Project to restore Iraqi honeybee population hit by predatory Asian mite Varroa jacobsoni

An ongoing project in Iraq is working to bring back the country's once high numbers of honeybees, which had been nearly wiped out by disease and war. Bees' contribution to food production and nutrition, both by pollinating food crops and by producing honey, is critical in a country struggling to fight off widespread malnutrition. But a new disease is now threatening the bees, destroying much of the progress that had been made since the end of the Gulf War.

Iraqi beekeeper shows off healthy honeybees
In the early 1980s, "Every farmer a beekeeper" was the message and more than 500 000 traditional hives were active in Iraq. Then, from 1985 to 1987, apiculturists worldwide were hit hard by the spread of the Asian predatory mite, Varroa jacobsoni. Iraq was no exception. But the devastation caused by the Gulf War in this country in 1991 has made the struggle to fight back and rebuild the once thriving beekeeping industry more difficult in Iraq than in most other countries.

The Iraqi Beekeepers' Association estimates that 90 percent of the over 500 000 honeybee colonies in Iraq had been lost to Varroa jacobsoni by 1987, and that by the end of the war, a mere 500 hives remained. The fighting prevented beekeepers from caring for their hives, many of which were broken up for timber, and their honey plundered.

In response, FAO and the UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs funded the US$200 000 Emergency Assistance Project to Restore Honeybee Populations for Crop Pollination and Honey Production in Iraq. The project aims to help beekeepers establish sustainable beekeeping techniques and adequate hygiene practices.

Bees are a valuable source of nutritious food, particularly for the vulnerable rural poor and their children, many of whom are now malnourished. In addition to this, their value as pollinators of agricultural crops is huge. "Economically, bees are 50 times more valuable as pollinators than they are as honey producers", according to Nicola Bradbear, the FAO consultant responsible for the project.

Although it is difficult to quantify the reduction in crop pollination by bees in Iraq, poorly formed fruit is on sale in local markets, a typical sign of inadequate pollination. In Mosul, north of Baghdad, people have been employed to pollinate gourd crops manually, as farmers have realized that natural pollination is inadequate.

But Bradbear, back from her second visit to Iraq in early July, reported that progress has been made in helping beekeepers treat diseases and develop sustainable management techniques.

The most recent threat to Iraq's honeybee population is the so-called "crawling disease". First reported in early 1994, one year later the disease had already considerably reduced the 30 000 bee colonies re-established under the project. Believed to be caused by secondary viral or other infections, crawling disease causes severe weakening of the bees and loss of honey production.

The consultant stressed that the aim of the project is to promote sustainable beekeeping practices so that Iraq will not have to rely on continuous imports of medicine and basic supplies to keep disease situations like this one under control. A collection of technical books on beekeeping has been supplied, as well as chemical treatment, medication and technical information for treatment, rollers, beeswax and foundation making equipment. A national consultant is to be appointed to ensure that apiculturists across the country benefit from the information.

"Iraqis regard honey as a special, precious food," Bradbear said. Under current conditions it can only become more so.

31 July 1997

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