in the Old Testament, “Your lips drip nectar, my bride; honey and milk are under your tongue; the fragrance of your garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon” (Solomon 4:11), which confirms that this country which is mentioned frequently in Scriptures — has a lot more to offer than gloom and doom.
Remarkably, honey production has grown in recent years though and, far more important, local beekeepers have garnered international attention. Not only did they develop unique techniques to improve yields, they also guarantee year-long production of pesticide-free honey.
According to the Lebanese Ministry of Agriculture, the number of beekeepers increased by 14 per cent from the end of 2011 to mid-2015 (from 5,546 to 6,340 beekeepers), while the number of hives increased by 41 per cent during the same period (from 194,520 to 274,390 beehives).
Honey production increased by 35 per cent between 2011 and 2015 (from 1,360 tonnes to 1,920 tonnes), for an estimated value of $38 million (Dh139.58 million) for the last year for which statistics were available.
To be sure, Lebanon produces exceptional honey, including the oak and cedar varieties, though innovations sharply improved the quality of new types.
At L’Atelier du Miel, a gem of a production outlet with a boutique (Ashrafieh) that opened in 2011 in a decor that resembles an actual apiary, one can taste orange blossom, raspberry, lime, acacia, eucalyptus, wild lavender, rosemary, thyme, cedar, hawthorn, thorns, and the exceptional medlar [aqi-dunyah in Arabic] honey, which is truly in a class by itself as one is able to taste the fruit in one’s palate long after the honey melts away.
Its owners gave up desk jobs in management and engineering to work the land and be closer to nature.
What their project focused on was the country’s topography — whose diverse altitudes ranged between sea-level and 3,088 metres (10,131 feet) at Qurnat Al Sawda’ in the Cedars — along with its distinct four seasons that allow for rich flora all year long.
Although Lebanon’s honey tends to be one of the best, what L’Atelier du Miel did was remarkably innovative, as beekeepers developed a production method that relies on moving the beehives to follow flower-blossoming seasons.
Speaking to Gulf News, Ghinwa Abisamra, a shop attendent, happily explained the process.
“This technique allows bees to feed only on the nectar of flowers and on the honeydew of trees instead of gorging on sugar that, regrettably, all permanently anchored beehives require,” she says.
Repositioning beehives across Lebanon is of course possible because of the country’s relatively small size, even if the actual surface of the land appears to be far larger because of its mountainous topography.
In other words, one is actually able to move beehives from the Cedar Forests in the Barouk (Chouf region) to Kesrwan forests (oak trees), or from fields of cherry in Zahle to peach and apricot trees in Rechmaya, or even to hawthorn in Kab Elias, thorns in Ain Dara, Medlar trees in Sidon, and orange trees in Tyre and Akkar, all with relative ease.
The travelling bees move from one location to the other depending on the season, which enables producers to offer 100 per cent natural honey, without the use of additives and pesticides or, equally bad, without resorting to sugar to feed stationary bees that must survive the elements.
L’Atelier du Miel aims to make Lebanon one of the best producers of honey in the world.
Towards that end, it produces honey that is raw from the comb, is not heated, nor blended even if some varieties are imported from European countries to meet growing demand.
It encourages local farmers to maintain pesticide- and antibiotic-free orchards, and pledges to work with those who meet such standards, all to give its honey its unique qualities.
Of course, the development of this sector of Lebanese agriculture will help limit rural displacement and push beekeepers to stand their ground, though added investments are necessary to procure good equipment, along with the introduction of innovative agricultural practices.
Interestingly, a 2013 American University of Beirut Department of Agriculture programme has focused on the establishment of the first centre for breeding queen bees in the country, which will dramatically improve long-term as production too.
They, at least, will be the missing royalty in the true land of milk and honey.