What's stopping Yemen's beekeepers from creating a buzz
Climate change’s impact on Yemen grows more visible by the day.
One of the Arab world’s poorest countries is wrestling with desertification and water scarcity, a pair of environmental issues accelerated by global warming.
These problems, in turn, are undermining Yemeni agriculture as the international community continues to warn of the possibility of famine amid the aftermath of the country’s long-running civil war. In Yemen, even one of the lesser-known corners of the food industry is struggling with the climate crisis: beekeeping.
"Climate change’s reverberations among Yemen’s beekeepers threaten livelihoods and the wider economy"
In February, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think tank, issued a report highlighting how global warming is forcing Yemeni beekeepers to confront near and long-term obstacles to their lifestyle.
Mohammed al-Hakimi, the report’s author and a Yemeni environmental journalist, highlighted how “the honey industry in Yemen faces enormous challenges due to climate change, and beekeepers are exposed to persistent threats.”
The report mentioned several environmental issues affecting Yemeni beekeepers, including floods, heat waves, and wider shifts in weather patterns. As climate change makes extreme weather more frequent, Yemen’s beekeepers must adapt to circumstances that they can rarely predict.
Even estimates of the devastation that climate change will inflict tend to vary: a 2021 report from the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement suggested that temperatures in Yemen could rise “1.2-3.3C° by 2060, depending on the rate of climate change.”
Al-Hakimi’s report emphasised how this lack of predictability and an increase in extreme climate events have reshaped the practices of Yemen’s beleaguered beekeepers.
“One of the difficulties facing beekeepers is that when it rains for days, the bees cannot leave the hive or swarm,” said Laila Sinan, a beekeeper interviewed by al-Hakimi. “Thus, we have to start feeding the bees and providing them with water inside the hive. This, of course, harms and tires the bees.”
Climate change’s reverberations among Yemen’s beekeepers threaten livelihoods and the wider economy. The United Nations Development Programme reports that the country’s 1.2 million beehives support 100,000 Yemenis, while the UN High Commissioner for Refugees counts 80 percent of the population as living below the poverty line.
Al-Hakimi cited Ali Mahrez, an official in Yemen’s agriculture ministry, as saying that Yemen has produced $500 million in honey each year but that this number could drop by 30 percent because of war and environmental issues.
Beyond the economic implications of global warming’s effect on Yemeni beekeeping, the climate crisis represents a threat to Yemen’s cultural heritage.
A 2019 study by Mohammed Saeed Khanbash, a biologist at Hadhramout University, traced Yemenis’ cultivation of honey back to the 10th century BC and tied beekeeping to “the prosperity in economic life” of Yemen’s earliest civilisations. Khanbash connected those roots to the development of the contemporary industry.
In the modern day, dangers to Yemen’s beekeepers abound. A 2022 report by the International Committee of the Red Cross noted the ways in which climate change and conflict have compounded the challenges for beekeepers: desertification has decreased the number of flowers available to bees in Yemen, and the shifting front lines in the country’s civil war “prevent beekeepers from moving around the country to graze their bees.”
According to the report, Yemen’s conflict has also resulted in the deaths of “dozens of beekeepers.”
The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, a Yemeni think tank, placed the risk to industry “as ancient as Yemeni civilisation itself” in stark terms in a white paper released last month: “What is certain is that the effects of climate change, and the slim likelihood of future governments investing in the replacement of ruined pastures at the rate and investment needed, will have a lasting impact, with clear implications on people’s livelihoods, but also on Yemen’s ancient craft.”
In light of the Yemeni government’s dependence on foreign aid, any intervention on behalf of Yemen’s beekeepers will likely have to come from the international community.
Several hundred have benefited from the assistance of a project operated by the UN Development Programme, the European Union, and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, while the United States Agency for International Development’s Yemeni arm celebrated having “helped honey farmers and buyers sign more than 50 sales agreements worth $1.5 million” in 2021.
The Sana’a Center’s white paper offers several proposals for strategies that can support Yemeni beekeepers, including “organised and contextual support for beekeeping projects by international organisations and donors, ensuring they build on Yemeni beekeepers’ knowledge and traditions.”
However, the policy centre also acknowledged that any effective long-term plan “requires that relevant authorities step in and safeguard a trade that is as old as time.”
Given that Yemen remains under the control of competing factions, the likelihood of a comprehensive environmental policy for the country’s beekeepers appears low for the time being.
Nonetheless, all Yemenis stand to lose from the slow, conflict- and climate-induced demise of an industry with profound economic and historical significance for their nation.
Austin Bodetti is a writer specialising in the Arab world. His work has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired