I have been lucky enough to have spent time in Oman last week where I was able to visit some traditional, and modern beekeepers in this beautiful Sultanate.
Inspired from reading ‘Honey and Dust ‘by Piers Moore Ede ( given to me as a birthday gift in November) I decided to make the most of a trip visiting my husband whilst he was working north of Muscat. I always love a bit of winter warmth and sunshine, and cannot resist combining learning more about bees in the process!
Prior to my departure I had been searching all over the internet to find myself a guide or a beekeeping contact and on the day we were flying out, I received a reply from Dr Hassan, based a short distance from where we were staying. Exchanging Whatsapp contact information, we arranged to meet at my hotel, where he’s take me to a village near Rustaq where I could see the traditional Date Palm hives.
Until I’d read Ede’s book, I hadn’t given much thought to Middle Eastern bee keeping, or honey, but since the sensory analysis course I had a new interest in honey, and the book sparked my interest in ancient forms of beekeeping, not to mention curiosity on what forage was available to bees in a desert and how they coped with high temperatures.
I’d also been listening to ‘Oman- Under Arabian Skies’ by Rory Patrick Allen, where he mentioned the beehive tombs at ‘Bat’. I’d ordered a map from my local bookshop before I left and found that Bat wasn’t too far from where I was staying either! ( I since learned that roads and maps aren’t as closely tied as they are here in the UK, what looks like a short drive, can actually be a lengthy desert or mountain track that takes hours or days rather than minutes!)
Allen’s book had primed me for much of the cultural aspects of Oman and as my first visit to an Arabian country I was mindful of not causing too much offence! At 9 am I was in my hotel lobby, covered from head to ankle, and caught Hassan by surprise, despite my saying I’d be wearing a Bee dress, he wasn’t expecting an English woman to cover her hair!
He works with the department of Agriculture and so has a great knowledge of many of the local and National beekeepers. We chatted away during the thirty minute drive towards Rustaq and I learned of his studies in Germany on Queen Embryology, pollen and his clinic where he practices Bee Sting therapy. I could not have had a more perfect guide. We instantly realised that we had similar ways of thinking both about medicine, healing, and most importantly, bees!
What I learned early on is that Omani’s have a deep respect of nature and so any disease or physical threat is treated ‘chemical free’. Varroa, has, like in Europe and America, become a problem for Omani bees yet the government and the beekeepers were working closely together with farmers and each other to report on tried and tested methods, minimising any future problems that may be caused by over use or inappropriate use of drugs and chemicals. Prior to my visit I’d learned about the native bees, Apis Florea, apparently stingless and slightly smaller than our european Apis Melifera, which they also have in Oman.
I also realised that this was not an easy place to drive, despite him having visited these apiaries before, we had to stop a few times to get directions from Abdulla who we eventually picked up on a roadside near the mountain village of Amq.
” I decided to make a careful mental note of the lefts and rights we took and any distinguishing landmarks (an observatory on top of a nearby mountain) and reminded myself that we were all beekeepers, a species separate from the rest of mankind.”
I had taken my new map, and searched online maps but during our drive I learned that these mountain tracks had only recently been tarmacked, road signs were not regular, although in both Arabic and English. (I did learn later in the week that the confusion of place names on maps and signs was increased due to the fact that the English was written phonetically, and so depending on who arranged each sign, the same place was often spelt differently. I could sympathise as I’m sure that any translation I would attempt into Arabic may be just as confusing with a neglect to include a dot or squiggle that would educate or confuse the reader.)
Abdulla climbed into the back of the land cruiser and he directed us off the road, along some mountain tracks. I did have for a moment or two the thought that both my parents and husband could well have concerns as I went into an area, off a map, alone with two men fully dressed in their thobes and dish doshes. I decide to make a careful mental note of the lefts and rights we took and any distinguishing landmarks (an observatory on top of a nearby mountain) and reminded myself that we were all beekeepers, a species separate from the rest of mankind. We finally approached an almost camouflaged settlement of three houses. High walls were flanked with pink and orange bougainvillaea and the tracks were inhabited by an extended family of goats who arose to welcome us.
The Beekeeper we were visiting was ‘out’, but we were invited to take a look in his apiary which was situated high above the road, and astonishingly large! A palm leaf roof covered maybe one hundred hives, piles of date palm trunks, three and four high, laid horizontally, some with a stone disc at the end with small openings and bees could be seen coming in and out.
At 22 degrees, this was a ‘cold’ winter’s day and we weren’t expecting to see much flying. However, close inspection showed many of the tiny Apis Florea bees bringing pollen of white, yellow and orange into their hives. It was beautiful. I knew it probably wasn’t the same apiaries I’d seen on line, but this was as old, and more interesting as it was just me, not an organised coach tour for tourists. There was no time constraints and I could ask and look at whatever I wanted.
“It was a wire cage the size of our Ikea laundry basket at home…”
Further along the cover was a long row of single box Langstroff hives, not all occupied but many with apis melifera bees coming and going, again with pollen heavy on their sacs.
I was shown the water feeders , dishes of fresh water with rocks placed in for the bees to drink from, and a rather shocking HUGE wasp trap. It was a wire cage the size of our Ikea laundry basket at home, with a one way entrance to attract the large red wasps in with a promise of a fish supper. The trap had around a kilo of dead wasps in, just covering the bottom, and I was told that in Summer this cage would be over half filled. Wasps and varroa were the enemies of these mountain bees.
I was curious to know what the bees were feeding on. The landscape looked desolate, grey/ brown slate all around, with tiny low growing clumps of shrubs with small pink flowers, ‘dafra’. Yet this wasn’t the only apiary, the original one in the valley between the farm houses also still had bees. We looked there into a larger more square covered area, perfectly shaded for the bees with three avenues of date palm hives. Only a small fraction of these were occupied but the water tap with it’s steady drip, was a popular stop off and we spotted many bees drinking there. The mineral deposits from this mountain spring water created a beautiful display of colour and calcium deposits. This tap had been dripping for a very long time!
Two men came out to greet us, neither speaking English, The son and maybe grandson of the 95 year old beekeeper currently out. I enjoyed hearing the Omani’s greet each other, a lengthy exchange of goodwill that goes back and forth, overlapping each other and finally petering out once every blessing has been offered and received. We were apparently offered to stay for lunch, as is the custom when anyone visits from a distance.
Dr Hassan declined on our behalf but with a suitable exchange of blessings not to cause offence. I wonder if the inclusion of me would have caused a little complication as traditionally the women eat separately from the men, and this was a place certain to still be living traditionally.
I was also shown small caves along the mountain sides. These were also used as beehives in the summer, to keep bees cool. I wasn’t sure if wild bees inhabited them or if the beekeeper places colonies there with sticks for them to draw comb from, as they do in the logs. I learned that over 300kg of honey comes from these apiaries each year, An astonishing amount looking at the landscape. There was always honey left for the bees too, and any feed would be a careful mix of herbs to nourish and boost their immunity. No chemicals here!
As we left along the twisty narrow track clinging onto the mountains side, we almost collided with a truck coming the other way, no road rage, just another exchange of blessings and greetings as I learned that this was the ancient beekeeper, returning from a trip to the dentist! I would have loved to have photographed him, but his face is etched in my memory, dark skin, not as wrinkled as you’d expect, and he certainly looked spritely and fit, even sitting in the passenger seat of his truck, with a definite twinkle in his eyes!
Apparently he is in good health, although the family are now noticing that his memory isn’t quite what it was. Omani’s follow the global belief that beekeepers are somehow protected from many ills and live long happy lives from working with the bees. More blessings were exchanged and we drove on!
Abdulla was dropped off on our way back and I gave him one of the two small jars of honey I’d brought with me from my own bees. Dr Hassan and I continued to talk more about bees and health until he returned me safely to my hotel, brimming over with excitement and fascination about both the bees and these wonderfully gentle people. he told me all about the caves at Bat, and I was even more curious, if Omani’s have been keeping bees in Date Palms for over 4000 years, why were the tombs in Bat called Beehive tombs? Was this a British name given to the tombs? He couldn’t answer that, and now more than before, I knew I had to visit them for myself, unfortunately not on this trip. I wasn’t able to visit Dr Hassan’s clinic, but am certain to return and learn more about his clinical work and how the Department of Agriculture is working to assist beekeepers and increase the population of bees across Oman. This was a fantastic start to my Spiritual Beekeeping quest, along with learning about Omani Honey, Sidr, Sumer and the elusive frankincense…