Ten years after entering the bee-rearing business, Khalid Al Suwaidi has finally figured out how to keep Qatar’s heat from thwarting honey production.
Through a combination of strategic placement, nifty pest-control hacks and round-the-clock hydration and monitoring, the 40-year-old Qatari has grown his company into the country’s largest apiary.
Bu Saif Apiaries is based on a sprawling farm in Al Shahaniya, and includes more than 15 other smaller operations around Qatar.
As a child, Al Suwaidi would harvest some 500g of honey per season from hives in his backyard, much to the chagrin of his worried father.
Al Suwaidi has since developed his love of bees into a business, churning out almost 8 tons (8,000 kg) of homegrown sidr honey last year.
Speaking to Doha News, he said:
“I remember the first time I tried to approach a hive. I was about 10 or 12, and we had a dwarf beehive in our garden. I tried to touch it and a bee stung my lip.
It hurt, but the next day I was back again, with swimming goggles over my eyes, and a ghutra wrapped (firmly) around my face,” he said.
Learning a trade
In the following years, Al Suwaidi deepened his understanding of bee-rearing by taking courses on beekeeping in Europe, studying online and testing out methods himself.
“In Europe, it’s a lot easier to raise bees. The weather is great, there are lots of plants and flowers, and the bees produce a lot of honey. Then you come here, and you see no flowers and hot weather and you’re left wondering what to do!” he added.
Al Suwaidi, whose full-time job as the manager of the Al Wakrah Souq takes up most of his days, also works as a contractor and trainer for the Ministry of Environment.
Through Bu Saif Apiaries, he arranges shipments of bees from Egypt for local farms, and trains novice beekeepers in the art of rearing bees in Qatar’s hot, arid climate.
In Qatar, the apian season lasts some seven months, with bees producing up to four types of honey – sidr, samar, lemon, and spring – which are named after the trees from which they are manufactured.
Each variety differs in taste, color, smell and mineral and salt composition, and sidr continues to be the most popular type requested.
Al Suwaidi imports his bees from Egypt rather than Europe, to ensure that the bees have naturally acclimatized themselves to the region’s weather.
They arrive by air in boxes of between 20,000 to 60,000 bees, and are gradually transported to the main Al Shahaniya farm before being transplanted from their traveling boxes into their wooden hives.
Extra care is taken to ensure that the bees do not die of sudden temperature changes as they make their way from the air-conditioned aircraft to the farms, Al Suwaidi said.
This year, some 1,500 boxes were imported to keep up with a growing local demand for honey – a long way from the 50 boxes of bees the entrepreneur first brought in 10 years ago.
The bees are placed under shaded areas in the farms, against the direction of the wind.
Open bottles of cool water, replenished daily, are then placed inside the hives, to ensure that the bees stay adequately hydrated.
The Al Shahaniya farm has over seven varieties of sidr, a medicinal tree revered for its benefits, and whose fruit was the first thing Adam was believed to have eaten when he descended to earth.
Sidr trees are also the source of highly acclaimed Yemeni honey, known for its health benefits and sweet taste.
Once the yellow blossoms have opened up, the season begins. Over the course of the season, barring January, where temperatures drop too low for the bees to operate at peak efficiency, the bees pollinate, fertilize and draw nectar from spring, samar and lemon trees.
In the coming months, Al Suwaidi said he plans to patent a new cooling technology that would ease local beekeeping efforts, though he declined to divulge more details.
Heat aside, Al Suwaidi said that he has had other natural elements to contend with. During a sandstorm, he routinely visits all his farms to turn the boxed hives away from the direction of the wind.
Meanwhile, to protect the bees from ants and worms, he places oil in shallow dishes at the base of the wooden boxes to trap the insects. However, are a certain kind of a bird continues to pose a problem.
“They migrate from Europe to Africa and back every year and pass through the Middle East like it’s their snacking (ground),” Al Suwaidi said.
“They swoop in, eat bees, and then fly back out. We’ve tried numerous things, even firing shots in the air to scare them away, but there’s no real solution. For now, we try to ensure that all of our boxes are under thick shade so that the birds cannot see the bees from high up,” he said.
Once temperatures pass 45C during the hot summer months, Al Suwaidi sets the bees free.
“When it is too hot and the bees cannot produce any more honey, we let them out of the boxes because they know where they can survive better.
And of course they will stick together because they’re a community. Hopefully this helps the bee population in Qatar and the hive can do better outside the box,” he added.
To harvest the honey, Al Suwaidi and his band of five beekeepers first ensure that the liquid has solidified to a usable substance.
“Honey that has a high percentage of water content will spoil and turn sour very quickly. And if there’s too little water, the honey becomes very solid and we cannot extract it. So we have to be careful and make sure that we harvest at just the right time,” he said, adding:
“The international standards for humidity in the honey differ. In Asian countries, where the weather is very damp, honey can have a maximum of 24 percent water. In the Middle East, it’s between 18 to 20 percent.”
The bees are then subdued using fumes from a device called a “smoker,” and transferred into a new box.
About two weeks before the season ends, the beekeepers stop collecting honey.
“Most people don’t know that the bees also need honey to survive, so we try to harvest a little earlier just so that the bees can have time to make more honey for themselves,” Al Suwaidi said.
The honey-heavy frames and hives are then taken to a lab, where a large centrifuge-like machine spins the frames around, causing honey to splatter on the sides of the container.
The honey then collects at the bottom of the device, where three sieves of different sizes are used to filter the honey.
Pure honey, honey with pollen and honey with honeycomb and pollen are all produced from the same batch.
The finished product is made to sit for at least three days to allow for trapped air to escape, and for the honey to settle.
The honey is then tested by the lab and deemed safe for consumption before being bottled and packaged for sale.
Bu Saif also harvests bee pollen, beeswax, bee comb and propolis from its farms in Qatar and others in Oman and Saudi Arabia, though honey remains the chief product.
At this year’s biennial global apiary conference, Apimondia, Bu Saif was awarded an international certificate that now enables them to sell their honey worldwide.
While European honey retails for around QR50 per kilo, Qatari sidr honey costs almost six times more. A kilogram of Bu Saif honey costs QR300, while smaller quantities of 500g and 250g cost QR175 and QR100, respectively.
The price discrepancy, Al Suwaidi said, reflects the scarcity of honey here.
“In Europe, one boxed hive can produce almost 300kg of honey in a season. In Qatar, the weather is hot and dusty, and so one box only produces between 5 to 20kg per season.”
His honey is sold exclusively at the Abu Saif cafe at Souq Waqif, an initiative that he says is the sole “honey-only” cafe in Qatar.
“Everything we make from the beverages to the desserts are only made with honey. Don’t come in and ask for sugar!” he said, jokingly.
Al Suwaidi estimated that he has invested almost QR500,000 in the business this year alone, but added that turning a profit is not his primary objective.
“(This is) my way of giving back to the land and finding a way to make my fellow citizens proud. Who would have thought Qatar could produce honey? This arid desert bringing (forth) such a sweet substance? When we go to conferences and fairs, people cannot believe where the honey has come from. Everyone is surprised, and then they know about Qatar,” he said.