Yemen’s enterprising beekeepers fight to keep their famed honey flowing by Robert Uniacke

Despite an ongoing lull in the Yemeni conflict and a new wave of Saudi economic support last month, Yemenis continue to face acute microeconomic struggles. This can be seen no clearer than in Yemen’s vibrant honey sector. Around 100,000 households are engaged in the 3,000 year-old practice, according to UN figures, producing some of the world’s finest, most distinctive monofloral honey. But given the unique, mobile nature of their work, Yemeni apiculturists face the perfect storm of Yemen’s myriad impediments to commercial activity, including restricted movement, security threats, environmental degradation, lax regulations, and high input prices.

Particularly concentrated in southern governorates like Shabwah, Hadramawt, and Abyan, Yemeni beekeepers must methodically travel through Yemen’s mountains, valleys and plains in search of the high-quality bee pastures (particularly of the prized Sidr tree) that define Yemeni honey’s status as an internationally sought-after commodity. Yet as Yemen’s frontlines have ebbed and flowed through almost a decade of conflict (and even during the recent lull), traveling beekeepers, armed with their beehives, are regularly blocked from accessing bountiful pastures, all while impacting travel times and raising the risk of bees dying in transit. Even when routes to pastures are technically open, hidden landmines can threaten beekeepers’ safety and mobility, while invasive, extortionate and sometimes dangerous checkpoint procedures by local security forces further complicate beekeeping operations. Many beekeepers would prefer to move their hives by night, but movement after dark risks unwanted attention from soldiers manning tense frontline positions.

Beekeepers must also grapple with climate change-induced shifts in weather patterns, namely the 29% rise in rainfall in the past 30 years. This increase often takes the form of unpredictable heavy rainfall events which, interspersed with dry hot days, can destroy flowers prior to bees collecting any nectar. These new climactic realities may also result in flowers blooming too early, throwing off traditional seasonal schedules. With reliable seasons increasingly giving way to this acute volatility, beekeepers face the up-hill battle of correctly deducing when to feed their bees. Rendering the industry even more precarious is farmers’ widespread and unregulated spraying of toxic pesticides, reportedly poisoning tens of thousands of bees and wiping out entire hives.

The virtual collapse of many Yemeni state institutions, particularly following the bifurcation of national authorities between Sana’a and Aden in 2015, has further undermined the sector’s viability. Despite its well-earned international reputation for purity, lacking and lax quality standards to prevent lower-grade honey from mixing with Yemen’s prized varieties pose a real threat to this brand credibility. Without resolution to the economic war between the competing authorities underpinning Yemen’s conflict, beekeepers will continue to see their profit margins thinned. For instance, parallel exchange rates and border taxation processes between Houthi-controlled and government-controlled zones drive up the price of trading honey domestically. Meanwhile, rampant inflation and currency depreciation has collapsed the purchasing power of many Yemeni consumers, cutting market demand. Also rooted in the Yemeni conflict, sky-high fuel prices for transporting hives and keeping the supply chain moving, among many other elevated input prices like equipment, further eat into Yemeni beekeepers’ ability to make a living off the time-honored industry.

But all is not lost for the Yemeni honey industry. Increasing numbers of young people and women from non-beekeeping families are acquiring hives and moving into the practice, forming a new generation of apiculturists redefining a sector traditionally seen as an inherited trade. Were there to be an end to these conflict-induced impediments, opportunities for investment to reinvigorate the production and trade of this luxury commodity would abound. Especially if national authorities crafted effective policy to protect Yemeni honey’s integrity and reputation, perhaps with inspiration from systems like the denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) classification for Italian wine, Yemeni honey could return to its rightful pride of place among the world’s most treasured natural products.