A community hive

A yield beyond measure
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  • Hafez Al-Moussa friends, Rida (left) and Amin, tending Townbee hives. KPMG is the latest company to embrace rooftop beehives.
    Hafez Al-Moussa friends, Rida (left) and Amin, tending Townbee hives. KPMG is the latest company to embrace rooftop beehives.
  • Dearborn, Mich. — Foodies may know honey flavour varies depending on the floral source. But the casual honey user may not know is that there are several varieties of honey bees, including mason, orchard and leaf cutters; and that the honey bees in the USA are not the same as the German Dark Bee — or the British Black Bee or the Syrian Bee.

    These facts and much more about honey bees and the world they make better are well known to apiarist Hafez Al-Moussa. His family owned 75 bee hives before the civil war in Syria.

    Carrot, ginger drink

    Hafez Al-Moussa, Townbee apiarist, who enjoys honey with goat cheese in the late summer offers this summer drink recipe.

    2 pieces of freshly squeezed carrot
    100g fresh ginger
    100g fresh turmeric
    1 T. apple vinegar
    1 T. honey

    Combine ginger, turmeric and honey. Add vinegar, then add carrot juice. Add water and ice to taste.

    “My family had a small farm consisting of three independent buildings and a number of olive trees, pomegranates and apricots next to the house,” Al-Moussa wrote in an e-mail. “We had a land where we planted crops throughout the year [including] at the beginning of the winter.

    “We used to grow up in a small farm near the Euphrates River. We planted wheat and barley, and in the summer, we planted corn and cotton before the war, where we raised sheep, goats, chickens, and of course bees.”

    While milk, eggs and honey produced income throughout the year for the family, the summer and fall vegetable harvests provided a boost in earnings. Bees were key to the success of crops on the family farm.

    Despite hardships that included difficult weather conditions and limited water resources, there were beautiful moments. The 29-year old fondly recalls winter trips to the city center.

    “The preferred work was the transfer of bees in the winter to the coast in the west of the country where temperatures are more moderate. [We remained there] until the beginning of spring.”

    Now, after seven years of war, the hives number fewer than half because relocating the hives was so difficult to reorient the bees – but the bee colonies continued their important role pollinating plants; and helping Al-Moussa reorient himself.

    Forced to take flight

    War forced the bee keeper to flee Syria alone. After a three year journey the refugee arrived in Germany, Al-Moussa sought a bee-related environmental project where he could pursue his interests.

    Knowledge of apiculture also reminded Al-Moussa that he shared a struggle in common with honey bees: prospering in a changing world. A colleague told him about Townbee, a program where he could improve his German language skills and learn the ins-and-outs of his adopted country, while supporting the bee population which is increasingly under threat.

    “Refugees trying to integrate into local German community struggle, too,” Al-Moussa, now a full member of student association Enactus München, said. “Townbee has helped me to get in touch with many new wonderful people. Before becoming a part of Townbee, it was difficult for me to meet locals and practice my German. Meanwhile, I have managed to not only attain a scholarship for a German course, but also to make friends. German friends!”

    As a member of Enactus München, Al-Moussa made his first trip to Wuppertal, Germany for the national Enactus competition.

    “But most importantly, I did not only manage to integrate into the local community, I even managed to help other refugees to overcome the same struggles I went through,” Al-Moussa said. “As a part of the Townbee organizational team, I’m helping to attract new refugees to the project, and thus I am provided with the chance to give something back.”

    Sharing special natures

    Al-Moussa quickly learned honey bees in Germany act differently from Syrian bees.

    “The bees are active and are able to produce honey quickly and they show some calm during the performance of their functions,” Al-Moussa said. “Yes, Syrian bees need a relatively longer time to harvest honey, due to lack of plant resources. They show a fierce attack if disturbed.”

    Currently, Townbee has eight Carniolan honey bee beehives, totaling around 200,000 bees during peak times of year. Three of the hives were created in recent weeks by splitting even larger beehives of these gentle bees, which are a subspecies of the western honey bee. Unfortunately, due to the extremely cold winter, two of the smaller and weaker beehives died, a fate shared by many bee hives in and around München.

    Townbee upgraded their beekeeping skills with the addition of two students who solely focus on the beekeeping. They also enlisted the help of local habitat experts in planning for the coming pollinating season.

    “We won over two local professional beekeepers, who provide us with their advice and time whenever we have urgent questions or might enjoy a professional hand supporting us while working on the bees,” Al-Moussa wrote. “Thus, our eight current beehives are a lot stronger than last year’s, and we are confident that all of them will survive this winter.”

    Al-Moussa's beehive starting tips

    • Use modern equipment of high quality construction and materials
    • Start early during the pollinating season
    • Get informed: be sure to attend specialized workshops and contact local beekeepers
    • Have more than one colony in the same location
    • Choose the right place near food and water

    Townbee’s pilot phase and first-year production totalled 18 kilograms of honey. Several professional beekeepers cautioned to expect nothing in the first year. So while just shy of 40 pounds of honey, the program considers their first season a success.

    “Currently, we are on track to produce 150kg-200kg in our second year,” Al-Moussa wrote. “The 18 kg of the first year translated into around 70 jars sold. Obviously, this year we will be exceeding this amount drastically. Even though it depends on which jar size our partners choose (usually 250-500g).”

    The Ford College Community Challenge grant helped pay for the initial investments and materials needed for the bee-centered enterprise. Along with the work of Al-Moussa and his colleagues, the new equipment is helping steer the project toward profitability this year.

    “This year, with our new partners and one year of beekeeping experience, we are looking set to achieve profitability, although it is always a bit difficult to predict the exact amount of honey you are going to yield at the end,” Al-Moussa said.