Old and New – Beekeeping in Kurdistan.
In 2013, during one of my many trips to Kurdistan (Northern Iraq) I encountered some old traditional hives. Kurdistan isn’t a country but an autonomous region of Iraq, with its own culture, language (with 7 dialects), army (Peshmurga), and government (KRG based in Erbil). It is a land locked place which borders with Iran, Turkey, Syria and Southern Iraq. There is a huge lake in Kurdistan, formed by a large dam, and Kurds sometime refer to this, humorously, as the ocean. Having been brought up in England, surrounded by seas, and a rich maritime heritage, I have always found it difficult to envisage living without the sea, and the prospect of paddling in it, despite the fact that billions do so quite happily.
Beekeeping in Kurdistan was severely and violently curtailed, decades ago, with the oppression of Saddam’s regime, and the resulting genocide of the Kurdish people. During this period, the Kurdish holocaust, there was wholesale bull dozing of Kurdish villages, and the destruction of the means to support themselves, including bee hives. When I was in the mountains there, in 2009, the only bees I saw were ones which lived in the many caves on the limestone cliffs in the region. Some villagers in the mountains were very keen for me to abseil down a huge cliff just to get some honey. I wasn’t a beekeeper then, and I was on my own, and besides I had caves to explore. Also I didn’t want to die.
The Kurds have recently re-started beekeeping, as we would know it, with courses provided by NGO’s, and using Langstroth hives, which they simply call ‘boxes’. 2012 saw the formation of the Kurdistan Beekeepers Association in a town called Shaqlawa (50km north east of Erbil, the capital city of Kurdistan).
It really is an adventure for them all. Some of them have no idea about queen cells, or predicting swarms, or drone laying workers, so they are all literally learning from scratch and watching to see what happens. It makes you appreciate just how good it is to be a member of an association, and a culture, which contains so many experienced people, and to be part of a unbroken tradition which goes back hundreds, if not thousands of years.
There is a great demand for ‘pure’ honey in Kurdistan which people will pay up to $60 per kilo for (£40), if they know the source is good, because there is so much adulterated stuff around. One of my favourite breakfasts is freshly made Kurdish flatbread, sheep yogurt and honey. I often make it at home, or at least the nearest I can get to it. Obviously the bread is never as good, but good enough to transport me back to the mountains for a minute or two. On the plus side my honey is lovely with anything.
Most of Kurdistan’s honey currently comes from neighbouring Turkey but they are seeking to eradicate imports, and to eventually export.
Interestingly some of the Turkish honey arrives in dinner plate sized plastic tubs, which are about 4cm deep and contain a huge slab of naturally constructed comb floating in the honey.
The old hives I saw in Kurdistan are basket weave construction, about a metre long, and are tubular in design, but slightly wider at the back than the front, presumably to allow an arm and shoulder to fit into it. The hive is used horizontally. Some of the insides were lined with mud and fine grass, but I found one hive with comb directly attached to the basket work, suggesting it was once mud covered rather than lined, like a traditional English skep. The entrance end of the hive has a plaster wall, about 2cm deep, and painted white, with the circular entrance carved through the plaster. The back of some of the hives had a removable basket woven ‘lid’. In others the entrance end was the lid. In the example below the lid would have been at the back but is absent. Some of the lids were missing.
Traditional Kurdish bee hive – showing entrance in plaster end
Traditional Kurdish bee hive – side view
These hives I saw were empty, stacked in a yard, so I don’t know how or where they were used, and I couldn’t find anyone who could tell me, but I hope to find out one day. But like a skep, our woven equivalent, their hives could not be inspected, as we do with removable framed hives or top bars, which explains why queen cells and other subjects are a bit of a mystery. With their new ‘boxes’ they now have access to the inner workings of the bee hive, just like us, and all the worries which come from that detailed knowledge.
Looking inside the hive
The plaster hive end with entrance hole
New content added: 21st Sept 2017
Subject: Serbian Bee Hive
A friend of mine sent me this from Serbia.
“Now then Andy Lane. An old Serbian Bee hive. Zajecar museum informs me that the bees were removed by pouring boiling water over it. A bit extreme me thinks.”
photo: Mick O’Connor