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Abuzz in Lebanon

text and photographs by Marilyn Raschka

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Ahmed Shehadah and his family live in Beit el-Fa’as, a Lebanese Sunni Muslim village far from Beirut and lots farther from anything American. Beit el-Fa’as means “the house of hatching.” And hatching plays a very important role in that town. Everyone there raises bees from the first stage of development, when the queen bee lays her eggs, to the last.

“We tried vegetables, fruit, chickens and cows,” Ahmed says, “but nothing seemed to work.” Then someone came up with the idea of raising bees. Today the area in which this village raises its bees extends over hill and dale. Beekeeping has ended the isolation of Beit el-Fa’as.

Ahmed is a school principal during the week and a beekeeper on weekends. Officially he is the region’s Director of Public Schools and head of the honey-makers’ cooperative. Many beekeepers in Beit el-Fa’as are active in the now seven-year-old cooperative.

Led by Ahmed, the cooperative called on the staff of CNEWA’s Beirut office; these beekeepers wanted to advance their ancient craft. They needed a device that would make beeswax into honeycombs. Their enthusiasm knew no bounds. Would CNEWA listen to their request?

When Reine Mouhasseb Raad, CNEWA’s Projects Coordinator, and I arrived in Beit el-Fa’as on a field visit, Ahmed had his cooperative ready to greet us in their simple headquarters. The 30 or so men sat on chairs that paralleled the walls. Tea was served. Small talk was exchanged.

“What do you want to see?” they asked.

“Everything,” came our reply.

Ahmed took us at our word and our day of tea and honey began.

We learned quickly that even in the best of hives there are problems. We visited a small room where the wax frames from the previous year had been stored. Ahmed showed us how the wax combs had blackened.

He explained that in Europe and the United States the cold of winter ensures that diseases and “critters” harmful to bees are eliminated. In Lebanon, where bee-raising takes place in areas where it rarely freezes, the bees have their enemies. Bacteria infect the cells. Tiny insects eat the wings of the bees, rendering them flightless.

Ahmed has contacted regional and international beekeepers to learn more about the problems of beekeeping and potential remedies.

This “land of milk and honey” has a long and rich tradition of beekeeping. What I knew about the ancient ways of honey-making I had learned, not from my many years in the Middle East, but from a honey museum located 12 miles down the road from my hometown in Wisconsin. One exhibit showed two large clay pots (actually made of papier-mâche) standing in a leafy environment. The text said these pots were still in use in Lebanon.

When I first saw the exhibit I had my doubts about the use of clay pots as hives. In all my years in Lebanon I had never seen anything similar. In fact, in Lebanon, as elsewhere, clay pots functioned almost solely as flower pots. Of course in Lebanon’s various museums there were pots aplenty: archaeological evidence indicates that clay pots were used for cooking and for storing wine, olive oil and grains. At a certain point in the Canaanite period (circa 15th century B.C.), clay pots even served as burial urns.

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Tags: Lebanon CNEWA Village life Sunni