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Abuzz in Lebanon

A trip to Beit el-Fa’as village in Lebanon is more than just a sticky experience.

Ahmed Shehadah and his family live in Beit el-Fa’as, a Lebanese Sunni Muslim village far from Beirut and lots farther from anything American. Beit el-Fa’as means “the house of hatching.” And hatching plays a very important role in that town. Everyone there raises bees from the first stage of development, when the queen bee lays her eggs, to the last.

“We tried vegetables, fruit, chickens and cows,” Ahmed says, “but nothing seemed to work.” Then someone came up with the idea of raising bees. Today the area in which this village raises its bees extends over hill and dale. Beekeeping has ended the isolation of Beit el-Fa’as.

Ahmed is a school principal during the week and a beekeeper on weekends. Officially he is the region’s Director of Public Schools and head of the honey-makers’ cooperative. Many beekeepers in Beit el-Fa’as are active in the now seven-year-old cooperative.

Led by Ahmed, the cooperative called on the staff of CNEWA’s Beirut office; these beekeepers wanted to advance their ancient craft. They needed a device that would make beeswax into honeycombs. Their enthusiasm knew no bounds. Would CNEWA listen to their request?

When Reine Mouhasseb Raad, CNEWA’s Projects Coordinator, and I arrived in Beit el-Fa’as on a field visit, Ahmed had his cooperative ready to greet us in their simple headquarters. The 30 or so men sat on chairs that paralleled the walls. Tea was served. Small talk was exchanged.

“What do you want to see?” they asked.

“Everything,” came our reply.

Ahmed took us at our word and our day of tea and honey began.

We learned quickly that even in the best of hives there are problems. We visited a small room where the wax frames from the previous year had been stored. Ahmed showed us how the wax combs had blackened.

He explained that in Europe and the United States the cold of winter ensures that diseases and “critters” harmful to bees are eliminated. In Lebanon, where bee-raising takes place in areas where it rarely freezes, the bees have their enemies. Bacteria infect the cells. Tiny insects eat the wings of the bees, rendering them flightless.

Ahmed has contacted regional and international beekeepers to learn more about the problems of beekeeping and potential remedies.

This “land of milk and honey” has a long and rich tradition of beekeeping. What I knew about the ancient ways of honey-making I had learned, not from my many years in the Middle East, but from a honey museum located 12 miles down the road from my hometown in Wisconsin. One exhibit showed two large clay pots (actually made of papier-mâche) standing in a leafy environment. The text said these pots were still in use in Lebanon.

When I first saw the exhibit I had my doubts about the use of clay pots as hives. In all my years in Lebanon I had never seen anything similar. In fact, in Lebanon, as elsewhere, clay pots functioned almost solely as flower pots. Of course in Lebanon’s various museums there were pots aplenty: archaeological evidence indicates that clay pots were used for cooking and for storing wine, olive oil and grains. At a certain point in the Canaanite period (circa 15th century B.C.), clay pots even served as burial urns.

Ahmed had called on CNEWA, Beirut, because of a need not so far removed from the honey pots I saw in the Wisconsin museum 8,000 miles away. He and his village’s other beekeepers see beekeeping and honey production as a natural for Lebanon.

In Lebanon, domestic honey may be found in small convenience stores and supermarkets. Various brands of imported honey may also be purchased. However, until the beekeepers of Beit el-Fa’as receive the necessary permits from the appropriate ministry, Beit el-Fa’as honey may not be sold commercially. Until then, it may be hawked by a roadside or peddled by itinerant honey sellers who carry their wares through the streets of Lebanon’s towns and cities.

But the problem of permits is preceded by others and Ahmed and his colleagues do not expect CNEWA’s staff in Beirut to right every wrong in the hive, so to speak.

The honey-makers in the cooperative want a machine that does what the bees do, only faster and more efficiently: press wax into combs. It saves the bees the bother of making the combs from scratch.

Such a device is expensive. Ahmed, however, has the facts and figures to show how much the cooperative would save each year by not importing wax frames from Europe – the nearest source – and how much more honey could be produced. With the press the wax could be reused rather than thrown out, another savings. And he is suggesting matching funds, confidant that other monies can be raised for the purchase. Reine and I listened attentively.

“Would you like to see where we extract and store the honey?” Ahmed asked.

We nodded and off we went to an unlikely storage spot, the ground floor of an apartment building. As we approached the door, we heard a large buzzing, and I noticed that my shoes were sticking to the floor. Dozens of bees were hovering around the door, waiting to enter. The stickiness was honey.

The apartment was given over to honey-extracting machines that looked to me like the old-fashioned washing machine my mother still has in her basement. The frames, thick with honey, were inserted in a spinning device that forced out the honey.

Inside the apartment things were even buzzier and stickier. Hundreds of bees were crawling on the barrels, clinging to the windows and, soon, investigating the newcomers. Bees clung to my nylons and checked out my hair.

“Don’t worry, they won’t sting,” Ahmed assured me. “These bees are thieves and thieving bees don’t sting.”

The logic of this statement seemed dubious, but it turned out to be true. When bees are defending their own honey they sting; when they steal they do not. We had chosen wisely.

Then we headed out to the countryside to see the hives in action. Honey frames were pulled out of the wooden hives for inspection. These wooden hives looked exactly like the beehives in the U.S. No sign of clay pots anywhere.

Ahmed paused in his lecture, now four hours long, and I quickly took advantage of the break to tell him about the honey museum in Wisconsin and its “clay” pot exhibit. He looked at me in horror. Clay pots? Yes, they did exist, but he and his cooperative had been scouring the countryside to destroy them. Such pots were difficult to keep clean and therefore good hosts for bad guests.

“But surely there are a few left,” I said with plenty of plead in my tone, telling him about my historical interest.

He half shook his head, but I could see he had taken up the challenge. Off we drove. A full hour passed, followed by a good walk in an orchard alongside terraces. Finally, Ahmed saw some brush and pushed it aside to reveal the pots. I felt I had been “place-warped” right hack to Wisconsin and the honey museum. My joy was shared, although not understood.

After talking bees we finally got around to talking “birds.” With great delicacy Ahmed explained the importance of the queen bee and how vital it was to import new strains. He asked me about queen bees in Wisconsin and I promised to check. We laughed about how I would carry such a creature into Lebanon and how she would manage in an Arabic-speaking environment.

The day had been long, but every minute interesting. Reine would return to CNEWA’s Beirut office with a positive recommendation: CNEWA would contribute half the cost of a honeycomb-maker. And I would continue to savor the irony of the day: Reine, which is French for “queen,” and I had spent the day learning much about the bees and their queen.

Marilyn Raschka is a frequent contributor to these pages.

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