Reflections on a consulting trip to Egypt: From the pages of THE SPEEDY BEE, May 1992
“Oh ship me east of Suez where the best is like the worst; where there ain’t no ten commandments and a man can raise a thirst” Rudyard Kipling
Stars filled the desert night and a rising crescent moon marked the beginning of Islam’s holy month of Ramadan. We were east of Suez, departing El Quahira (Cairo), Egypt, in late afternoon, negotiating the tunnel under the Suez canal that separates Africa and Asia just at dusk. Half way down the Gulf of Suez, north of El Tur, the tire burst like a ripe melon, a victim of intense heat generated by a sticking set of brake shoes. As a mid-February cold wind chilled us to the bone, I mused on Kipling’s words, while the driver changed the two huge bus tires with help of a passenger, and punctuated by a stream of colorful Arabic epithets.
Later we would wait some more in El Tur proper while the bus was given a once over by the mechanic on duty. Finally, we limped into Sharm al Sheik at the very tip of the Sinai peninsula at 2 a.m., four hours late, to find our reservations canceled and the hotel full. I thought about Kipling’s quote again, two days later, as our Bedouin cab driver guided us deep into Sinai’s desert to visit St. Katherine’s Monastery. Here is the reputed site of the “burning bush:” And, also here at the base of the several thousand steps ascending Mt. Sinai, it is said the Ten Commandments were written, ironically repudiating Mr. Kipling’s statement. As we topped a rise and saw the monastery in the distance, I was reminded of “the best is like the worst.” A line of buses materialized out of the haze, actively disgorging waves of European, American and Japanese tourists. At the same time, an equally avid mob of men and camels descended on the arriving, multitude. For three hours, between the whir of camcorders and cries of “camel ride cheap,” the quiet monastery dedicated to peace and study became a madhouse. Welcome to Egypt, I said to myself.
The Real Egypt
Of course, this wasn’t the real Egypt, or was it? I was to ask myself that question many times during my stay in the Arab republic. The mother of Egypt is the northern reaches of the world’s longest river, the Nile. Thus, in order to see Egypt, one must travel along this watercourse as it invades the world’s largest desert, carving out a long, fertile, fragile oasis, finally capping itself with a mushroom shaped delta. Two main branches of the mighty river, the Damietta and the Rosetta, then feed fresh water into the Mediterranean Sea.
I had come to Egypt on assignment for Volunteers for Overseas Cooperative Assistance to look at beekeeping in this ancient land. In the weeks to come, I followed some of the Nile’s tributaries in search of questions and answers that would help me understand modern Egyptian culture and its beekeeping.
At first glance, it seems the highest folly to try to give advice on culturing an insect in a land where the activity probably originated. Apiculture was so advanced in ancient Egypt that migratory beekeeping was practiced. Honey bee colonies were barged up and down the Nile in search of nectar flows, much in the same way modern beekeepers do in the U.S. using 18 wheelers. On reflection, however, it is clear that the beekeeping of the ancients, like the human population of that time, is extinct.
The traditional Egyptian honey bee (Apis mellifera lamarckii) has been almost totally replaced by European immigrants, principally the Carniolan race (Apis mellifera carnica), the gray bee of Yugoslavia. And along with it came techniques many use in Europe today to manage that bee. In answer to my questions concerning the fate of the lamarckii race of bees, I always heard the same refrain. The bees were more defensive than carnica and not as productive. Ironically some modern carnica colonies now produce less honey than the average reported for lamarckii.
Some residual beekeeping using the traditional clay pots continues in Egypt, but only as a curiosity. I saw one printed reference to this kind of beekeeping; the pots were really clay logs three feet long and five inches in diameter, often stacked in pyramids. In a manner similar to European skep technology, the bees were induced to swarm to populate other clay logs. Rather than destroying the logs, the honey was removed, comb and all ,by special iron tools from each end of the clay log, letting the colony reconstruct its outside combs again. This also minimized the amount of brood taken.
Is there a future for the small, yellow, defensive lamarckii honey bee in Egypt? At one time, the answer would have been a categorical no. However, the introduction of Varroa destructor, the Varroa bee mite, might change this notion. Is it possible that lamarckii populations, like their African cousins in the New World, harbor some innate resistance to Varroa? Only time will tell. But if there is to be a concerted research effort along these lines it will have to be backed up with money and commitment, commodities not easy to come by in any part of the modem world, overcome by a wide range of competing urgencies.
Over millennia, Egypt has seen many invasions. Subsequent to the pharonic era, Romans occupied the country, then the Moslems. The Turks followed and finally the Europeans. The French under Napoleon were responsible for initiating a modern invasion of scientific knowledge. When Nelson destroyed the French fleet at Abukir just east of Alexandria, the Egyptians got a taste of British hegemony. It was during the European era that invasion by the Carniolan bee occurred. In retrospect, the insect’s path may have paralleled some of my journey, skirting the Adriatic, crossing Greece and landing at Cairo.
This was my first acquaintance with a futuristic technology called virtual reality. The Lufthansa aircraft was equipped with a television monitor that showed the plane as it moved over a map of the earth. The scale changed periodically to show major cities. At the same time, the monitor provided readouts of air speed, ground speed, altitude, and outside air temperature.
The Carniolan honey bee came to Egypt equipped with its own technology, the moveable-frame hive. Ironically, this was developed in the United States for an insect introduced from Europe. The hive was then introduced to Europe, finally making its way to Africa. That the moveable-frame hive came from the U.S. is in contention in many European countries, who have their own pioneers in honey bee management.
Along with the movable-frame hive, however, also came the European tradition of managing the brood nest frame by frame. The concept of adding supers on top of the brood nest was not emphasized. And so generations of Egyptian beekeepers have been removing brood chamber frames one by one as they become filled with honey and replacing them with empties. Because labor is a cheap commodity, this practice was effective. However, it raised howls of indignation by the latest wave of invaders, U.S. volunteer beekeepers and scientists, who see this as disruptive and inefficient. The reasons for supering honey bees seem obvious to those who have done it for decades. The practice (a) stimulates nectar storage, (b) minimizes brood nest disruption during nectar flows, (c) reduces swanning, and (d) provides more room for queens to lay eggs.
After being visited by Western beekeepers and then traveling to the U.S. to see apiculture American style, Egyptian beekeepers are adopting this technology. The conversion is perceived as a slow process, but it is also important to remember that traditional agriculturalists are not about to abandon practices that have worked for generations. Experience in agriculture quickly teaches that change can bring disaster from unknown quarters.
There is one final reason for using supers in Egypt or anywhere else for that matter. This is the result of another invasion, that of Varroa destructor. The use of Apistan® now being adopted worldwide for Varroa control means that a pesticide is for the first time being used inside the honey bee brood nest. Although possible contamination of honey is remote using this product, the fact that the sweet is extracted from the brood nest increases the possibility of contamination. Ensuring that the bees store honey only in the supers physically removes the product from the area where the pesticide is most prevalent. Minimizing the risk of contaminating the honey crop is no small price to pay even if the practice of supering is less efficient.
A Volunteer’s View Of Beekeeping in Egypt
Perhaps the first thing one reads when studying the history of apiculture is that a very early seat of beekeeping was ancient Egypt. In fact, the honey bee was presumably named after the god Apis who in that era took the shape of a bull. So it was with great expectation that I accepted a 1992 assignment offered by Volunteers in Overseas Cooperative Assistance to provide some consultation to Egyptian beekeepers.
The Egyptians are well aware of their contributions to beekeeping. The Nile river is considered the mother of Egypt. The country is composed of a narrow valley that widens into a large delta before emptying in the Mediterranean Sea. These fragile, fertile regions lining the river intrude into the inhospitable sands of one of the largest deserts in the world.
The honey bee was kept during the time of the pharaohs, at least 5,000 years ago. Honey was considered a delicacy by the nobles and kings, and beeswax was used in the embalming process for which the era is so famous. Migratory beekeeping began during this period as hives (in mud pots) were put on boats or rafts which sailed up and down the Nile following the honey flows, much as beekeepers in the United States do with 18-wheelers today.
The modern beekeeping era in Egypt began in the 1880s, when the first moveable-frame hives appeared. In 1912, the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) established an apiary near Cairo with modern equipment, trained extension agents and provided hives and bees free of charge to the population. Several European races of bees (principally Italian and Carniolan) were imported to improve the characteristics of the native honey bee (Apis mellifera larnarckii) which has a reputation for defensiveness. By 1923, two beekeeping associations were formed and a journal called The Bee Kingdom was published.
In the 1960s, importation of queens was prohibited to prevent introduction of bee disease. To date, Egypt does not have American foulbrood. Also during the period, two relatively isolated regions near the Mediterranean, Damietta and Manzala, became the principal queen breeding areas, producing Carniolans almost exclusively. As modern beekeeping increased, so there was a decline in traditional fixed comb beekeeping. From the 1940s to the 1980s, honey and wax production dropped in mud hives from 2100 and 246 tons respectively to 1200 and 129 tons. In the same period, modem hive production increased from 4500 to 6400 tons of honey and 18 to 26 tons of wax. The number of fixed comb hives was 511,000 in 1952, dropping to 180,000 in 1989. During that time managed .colonies went from 1600 to 1,200,000. That year also marked the official introduction of the Varroa bee mite, responsible for a significant reduction in managed colonies since that time.
In order to understand Egypt’s beekeeping, one must first know the country’s characteristics. It is the most populous nation in the Arab world and takes second place on the African continent in that category. Although larger than Texas and New Mexico combined, 99 percent of Egypt’s 45 million persons are crowded in the Nile valley and the delta. These regions are some of most densely populated in the world, averaging 3,600 per square mile. Urbanization has taken some pressure off agricultural land, but caused other problems, especially urban blight and unemployment. Some 16 million souls (an exact count is impossible) are found in the capital, Cairo; and Alexandria, the principal port, has almost three million. The press of humanity in this country is apparent to even the most casual visitor. More disturbing than constant jostling to a visitor, however, may be the knowledge that Egypt continues to grow at a 2.6 percent growth rate (doubling in 27 years) and 65 percent of its population is under 20 years of age.
Egypt’s population is supported by agriculture on some 6 million acres of arable land, the legacy of thousands of years of flooding by the Nile. The sometimes disastrous floods came to an end with construction of the Aswan dam in upper Egypt, near the Sudanese border. In addition to electricity generation, the reservoir created (Lake Nasser) allows water to be fed to the valley and delta agricultural lands during drought. However, this also means that replenishing of the soil by the river’s flooding has been reduced to nil and the influx of fresh water into the Mediterranean has been greatly diminished.
Egypt has long been known for its high quality long-fibered cotton, which continues to be the number one agricultural product. Rice, onions, beans, citrus, wheat, corn, barley and sugar are also major crops, as are various forms of livestock, including cattle, sheep, goats, horses, donkeys and two local staples, water buffalo and camels. Noticeably missing are numbers of pigs. Islamic law prohibits eating pork. There is great commerce in agriculture and the local markets are filled with all manner of meats, fish, seeds, fruits and vegetables. Land reform in the 1950s has returned much of Egypt’s land to small-scale owners which means many now own their own land and agriculture is in the hands of many adept entrepreneurs. However, these small-sized holdings often sacrifice efficiency although labor is cheap.
Beekeeping in Egypt
That brings us to beekeeping which produces good cash crops with strong honey demand locally at fairly high prices by Egyptian standards. Honey sells for US$1.30/lb and royal jelly for US$200.00/lb. This means that keeping bees can be very attractive; as a consequence, there are a lot of beekeepers. One glance at the intensive agriculture in Egypt reveals that there isn’t much that bees can forage on. In contrast to North America, there are no wild nectar producing plants of any consequence. The two major bee plants on the Nile delta, where most of the agriculture takes place, are clover (berseem) and cotton. Citrus is a third plant of some importance.
Like the human population, there is a greater Egyptian honey bee population than the land can handle. Apiaries of 100 to 200 colonies are common, many only a few miles apart. The Egyptian beekeeper is also managing marginal colonies. Labor is cheap and not as important an issue as it is in the United States, but no amount of labor can make up for the intense competition among a large number of weak colonies. On top of this, pesticides routinely devastate foraging populations of bees.
As previously noted, arrival of Varroa in 1989 dealt a great blow to Egyptian beekeepers. Like so many other areas in the world, beekeepers there were unable to react quickly enough to prevent large colony loss. Now information is beginning to trickle down that technologies are available to control Varroa populations. Apistan® was first discouraged by extension agents here, but is now becoming more acceptable. It was at first thought that the product was radioactive and a carcinogen. Some persons also recommended natural products such as herbs or ground up eucalyptus leaves in smokers or organic (both formic and lactic) acid fumigation. None of these is either as effective or benign to bees and humans as is fluvalinate, formulated into Apistan® plastic strips. The product is now becoming a routine control measure.
Apistan® is very expensive in Egypt; twice to three times what it costs in the U.S. As a consequence there is much experimentation with various other chemicals and Apistan® strips are often seen cut into pieces to treat colonies. Unfortunately, this probably will hasten resistance by Varroa. It was also erroneously thought that Varroa could be eradicated using chemicals. Similar to all other parts of the world where the mite has been introduced, however, there is little doubt that Egyptian beekeepers are going to have to live with this mite as a permanent part of their beekeeping. Ironically, at least in the short term, reduction of colony numbers by Varroa increases the potential honey-producing capacity of the hives that remain.
Unfortunately, the strong interest in finding a control for Varroa (the topic has taken precedence in most seminars or village meetings I have attended) detracts from beekeepers putting energy into solving other fundamental problems of Egyptian beekeeping. They can be easily listed and are not really much different than those found in the rest of the world:
1. There are too many colonies for the available vegetation to support. A recommendation made by most familiar with Egyptian beekeeping is to reduce the number of colonies in apiaries to no more than 50 colonies (see the post script for a surprising conclusion). Average yield has continually fallen from 35 pounds per colony in 1973 to 9 pounds in 1988. Concurrent with increase in colony numbers has been a reduction in marginal nectar plants (weeds like vetch and wild mustard) on peripheral lands. Many think the general erosion of environmental quality (land and water pollution) also contributes to a reduction in nectar secreting potential by all plants.
2. Beekeepers are preoccupied with managing numbers of colonies. Many hives are weak in population, producing less than 10 lbs. per year. It is usually recommended that beekeepers begin managing fewer stronger colonies which are more efficient in honey yield per bee. In addition, populations appear to be marginal for successful wintering. Although queens seem to be “honeybound” (honey has been put in the brood nest reducing the number of cells for brood rearing), it is not clear that populations do not winter well. Carniolan bees can adjust egg laying very quickly to environmental conditions.
3. Requeening methods need to be reexamined. Egyptian beekeepers do not systematically requeen. Almost all queens are reared under the “emergency” impulse; colonies are simply given a frame of brood to rear replacement queens. Adhering to this practice rather than purchasing queens from qualified producers, who rear them under the “swarming impulse,” usually results in substandard queens.
4. Beekeepers should orient towards managing colonies by adding supers to provide stimulus for colonies to increase both brood and honey production. The current practice is to manage colonies comb by comb. This involves removing honey-filled combs from the brood nest and replacing them with empties. It is known that frequent disruption of brood nest activities causes stress and reduces overall honey yields. Judicious use of queen excluders (they are expensive and no one uses them) must also become a part of this management system. Extracting honey from the brood nest is usually not good beekeeping practice. It is a practice left over from fixed comb traditional apiculture.
5. Combs are often in marginal condition. Beekeeping in Egypt suffers from the presence of excessive drone comb and broken or damaged frames. The proper construction and wiring of frames along with a replacement policy of 15 percent of combs annually would materially contribute to colony efficiency. Many persons here manufacture their own woodenware which can contribute to comb edges being chewed away, reducing brood rearing space. An advantage of modem Egyptian beekeeping is that the country is standardized to Langstroth dimensions.
6. Feeders are too small to deliver sufficient volume of syrup; most are of the halfframe Boardman type. They should be replaced by larger containers which will increase labor efficiency and decrease disturbance of colonies. There are some additional factors affecting Egyptian beekeeping beyond the basics of strong populations, young and vigorous queens and proper nutrition. Perhaps most problematic is pesticide use, especially in cotton, which is also a major nectar plant. It is difficult for beekeepers to protect colonies from widespread application. This must be a regional effort characterized by close communication between beekeeper and applicator.
The Agricultural Extension Service can often help bridge this communication gap. Egypt has a large extension service with a cadre of trained extension apiculturists. Unfortunately, although the personnel are available, there are few resources at the disposal of agents. Of particular significance is lack of transportation. Extension employees in Egypt willing to go out in the field often have to pay these costs out of their own pocket. In most of my travels around Egypt, we provided transport to various agents.
Another problem with the Extension Service is that it is not formally linked to researchers at universities. As an example, the faculty of the extremely large University of Alexandria (in excess of 100,000 students!) has good information on toxicology, entomology and other disciplines, but the extension service is not presently an integral part of this network. Thus, there is often a breakdown in communication between those developing knowledge and those responsible for distributing it. This is also true to varying degrees in many other countries, including the U.S. Extension research links, therefore, must constantly be reforged in creative ways.
Beekeeping in Egypt is in need of a great deal of research. Of particular importance is the possibility of planting nectar-producing crops on marginal lands or breeding vegetables and/or fruits that will secrete more nectar. Another fruitful area is genetic research into mite resistance; it would be interesting to explore the possibility that the original Egyptian bee, Apis mellifera lamarckii, is more able to resist depredations of Varroa as some think.
I was lucky enough to be able to visit and Egyptian wooden ware factory. I was surprised at the quality of the hives made from what looked like prime cuts of fine grained pine, clear of knots and very substantial. It had been a long time since I had seen this kind of lumber at the local builders’ supply in the United States. My experience in Italy a few years back mirrored what I now saw in Egypt, a great emphasis on quality, the production of what I call “Cadillac” equipment. In comparison, most of the beekeeping equipment I have seen in the U.S. is “Chevrolet,” serviceable but by no means the best.
The “Cadillac” hives in Egypt seemed a luxury that the country could ill afford. The boxes were also extremely heavy even when empty, something a person with a bad back, like myself, recognizes immediately. While examining the hives, I noticed the frame parts (end and bottom bars) seemed to be thicker and heavier than those I was accustomed to. In response to my questions about this phenomenon, I was shown models (presumably from the U.S. and Europe) that the products were based on. The bottom bars were solid, and when drawn out, there was a gap between the bottom bar and where the comb began. This seemed an unacceptable waste of space, presumably brought on by marginal colonies drawing out the foundation. Next, I carefully examined the bee space, particularly that between the top bars of one super and the bottom bars of the box above. It did exist, but was variable. A previous experience I had in the Caribbean revealed that equipment there had been manufactured with frames above fitting flush against the top bars of those below, a perfect haven for developing wax moth larvae.
All this got me thinking about “Cadillac” versus “Chevrolet” beekeeping equipment. I realized that I had paid scant attention to this kind of thing when working with beekeepers in the United States and was now unprepared to deal effectively with these issues. This enforced the idea that in many situations, the consultant learns more than the person being advised. When I returned to the U.S., I was interested to see Jeff Ott’s article “Wooden World” (Gleanings in Bee Culture, February, 1992), published while I was in Egypt, which provided analyses in detail about equipment manufactured in the United States.
Many of the issues I pondered in Egypt were discussed by Mr. Ott, who asked whether or not wood goods are created equal. I wondered if this gave credence to theories that should one think intensely enough, the brain waves can be cued into by others. Had Mr. Ott read my thoughts in the Middle East? My musings on beekeeping equipment brought back the remark I’d heard often from Bill Clarke, a beekeeper with many years experience, retired from the Pennsylvania State University, and also consulting with beekeepers in Egypt. He is fond of saying “the bees don’t care,” when queried about equipment issues. The insects may not be perplexed about “Cadillac” versus “Chevrolet” woodenware, but in my mind, many of the questions the Egyptian experience raised in my mind remain unanswered.
One must be careful when giving counsel in agricultural pursuits to be sure a full picture of any situation is gained. Because there are many marginal beekeepers in Egypt, it cannot be assumed that people do not exist who know what they are doing, or that some of the practices are without rationale. I did, in fact, meet some excellent beekeepers, given the limited resources available in this country. One, a retired teacher (history and geography), got his training by reading Dadant’s “First Lessons in Beekeeping.” This classic beginning book continues to used by many in the U.S. who are just beginning the craft. Another larger-scale beekeeper also impressed me with his knowledge of queen rearing practices.
Many universities exist in Egypt. Often, however, they turn out academically oriented students, some of whom have, as one U.S. veterinarian I met here said, “never fed a pill to a cow.” The many graduates coming out of universities at one time were guaranteed governmental positions during Egypt’s era of socialist experimentation. It has now been recognized that such a policy is impractical and instead new, reclaimed land is being given to this young, educated population. Developmental and agricultural agencies are looking at beekeeping as one of the enterprises that will make the new lands policy more profitable. This new generation of beekeepers would be an eminently teachable audience in modern beekeeping technology.
There are exceptions to the idea that university graduates have little practical knowledge. Perhaps the most successful beekeeper I met was managing 1500 colonies while employing a crew of four and producing package queens and bees for shipment to Saudi Arabia. This appeared to be a very lucrative business in spite of the fact that almost half the purchase price of a three-pound package (US$60.00) was eaten up in air freight. This beekeeper appeared to be using most of the methods employed by commercial package and queen producers in the U.S. He was trained in the mid 1960s by the Chair of the Entomology Department at Alexandria University, Dr. Abdel Latif El Deib, who received his apicultural education at the Universities of California and Illinois.
Although the Egyptian extension efforts have their problems, excellent beekeeping information is available, but one has to look for it. I have encountered a beautiful pamphlet (published in 1992) on Varroa mites, complete with color pictures of mites and how to tell them from bee lice, which are also present here. In addition, in 1991, Extension published a 71-page booklet, authored by the Head of the Bee Research Institute in Cairo, Dr. Mahmoud Mazeid, called “Raising Bees.” It contains color pictures of modern beekeeping and honey processing equipment, in addition to descriptions of the life cycles of both tracheal and Varroa mites.
Of special interest to me in the above publication was an account of traditional hives (mud pots about 9 inches in diameter and 5 feet long, stacked together like logs) used in Egyptian beekeeping.
The description of Apis mellifera lamarckii in the book is mirrored by that of H.H. Laidlaw and R. Page in a December 1980 article in American Bee Journal:
1. Small size
2. Uniformity in coloration and banding pattern of the abdomen
3. Construction of small sized brood combs with small sized cells
4. Small colony populations
5. Strong colony defensive behavior (stinging)
6. Tendency to swarm frequently
7. Low honey production.
I was told that lamarckii yielded only about 10 lbs. of honey per year. Ironically, some modern hives of Carniolan bees in Egypt don’t produce that much honey today!
Cooperatives provide support to beekeepers in Egypt in a number of ways; some have formed bee associations, but there are no published bee journals to my knowledge. I was also told there is a lack of governmental credit. This is a significant problem. As one beekeeper said to me when I suggested that younger people might enter beekeeping, “What can one do without access to credit?”
It is difficult to summarize my consultancy in Egypt. The people I met there are intelligent, sensitive and appreciative of any attempts to help them become more efficient beekeepers. It remains a fertile ground for consultants.
I wrote a series of vignettes to punctuate my visit. They enhance the excitement and opportunity possible in consulting with beekeepers in another setting. These experiences are not for everybody, but for those who are inclined, musing on them might help others decide to get out of their comfort zone.
Sometime after visiting Egypt I met an Italian beekeeping consultant on the streets of Mexico City. We both were attending an event and took a walk to the Zócalo (main square) . When I discussed my experiences in the middle east, complaining mightily about the failure of Egyptians to heed the advice given by literally generations of consultants, specifically that they should reduce their colony count in apiaries, which no doubt would improve productivity, he laughed.
It seems he learned from a cab driver in Cairo something that every consultant should know, but didn’t, and was not mentioned in any of the voluminous reports developed. The Egyptian government provides beekeepers with a subsidy in sugar for every colony they managed. That sugar was sold on the open market at a profit and not fed to honey bees. Is it any wonder they maximize their colony count? Let this be a lesson to would-be consultants; sometimes the information one most needs is not forthcoming.