Beekeeping for people living in countries under stress: Afghanistan and Iraq 2001
Dr Nicola Bradbear,
Bees for Development Troy, Monmouth, NP25 4AB, UK

Iraq and Afghanistan are both isolated countries where people are living in extremes of poverty.  Afghanistan because of years of war and currently the repressive Taliban regime, and Iraq because of the UN sanctions introduced in 1991.  In both countries beekeeping has traditionally been a well known source of food and income.  Recently-introduced beekeeping methods are giving problems because of honeybee diseases and lack of access to equipment and technical know how.  Assistance to beekeepers has been initiated and funded by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, FAO, and the UK Department for International Development (DFID).

Apiculture in Iraq
The indigenous honeybee is Apis mellifera syriaca.  The bees commonly kept by beekeepers in frame hives have been introduced from Egypt, Italy, Jordan, the UK and elsewhere, and represent stock of mixed race:  they range in size and colour, and do not collect much propolis.  All bees seemed fairly gentle to work with and not highly defensive.  In northern Iraq some of the traditional hives contain dark bees that use much propolis around the entrance to their nests:  these may be indigenous bees. 

A species reported to be Apis florea has been reported in eastern Iraq although it is not known whether this species has naturally increased its distribution westwards from Asia, or this represents an introduction by man, as has happened in Sudan. 

Iraq has in the past supported good levels of beekeeping and must therefore have had adequate resources of bees and plants.  Many of the major food crops grown in Iraq provide useful pollen and/or nectar forage for bees.  These include dates, maize, coffee, pulses, oil seeds, fruits, vegetables and spices. 

Beekeepers in northern Iraq (Mosul) believe that beekeeping has become harder during the years of UN sanctions because of the change in agriculture that has taken place: much monoculture agriculture has replaced mixed farming. 

Traditional beekeeping
This term covers the use of traditional techniques of harvesting honey and beeswax from bees, using various traditional styles of hives and other equipment.  At Kirkuk the author observed traditional basket hives woven from willow, and kept inside a building during the winter.  Hives at Sinjar (west of Mosul) were made from clay and permanently housed inside clay bee houses, with their entrances opening to the outside.  This arrangement makes beekeeping very convenient for the beekeeper, protects the bees from winter cold and summer heat, and is almost without cost. 

In the 1970s it was said that ‘Every Iraqi farmer is a beekeeper’.  There were an estimated 500 000 traditional hives.   There is no information about the extent to which traditional methods of beekeeping are used within present day Iraq.  Although honey yields from traditional hives are lower, the low cost of traditional beekeeping can make these methods, on a small scale, more economical than frame hive beekeeping. 

Frame hive beekeeping
Frame hive beekeeping is used in and around Baghdad and by all members of the Iraqi Beekeepers’ Association.  During the 1970s and 1980s beekeepers practising frame hive beekeeping depended on the importation of equipment, and bees were also imported.  This ended following the introduction of UN sanctions.  It is now possible to buy locally-made frame hives, smokers and hive tools.  The one fundamental item that cannot be made in Iraq is beeswax foundation - the embossed, beeswax sheet which bees use as a ‘foundation’ from which to build their comb.  Embossed rollers or presses are not available in Iraq.  The lack of clean foundation has had serious implications for the build up of diseases within colonies. 

Modern low-technology beekeeping
There have been few attempts to introduce alternative styles of low-technology hive that might prove economical while resources remain scarce.  The necessary technical information is not available. 

By 1985-1987 the parasitic mite Varroa jacobsoni had had severe impact:  90% of honeybee colonies were lost.  Traditional beekeepers gave up. During the Gulf war in 1990 frame hives were destroyed, and colonies plundered.  The number of frame hives fell to less than 500.  In 1991 UN sanctions were introduced.  By 1992 beekeepers were endeavouring to redevelop their beekeeping.  Apistan was initially available and effective against Varroa jacobsoni.  7 000 frame hives were made locally and colonies re-established; by 1994 there were an estimated 30 000 colonies of honeybees in frame hives. 

Impact of UN sanctions
Lack of technical information
Lack of technical information is a serious constraint for beekeepers in Iraq.  Understanding of the science of Varroa jacobsoni is moving rapidly, but UN sanctions have meant that Iraqi beekeepers have been isolated from new findings.

Lack of foundation
The nature of frame hive beekeeping means that the beeswax comb is recycled: bees are able to put their effort into honey production rather than rebuilding their wax comb each year. Normal beekeeping practice is to replace some of the brood combs every year such that none become too old or dirty. The lack of foundation has meant that beekeepers in Iraq have continuously reused the same combs. This inevitably leads to a build up of old contaminated combs. It is very likely that it is this poor sanitation that has lead to the current ‘disease crisis’. One type of foundation is made locally, but this is made with a mixture of beeswax and paraffin wax. The foundation is not successful in various ways.

Lack of medicines for bees
The sanctions have also made it impossible for beekeepers to obtain the medication needed, particularly to control Varroa jacobsoniDuring the period of the Gulf war honeybee colony numbers were reduced to 15% of their former levels. Following the war it proved impossible to restore beekeeping to its previous level for two reasons:

  • extreme shortages of equipment and materials the severe disease situation within honeybee colonies
  • the loss of honeybee populations has consequences for the two main income-generating functions of honeybees in Iraq: crop pollination and honey production.

The FAO Project
This Project arose as a result of the Iraq Beekeepers’ Association approach to FAO expressing their concern about the large-scale death of honeybee colonies.  It was concluded that to return honeybee populations in Iraq to good health beekeepers needed medication to combat the diseases, equipment to allow improved sanitation within hives, and technical information on how to administer medication effectively and in combination with other disease prevention measures.  In consequence a project was agreed.  In Phase One (starting in 1997-1998) medicines, equipment and technical information were provided.  FAO is now implementing the second stage of the emergency aid.  The objective is to teach beekeepers more about bee diseases and to establish a diagnostic laboratory in Baghdad. 

Apiculture in Afghanistan
Honeybee species indigenous to Afghanistan include Apis cerana and Apis dorsata.  Apis florea, has been recorded previously, but perhaps needs re-identification.  Apis mellifera, the European honeybee, has been imported to Afghanistan from Pakistan:  the origin of the Pakistan stock is unknown.

Colonies of Apis mellifera seen by the author in Afghanistan were small, weak, docile and easy to handle.  20 kg of honey per Apis mellifera colony per year (not involving migratory beekeeping) is regarded as a good yield

In Pakistan and northern India (Haryana, Punjab) beekeeping with European honeybees Apis mellifera, is practised on a large-scale.  In these areas where beekeeping was not practised previously, Apis mellifera is proving successful.  These are dry plains with large-scale, irrigated agriculture: monocultures of sunflower and Brassica provide excellent forage sources for bees.  Beekeepers practise migratory beekeeping, moving stocks to new areas as plants come into flower.  In areas bordering the Hindu Kush Himalayas the diversity in habitats means that flowering plants are available throughout the year.  This is an exceptionally good region for beekeeping and harvests well above 30 kg per colony per year will be generated.  Migratory beekeeping requires transport, roads, skilled staff, and equipment suitable for continuous movement of bee colonies. 

With suitable management methods Apis mellifera delivers higher yields of honey and beeswax than Apis cerana.  The input costs will also be greater.  This is because Apis mellifera is an exotic species from a temperate climate, and requires more resources (time, treatment against endemic diseases and predators).  It is already well known from other countries in Asia that beekeeping with Apis mellifera can be more economical than with Apis cerana when practised on a large-scale.  If the aim of a project is to assist landless or the poorest of farmers, the promotion of Apis mellifera may be inappropriate. 

There is an urgent need for technical assistance.  Beekeepers will face increasing problems from American foulbrood that has been introduced with bees brought from Pakistan.  Afghan beekeepers are largely unaware of this disease, its recognition and control, and this will cause further spread of the disease.  Because the beekeeping methods and technology are brought from Pakistan, there remains dependence on Pakistan for the provision of materials, in particular the beeswax sheets (foundation) needed for beekeeping in frame hives.  There has been little fresh initiative to promote beekeeping that is self-sustaining and appropriate for the rural poor.  Technical support for beekeeping is essential in view of the various NGO’s now proposing beekeeping interventions. 

A three-day training course was organised in Jalalabad in 1998 to meet with beekeepers and learn about their situation.  This was attended by 26 people (all males).  These were commercial beekeepers and NGO staff, of varying levels of apicultural experience. 

Afghan beekeepers, perhaps around 400 people (men), using frame hives spend much of the year moving their bees between crops in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  These people are generating significant income because of the abundant forage available to bees, and perhaps also by exploiting differentials in prices for honey, beeswax, sugar, equipment or bees between the two countries. 

Afghan people’s current isolation is likely to mean that indigenous species are being exploited and are significant food producers in some areas. 

Traditional hives and wall hives might give a yield of around 8 kg of honey per year.  These yields are low relative to those potentially obtainable from frame hives.  However many poor beekeepers often harvest only similar amounts of honey from their frame hives as they could have harvested from log or wall hives.  A beekeeper could have many traditional hives for the cost of one box hive with frames.  However, when projects provide boxes free of charge, such economic considerations are often missed. 

A beekeeper with 5 colonies of Apis cerana who puts minimal effort into beekeeping should expect 8 kg of honey per colony, i.e. 40 kg yielding a total minimum value equivalent to 160 $US.  Initial start up costs would depend upon the type of hives used and whether they are home-made.  Assuming no hives are obtained free, box hives might cost about 100 $US.  Annual recurrent costs would be low.

DFID agreed to fund FAO’s proposal to organise a two-week training course for Afghans, to be held in Islamabad in July 1999. 

The Course was held at the Honeybee Research and Training Institute, NARC Islamabad.  Training was provided by two international and two national (Pakistani) Consultants, and attended by 32 Afghan beekeepers, NGO and UN agency staff, including eight women.  The information provided was focussed towards alleviating the problems earlier identified and aiming to make the Afghan industry self-sustaining and more economical and worthwhile. 

The Course for Afghans was held in Pakistan rather than Afghanistan for the following reasons:

  • The possibility for Afghan women to participate in the Course (this would have been impossible within Afghanistan)
  • The facilities for practical beekeeping demonstrations available at NARC in Islamabad are not available within Afghanistan

The training was planned to place particular emphasis on encouraging forms of beekeeping that can allow Afghans to have a self-sustaining industry.  This includes the use of simple equipment and indigenous species of honeybees to realise more income from low cost, disease-free beekeeping. According to the 1998 findings it was important to provide training on disease identification and control, beeswax production, harvest and recycling, and simple methods of foundation manufacture, and to teach ways to generate more income by diversifying products and making secondary products.

A longer term project has been proposed to provide technical staff with responsibility for apiculture, to establish demonstration apiaries in farmers’ fields, train and support farmer-trainers, provide extension materials in local languages, and technical support.  It is appreciated that at this time any endeavour to provide technical support for agricultural interventions in Afghanistan is fraught with difficulty.  The activities described in the proposal are modest but to achieve significant effect, their continuation must be assured for several years.  For this reason a realistic programme has been planned that will take five years to implement and run effectively.  In this way it is hoped that people throughout Afghanistan will have opportunity to experience beekeeping as a simple income source that fits well with their other activities.  Funding is still being sought for this proposal. 

All the information presented in this report was gained from meetings with beekeepers and scientists, and UN and NGO personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq, and from field observations.  It has been a great privilege to work with these people, visit the homes of beekeepers, and travel in their countries. 


  • Bradbear, N (1996) Zooming in on Iraq. Beekeeping & Development 39: 8
  • Bradbear,N (1999) Generating income from beekeeping in Afghanistan:  a guide for beekeepers, farmers and extension workers.
    FAO Field Document 2, Rome, Italy In Dari  and English
  • Glaiim,M K (1992) First record of Apis florea in Iraq. Beekeeping & Development 24: 3