North Africa, West Asia: Feature

Climate change is killing Libya’s honey bees

Sweltering summers and cold winters as a result of climate change are hurting Libya’s traditional culture of beekeeping, and the production of its much-valued honey

Hendia Alashepy
11 November 2021, 12.01am
Beekeeper inspects a bee hive in Al-Marj, Libya
Khalil Al-Barghathi. All rights reserved

When militias and civil war brought havoc and death two years ago to Tarhuna, a pastoral town 90 kilometres southeast of the Libyan capital, beekeeper Ayman Al-Zakkar still managed to maintain his normal honey production. But a fiercer threat to his bee colonies has now emerged: climate change.

Al-Zakkar said that higher-than-normal temperatures and turbulent weather in the past two years have devastated his 180 beehives, costing him over 100,000 Libyan dinars ($21,884).

“The fighting and violence destroyed much of the flora and fauna in this area, but the damage done by climate change is much worse,” he said. “In the past two years, we’ve had temperatures climb to over 40°C and, along with hot winds, they melted honeycombs in the hives, with the bees inside, killing most of them and driving the rest away.”

In one of the driest countries in the world, with less than 2% of its area receiving enough rain to support agriculture, at least 10,000 beekeepers have managed, despite all odds, to keep the tradition going. Working in the northern, cooler and wetter parts of the country, Libyan beekeepers produce 19 types of honey.

Medicinal uses and cultural traditions

In the northeast of Libya, the beekeeping tradition has been passed on from one generation to the next, and is a source of pride, according to Fanara al-Akouri, a beekeeper in the eastern village of Msus. “Not a single house in this region doesn’t breed bees,” she noted proudly.

Khalil Al-Barghathi. All rights reserved

Al-Akouri explained that local honey is a key ingredient in traditional dishes associated with celebrations. “Honey goes into aseeda, a gooey and nutrient-loaded meal that is made for new mothers to boost breastmilk production, and almathrouda, a pastry served with nuts and honey, which is part of every Libyan wedding,” she said.

Khalil Al-Barghathi. All rights reserved

But as local production of honey has dropped, prices have risen and this has affected sales, according to Ahmed al-Houti, head of the media office at the National Center for Agricultural Prevention and Quarantine.

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Jars of honey from eastern Libya are valued gifts for Libyans elsewhere in the country. But today they have become unaffordable to many. Locally produced Sidr and ling honey, which were already pricier than imported honey, are now sold for 80 Libyan dinars a kilogramme ($17.50), up from 60 dinars ($13) in previous years, al-Houti explained.

Khalil Al-Barghathi. All rights reserved

“These two types, specifically, are valued as part of our cultural heritage, and also for their medicinal value as they’re commonly used in traditional treatments,” he said. “But the current price, driven up by low production and high demand, means it’s beyond the means of many of its mostly-local consumers.”

Khalil Al-Barghathi. All rights reserved

Rising temperatures

Despite the absence of official data on beekeeping, those involved in the cottage industry unanimously agree that Libya’s temperatures in recent years have crushed local production, with the 2021 summer being the worst-hit season.

Nasser Khalifa Mohamed, a lecturer in the department of zoology at the University of Benghazi and a researcher in bees and genetic improvement, says that climate change means that even the cooler areas of the country are no longer as welcoming to bees. The reason is that temperatures now go above and beneath the 12°C to 38°C range in which bees function best.

Khalil Al-Barghathi. All rights reserved

In June this year, temperatures recorded in some parts of the country reached between 40-46°C, according to the World Meteorological Organisation, with even hotter temperatures recorded in some cities.

According to rough estimates from the independent Libyan Organization for Beekeeping, beekeepers in Tarhuna and Al-Jafra plain, key sites for the production of the popular Sidr honey, lost at least 2,000 out of around 4,500 bee colonies last summer due to heatwaves.

Khalil Al-Barghathi. All rights reserved

Like other beekeepers from Tripoli, Misrata, Alrajban and elsewhere, Belkasem Aggag, who comes from Alzintan in western Libya, brings his bees every summer to Al-Jafra plain to produce Sidr honey. The honey is produced from the nectar of the thorny trees bearing the same name that grow there. But this summer, most of his colonies did not survive the unusually high temperatures. His surviving 40 colonies went from producing 13 kilogrammes of honey each to only three to five kilogrammes during the summer season.

A bigger problem

It is thought that the gradual decline in honey production is not only due to temperatures dropping and increasing beyond the annual average ranges, but also to deforestation and a reduction in precipitation.

Quick facts

Average temperature in Libya increased from 21.8°C in 1901 to 22.5°C in 2020

The northern Tripoli regions of Jabal Nafusah and Jifarah Plain and the northern Benghazi region of Jabal al Akhdar receive the highest average annual rainfall, exceeding 250-300 mm

Approximately 93% of the land surface receives less than 100 millimetres of rain per year.

Source: World Bank

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The same factors pose a threat to food security, crop nutrient content and yields, as well as livestock, fisheries and aquaculture, according to the World Bank climate change forecast.

Ezz El-Din Suleiman from the Agriculture Ministry’s Horticulture Department in Jabal Al-Akhdar says that high temperatures, especially in the western parts of the country, led to local production of Sidr and tamarisk honey dropping from 200 tons to 150 and 170 tons respectively this year.

Khalil Al-Barghathi. All rights reserved

The cause is “a combination of the damage done to the green pastures, plants and flowering trees that are key to honey production, whether because of climate change, increased desertification and evapotranspiration, or unofficial construction on arable land”, he explained. In addition, there’s a problem of too many beekeepers in some regions. Suleiman said that areas that may have had around 200 hives in the past decade, now could have more than 2,000.

Khalil Al-Barghathi. All rights reserved

The silence of the bees

The University of Benghazi’s Nasser Khalifa Mohamed explained that heatwaves lead worker bees to lose their energy and the queen bee to stop laying eggs. And cooler temperatures, which bees have endured in Libya’s coastal areas recently, cause larval maturation to slow down, and can ultimately lead to a hive’s destruction.

Khalil Al-Barghathi. All rights reserved

Mohamed al-Abdali, a beekeeper in Al-Marj, near Libya’s northeastern coast, has seen his bees’ production of honey halve since 2017. He has had to relocate his hives to Jabal Al-Akhdar, 84 kilometres from his hometown.

Bees shelter in the shade of the hive to escape rising temperatures in AlJafra Plain in 2020
Courtesy of the Libyan Society for Beekeeping in Tarhuna. All rights reserved

Ibrahim Al-Oujli is a beekeeper in the eastern city of Jalu. He lost 40 bee colonies in May 2020 as a result of the heat. “It was a shocking sight. The hive was as still as a rock. No buzzing sound, no life. I couldn’t get myself to even film it or document it. I lost my source of income,” he said.

This year, in a bid to avoid the same fate, he placed 20 beehives in a leafy area and checked them regularly. “After one hot morning, I inspected the colonies and found that the bees had come out and taken shelter from the sun in the shadows of their own hives,” he said. He managed to save his bees this year, despite incurring financial losses, but the threat to this cottage industry and cultural tradition is growing every year.

*This article was written in collaboration with Egab.

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