This year has been a challenging one for beekeeping and honey production in Egypt.
The country moved back a little from its long-held number-one producer place for honey across the Arab world to come in at number two after Algeria managed to take the top position that had been Egypt’s for five consecutive decades.
However, Egypt is still a top exporter, and it also ranks high in world production, coming in third with around two million hives after China with seven million hives and Turkey with four million.
The slide in the ranking this year was thus not particularly significant, and it could be easily bypassed, said Fathi Al-Beheiri, chair of the Union of Arab Beekeepers, an organisation established in 1994.
According to Al-Beheiri, Egypt’s top exporting edge in the business relates to exporting bees rather than honey, however.
“Seventy per cent of our exports are bees, but we do have an impressive record of honey exports too,” he said. “We have been working on diversifying and improving our production to stick to our well-deserved top ranking in the Arab region, where countries like Syria and Algeria have been making headway with their production,” he added.
A top priority for the business, Al-Beheiri said, was to help beekeepers acquire the newest techniques that help maximise the quantity and quality of their production. “For us in Egypt, quality is a clear issue because we have a traditional trademark for our good quality honey and the good stock of our bees,” he said.
Egyptians have been beekeeping and making honey since Pharaonic times. They gave honey to the deities and used it for its antibacterial properties to treat wounds. Drawings depicting beekeeping and honey-making in Egypt date back over 2,500 years.
The native Egyptian honeybee is small in size and coloured yellow. Black and yellow lines decorate the abdomens of workers, drones, and the queen.
Over the past five decades, however, a new kind of hibernating bee has been introduced into Egypt. “We opted for hibernation as part of a new line of honey production. By the late 1970s, our production had picked up really well,” Al-Beheiri said.
He added that along with hibernation, the business had also seen the introduction of new flowers used in honey-making. Egyptian beekeepers have traditionally used citrus, clover and aniseed.
During the past 10 to 15 years, however, the range has doubled or even tripled depending on keepers to include sunflowers, sesame, bananas and other flowers.
Mahmoud Younis, one of the old hands in the business, said that during his over 40 years of practice the essence of beekeeping and the production of honey had been the same, but the techniques and production had diversified quite a bit.
“One thing that has changed is the trend that many beekeepers have adopted over the past decade or so where we take hives from Lower to Upper Egypt for different flowers,” Younis said.
“We have also developed new trends in inspecting the gardens that we rent for the bees to make sure that they are on the organic side because this is crucial to the quality of the honey and the royal jelly produced.”
There have also been new techniques in winter-storage and the expansion of honey derivatives. “Packaging has come a long way, too,” he added. These updates have been helpful in keeping the business going and keeping Egypt a top-exporting country for honey.
Some 30 beekeepers and producers took part in the annual conference of Arab beekeepers that convened in Erbil in Iraq in early October this year.
Another 50 keepers and producers took part in the first Egyptian Honey Festival that convened later in October in Cairo, with Younis seeing a considerable upgrade in the business.
Both in Erbil and in Cairo, beekeepers and producers had managed to sign deals for exports to Arab states that were participating in both events not just for the honey but also for its derivatives.
“The Egyptian business is making considerable headway in the production of derivatives that are getting more attention in the local and Arab markets,” said Mohamed Raslan, another producer.
But there is more to be done in terms of helping beekeepers to maximise their production of honey and to increase their production of its derivatives and expand the destination of their exports, he said.
Al-Beheiri said that this was something his organisation was working on with the concerned government bodies.
The first step, he said, was to make “a comprehensive list of beekeepers, especially those that work on a large scale.
“We have thousands and thousands of beekeepers, and some have been confined to the old ways. These remain essential and effective, but still there are a few practices that could be of use to improve and increase the quality of the products, not just when it comes to honey and its derivatives, but also when it comes to the bees,” he said.
A second step, Al-Beheiri added, was to provide opportunities for small and medium-sized honey enterprises to expand by providing financial packages that could help producers scale up.
A third step, he said, was to help businesses gain higher exposure to help them with the promotion of their products and give them opportunities to share best practices. “However, we have to take the entire business one step up by thinking more of the manufacturing side,” Al-Beheiri said.
He has two main objectives. The first is to upgrade the work of the Bees Research Centre, an associate of the Ministry of Culture, to secure the production of better-quality bees. The second is to include honey derivatives in more pharmaceuticals in keeping with new trends in pharmaceuticals production.
“What we should start with is to use these derivatives in expanding our skin-care and anti-ageing products,” argued Warda Fathi, owner of an emerging line of honey-based beauty products.
Fathi has a small bee-keeping centre in Arish that she dedicates to her beauty products business. She started this after getting a BSc in agrarian sciences over 10 years ago. Today, as she is coming close to finishing a PhD on the healing effects of honey derivatives, she has expanded her business and is selling her face and body creams online.
COSMETICS FROM BEES
Fathi’s “Warda” (rose) cosmetics are made of mixes of all-natural products. Often enough, they include royal jelly or pollen and olive oil.
Fathi is confident that there is a big market for her products, if only to judge from the online sales that she has managed despite her remote business-base in Arish.
Most of her clients are second and third-timers. The fact that a client comes back for more, she argued, is perhaps the best indication of the potential of her products.
“I still need to upgrade the packaging and to finalise the paperwork, but once this is done these natural products could well have an excellent market, not just on the local market but also in export venues,” Fathi said.
Upgrading exports is an objective that other leading beekeepers and honey-producers are eyeing for next year. “I think by 2020 we could catch up with production and increase exports,” Al-Beheiri said.
He added that in 2020 he is hoping that Egypt will be able to gain more exports to European countries.
“For this to happen, we need an accurate and permanently updated database of the history of the keepers and the bees and also of the details of the production and the packaging, because this is the way to meet the regulations for exports to European Union member states. This is where we will also have to depend on the government,” he said.
Asia and Africa are also destinations that Egyptian beekeepers are eyeing, if not for next year then for the following year.
According to Christine Medhat, organiser of this year’s Honey Festival, the strategy for the business for the next few years also has a significant local component.
“We want to raise awareness of the many ways of consuming honey, as a healthier alternative to sugar or an alternative to manufactured sweeteners,” she said.
“We want to make honey a staple for every Egyptian family, and for this to happen the producers have been playing with the final product by making jars of mixed honey and dried fruits or dried nuts to lure in diverse age-taste brackets,” she added.
“So, we are not just targeting to work for our top position in the region as a producer and exporter of both bees and honey and derivatives, but we are also working to upscale the profile of our production,” Medhat concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.