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Beekeeping In Pakistan Rattled By The Coronavirus

FILE: A man rests under a mosquito net to avoid bees at a honey collection point on the outskirts of Peshawar in May 2017.
FILE: A man rests under a mosquito net to avoid bees at a honey collection point on the outskirts of Peshawar in May 2017.

YAKA GHUND, Pakistan -- A lockdown prompted by the coronavirus pandemic has destroyed most of this year’s honey crop in Pakistan while hitting beekeepers and traders with millions of dollars in losses.

Azamt Ali, an elderly beekeeper in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, says he is devastated. He invested hundreds of dollars in moving his colony of more than 100 honeybee boxes from Karak, an arid district in the southern part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, to Mohmand district, some 200 kilometers away in the north, so his bees could make honey from the peach flowers.

But soon after he arrived in the region in the middle of March, the government imposed a lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. “I was unable to move my bees, feed them properly, or do anything to protect them from pests,” he told Radio Mashaal.

The beekeeper association in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa says its members have lost hundreds of bee colonies, which will result in the region losing more than 60 percent of its honey crop this year.

“Our losses run into tens of millions of dollars,” Naeem Qasimi, the leader of the association, told Radio Mashaal. “Many beekeepers lost all their colonies. Some were unable to collect honey while others remained trapped in remote regions during the flowering season [because of the coronavirus lockdown].”

This year’s devastation follows years of climate change and deforestation that had already strained Pakistan’s beekeeping industry, most of which is concentrated in the mountainous Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, which abuts Afghanistan. The region’s alpine pine forests, sidr, and acacia trees in the plains, abundant fruit orchards, and various corps such as mustard offered yearround opportunities for bees to produce honey from a variety of flowers.

Gul Bacha, another leader of the beekeeper association, says beekeeping represents a livelihood for tens of thousands of farmers who are now faced with losing more than half of their crops. Last year, Pakistan’s agriculture minister said the country produces more than 12,000 tons of honey annually. A large part is exported, which creates jobs for traders and exporters.

Nooroz Khan, the head of the honey exporter association in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, says the coronavirus pandemic has wrecked the entire industry. Khan says the province exported more than 7,000 tons of honey mostly to the Middle Eastern countries where the region’s beri honey, extracted from organic sidr tree flowers, is popular.

“Most traders purchased crops in anticipation of exporting, but the lockdown prevented them from doing so,” he said. “Similarly, many beekeepers saw their colonies affected because they were unable to move or remained trapped in the provinces of Punjab, Sindh, and [parts of Pakistan-administered] Kashmir.”

Muhammad Younas Khan, a senior researcher at the Agricultural Research Institute in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, says beekeeping used to provide a sustainable livelihood with an investment of a few hundred dollars and a few skills to look after the colonies.

He told Radio Mashaal that modern beekeeping in Pakistan emerged from an Australian project that donated 1,000 bee boxes among Afghan refugees in the early 1980s. From there the industry charted its own path, providing livelihood to many.

Jamil Afridi, a beekeeper in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Khyber district, says beekeeping has provided him with a steady livelihood since 1985. With some 200 boxes, he typically employees up to three people to help move and manage his colonies.

But after 35 years in the industry, he has no idea what awaits him once the pandemic is over.