Visit With a Mournful Beekeeper

AMMAN—Ziad had already donned his white onesie, its front smeared like a painter’s smock with bits of wax and honey as it rested over his Santa-like paunch. His 17-year-old assistant, Adnan, loaded buckets of sugar water into the bed of a pickup so ancient you could see the road through a hole in the passenger side floor.

The traffic, heavy for a Ramadan morning, moved slowly but steadily. My friend Mika, who invited me on this trip, and I listened while Ziad, whose own children were grown and nearly out of the house, grumbled about Adnan’s incompetence as he coaxed the truck up Zahran Street, one of Amman’s major arteries, before turning south onto the highway leading to the airport. He switched to narrating the history of the lands alongside the highway—who once owned it, why the owner had gotten rid of it, and what a mistake that had been after the airport was built—before launching into a stream of consciousness about the struggles he was facing in life, including with his bees and the hives he kept in a small field off Airport Road.

Bees could go to fewer and fewer sources for nectar and pollen, Ziad explained, keeping his truck plodding along the far side of the highway in what would be the breakdown lane, if those existed in Jordan. Stubborn weed-like plants with yellow flowers popped up sporadically along the highway, and fields of different squash varieties could also make excellent fodder.  In recent years, though, plants such as the yellow-flowered ones were blooming earlier and earlier; they had blossomed in late July rather than September or October. In Ziad’s words, the climate was changing, but he knew not why. He was hauling gallons of sugar water—liquid food—sloshing in the back of the truck precisely because the flowers were now too few and far between for the bees to survive.

We slowed, and Ziad swung right onto a dirt road bisecting fields of harvested wheat. With every rock and bump the truck seemed certain to collapse into a heap of junk metal, but miraculously it did not. Tucked at the start of a hill and behind a row of trees stood about 30 beehives on rickety stands.

Screen Shot 2013-08-13 at 3.53.40 PMZiad’s protective garb masked his face, but sighs betrayed his disappointment when he pried open the first hive. The queen was not laying well, and Mika described how a healthy queen lays brood (eggs) in the middle and honey is stored along the perimeter of the comb. But here, the geometry of brood and honey was more a chaotic patchwork of cells.

Bees2“It is not going to get better,” Ziad predicted. “Now you will see why I am depressed.” He spoke as if to joke, yet his tone conveyed no mirth, and he directed Adnan to pour sugar water into special buckets that hung from the sides of the hives like folders in a filing cabinet. It gurgled and splashed the sides of the hive, and Ziad berated Adnan for his carelessness.

Most of the other hives were much the same as the first—too little activity, a sickly queen, no honey, dying or dead brood or larvae. Only a few hives were healthy enough that Ziad decided not to pour in sugar water.

“I would have 50 of this hive for 500 of those,” he remarked sadly over one of the healthier hives, gazing lovingly at a sheet of honeycomb heavy with brood and honey. He and Adnan finished the rounds as Mika explained to me how beehives operate, a system that seemed to have been perfected to incorporate any possible failures or obstacles.

Still, the thrill of seeing bees and and hives was tempered by the sobering reality of how poorly bees are faring. Bee health is tied closely to agriculture, which in Jordan is hit particularly hard by climate change (Jordan, the fourth most water-scarce country in the world, can expect even less precipitation as temperatures rise). As Ziad himself said, the status quo, including feeding bees sugar water, could not go on forever.

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