Syrian Beekeeping’s Fight Against War and Climate Change

Syrian beekeeper Ibrahim Damiriya, facing immense challenges in producing honey from his hives on arid lands near Damascus, reflects the dire impacts of years of conflict, economic turmoil, and the worsening consequences of climate change. As he dons his beekeeping suit and peers into his scanty honey stocks within the hives, the 62-year-old laments, “The war bled us dry. We could barely keep our beekeeping business afloat, and then the insane weather made things worse.”


In the days before Syria’s devastating conflict erupted in 2011, Damiriya possessed a thriving beekeeping enterprise with 110 hives located in Rankus, a village near Damascus that was once bedecked with flourishing apple orchards. However, a calamitous combination of warfare, severe drought, and a crippling economic crisis has left him with a mere 40 hives situated in semi-arid terrain, drastically diminishing his honey production. Rankus, renowned for its honey in the past, bore the brunt of clashes between government forces and rebels, leading to widespread destruction and the exodus of many residents.


Damiriya now struggles to afford the basic maintenance of his hives, which were donated by the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) to support Syrian beekeepers. He sighs, “If we keep suffering from climate change and rising prices, I might have to abandon my profession.”


Since the commencement of the Syrian conflict in 2011, over half a million lives have been lost, and the nation has grappled with an acute economic crisis compounded by stringent Western sanctions. Recent years have further burdened Syria with sweltering heatwaves, meager rainfall, and a surge in forest fires.


A 2019 United Nations report revealed that the conflict had nearly wiped out bee populations, with bombs contaminating the environment, the misuse of pesticides, and an escalation in parasites hastening their decline. Syria once harbored 635,000 hives before the war; however, their numbers plummeted to around 150,000 at the height of the conflict in 2016, as stated by Iyad Daaboul, the president of the Arab Beekeepers Union based in Damascus.


Today, the number of hives has partially rebounded to 400,000, but they yield only 1,500 tonnes of honey per annum—half of the country’s pre-war production. Unusually cold springs and persistent drought conditions have adversely impacted the flowers that constitute bees’ primary source of sustenance. Daaboul underscores, “Extreme weather conditions have greatly affected bees, especially during spring—the most critical time in their life cycle.” The number of beekeepers has dwindled to approximately 18,000 today, nearly half of the 32,000 before the war.


Yet another menace confronting the beleaguered bee population is the surge in forest fires due to rising temperatures. Daaboul laments, “Fires have destroyed more than 1,000 hives on Syria’s coastal mountains and stripped bees of large foraging areas.”


The rising temperatures and desertification have exacted a toll on Syria’s once-vibrant vegetation, devastating the plants on which bees rely for their survival and putting immense pressure on the once-thriving agricultural sector. Suhair Zakkout, a spokesperson for the ICRC in Damascus, reveals that “Syria’s agricultural production has fallen by approximately 50 percent over the last 10 years” due to the twin pressures of war and climate change.


Despite being among the countries hardest hit by global warming, Syria has been hampered by a lack of resources to tackle environmental challenges effectively. Zakkout asserts that climate change has wreaked havoc on farmer Ziad Rankusi’s apple orchards, which have also been significantly depleted by illegal logging as people grapple with recurrent fuel shortages to keep warm during harsh winters.


Rankusi, who is in his 50s, used to oversee more than 1,000 trees on his land. However, only 400 trees remain, and they are withering in the relentless heat. He explains, “For about five years, we have had unprecedented droughts and desertification, and this year the spring was unusually cold. The fruit perished.” When the very trees and flowers disappear, the plight of the bees becomes dire, as they can neither feed nor thrive, ultimately leading to migration or demise.


In conclusion, the story of Syrian beekeeper Ibrahim Damiriya and the broader challenges faced by beekeepers in Syria vividly illustrates the devastating confluence of war, economic crisis, and climate change on their livelihoods and the bee populations critical to agriculture. The once-thriving beekeeping industry in Syria has been decimated, leaving beekeepers struggling to make ends meet and bees struggling to find sustenance amidst extreme weather conditions, forest fires, and vanishing vegetation. As Syria grapples with these challenges, it is clear that a multi-faceted approach involving support for beekeepers, environmental conservation efforts, and climate resilience measures is urgently needed to protect both the livelihoods of those like Damiriya and the fragile ecosystems on which they depend.

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