PESHAWAR: “Saudi sheikhs are dying for bair honey,” Maaz Khan says, smiling as he pours the treasured nectar into a plate for me to taste.
Maaz sells honey at Peshawar’s Tarnab Market, a building crammed with 700 corridor-thin shops, each claiming to sell the freshest produce of honey. Plastic and glass containers of all sizes feature different types of honey, including jujube (bair), acacia modesta (palusa), acacia nilotika (kikar), oregano (sperkai), peach blossom (shaftalo), orange blossom and sun-flower.
Maaz's shop alone could serve as a single-stop haven for honey lovers. Most come to him for bair, which he says is the priciest. Palusa honey is considered the second best, but even that costs a maximum of Rs300. In comparison, bair is sold at Rs1,200 per kilogram.
“Bair is favoured for export,” Maaz says. Honey farmers and traders like him are responsible for bringing over millions of dollars to state revenue through exports. “Yet the government is yet to recognise honey trade as an industry,” he laments.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, he says, provide the most lucrative markets. Almost 600 containers — each carrying over 30,000 kilograms of the country’s best honey produce — are shipped to the Gulf each year. “That amounts to almost Rs5 billion in revenue,” Maaz estimates.
During the process of honey-making, beehives can also yield by-products that are used in health food and cosmetics, like royal jelly, pollen, propolis and beeswax.
Awais Khan’s farm holds 80 beehives in a neat grid of columns and rows. As on other farms, each hive is labelled with a number and contains 70,000 to 80,000 bees.
Apiculture — the honey business — is spread out over 30,000 honeybee farms, particularly in KP. Also called apiaries, these farms contain dozens of beehives where honey is produced.
The honey comes from flower nectar of various plants. Bair trees, particularly, are abundant in KP's districts of Karak, Kohat, Dera Ismail Khan and Nizampur. The Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC) has identified four active species of honeybees locally. Only one out of them, apis mellifera, is imported and established in Pakistan.
These bees collect the nectar and break it down into simple sugar inside the honeycombs, where a thick, sweet liquid is deposited over time.
Awais has spent Rs1.5 million on the bees' nourishment so far, and his profit has been Rs3 million— twice as much.
During the months of June and July, the bees are off-season and require 150 to 200 bags of sugar for food.
Awais says bees need particular care and nourishment for efficient production. This means monitoring the weather — warm temperatures, for example, tend to yield the best produce, while severe temperatures hamper the bees’ production.
“There is nothing worse than the rainy season, or snow,” Awais says.
A migrant's trade
Today, the honey business employs over 600,000. The industry has grown considerably from its earliest days which go back to the 1978 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Around that time, refugees began crossing the border into Pakistan and many of them settled in and around Peshawar. Countless families were signing up for programmes facilitated by the United Nations Higher Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Among them was a programme for bee-keeping that provided startup equipment and training. A few bee boxes were donated to each migrant family to start their own small-scale honey business. UNHCR arranged for the bees to be imported from Australia and Italy — a fact present-day traders like Maaz Khan are quick to recount.
Today, over 75 per cent of the traders in the honey business are Afghan nationals residing in Peshawar. Sher Ghafar, a honey-exporter who has been in the business for 18 years, heeds the fact, saying the refugees have contributed to the industry's expansion across the country.
After the 2014 Peshawar Army Public School attack that killed 144 children, the government has started cracking down against refugees, particularly those from Afghanistan. The result, according to Ghafar, has had a dire impact on honey production.
Visa and work permit issues are coming in the way of a smooth honey production chain. “Proper work permits should be issued to them (refugees trading in honey) for the sake of the industry’s survival,” Ghafar insists.
In Kashmir, the movement of Afghan workers is particularly restricted. Yet some of the best honey comes from that region. What the government doesn’t realise, Ghafar says, is that the crackdown hinders the transportation of valuable beehives.
Representatives of the Honeybee Keepers Association (HKA) have pleaded to government officials on several occasions, but have had little relief. They want the KP government to recognise the honey-bee industry as a legitimate industry.
“The business will have positive impact on the province’s economy if it is recognised as an industry,” says Mohammad Qasim Naeem, President of the HKA. “But our cry hasn’t been heard.”
Javed Khattak, president of the government-run Small and Medium Enterprise Development Authority (Smeda) feels differently. He believes the government is serious in its commitment to developing honeybee technology for large scale production.
“We have been committed to installing extraction plants in Karak district,” he promised, adding that the government has requested BKA representatives to put forth their recommendations on the matter.
An average Pakistani beehive produces 10 to 15 kilograms of honey per season. In comparison, Australian bees produce 25 to 30 kgs.
Saleem Khan, who represents a union of 5,000 bee-keepers in Peshawar, says the bees' breeding conditions are to blame.
"The average life span of a normal bee is between 35 to 40 days,” Saleem says. The queen-bee, however, lives for as long as a year, and lays about 4,000 eggs each day. But Pakistan’s production is lower compared to other honey-producing countries, due to insufficient training of beekeepers and environmental threats such as deforestation.
Beekeepers and farmers generally do not have enough expertise, Saleem says, adding that some farmers do not allow beehives next to their crops, fearing that the bees will destroy those. In reality, bees assist in increasing the crop’s yield through pollination. PARC says honeybees can contribute to 80 per cent of pollination, effectively improving the quality of fruits and vegetables, and the yield of seed crops.
Other than that, severe temperatures and agricultural pesticides harm the bees’ health, but many beekeepers are not aware of this. Stagnant waters around beehives also hamper the insect's activity, and lowers the production rate every year.
The threat of climate change
Climate change, which has already affected Pakistan in the form of floods, off-season rains and severe temperatures, significantly threaten the honey bee business.
Pakistan loses over Rs6 billion every year due to climate change damage, UNDP has estimated, lower than the Rs1 billion lost each year to terrorism. The country has doubled its expenditure on combating climate change.
Large-scale deforestation being carried out by various departments and companies does not help honey production either. Maaz complains about the extensive removal of jujube honey plants in the province. “The government needs to plant more jujube trees to increase honey production,” he says.
The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf-led government announced its billion-tree tsunami drive last year, with a goal to plant one million trees in the province within the next five years. However, he says the crucially needed re-plantation of jujube trees has been starkly missing from the project.