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Lord of the bees

Tajikistan, August 6, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Jarrett Basedow/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Beekeepers in the village of Sangi Maliki, Tajikistan Photo: Jarrett Basedow/Mercy Corps

Beekeeping is an extremely valued activity in many areas of the world, and honey enjoys a nearly mythological reputation in many cultures. It should – promises weren’t made about a land of milk and honey for nothing.

Honey is a simple and healthy combination of sugars with many medicinal benefits. Other bee products enjoy many uses, as well. My toothpaste even contains propolis (a resin mixture collected from flowers and trees that bees used to reinforce the hive), as recent dental research is investigating its anti-cavity properties.

I’ll admit that conducting value chain research for Mercy Corps has made me somewhat obsessed with bee and rose hips products, and that I specifically bought this toothpaste because it had a picture of a bee. I even tried to convince my shopping partner to buy it, but she went with wintergreen instead. Also, I might have taped a “Buy Local” post-it to a jar of imported honey I saw at a friend’s apartment.

Beekeeping has been practiced a long time in the Rasht Valley, and all over Tajikistan. Most of the beekeepers I have talked to have decades of experience, and learned the craft from their family. They use moveable frame hives similar to designs used in large honey producing countries, including Argentina, the U.S. and China. Many transport their bee boxes to higher mountain areas to take advantage of the fresh air and wild mountain flowers, producing a honey that is prized for its clean taste and medicinal properties.

Local producers in the Rasht Valley can make a decent living off of selling honey, and many smaller ones supplement their income through home honey sales. Some just enjoy diversifying their diet a little. Obstacles for Rasht producers include a lack of market information and difficulty finding markets for their product. The region can feel isolated, both in the five-hour distance to the country's capital, Dushanbe, and economic and political ties that are sometimes lacking. Many beekeepers transport (or arrange transport) to areas outside of the Dushanbe’s bazaars and sell to merchants who turn the product around for a higher price inside the bazaar.

I am researching ways to help beekeepers make direct market connections and work together to market their product. Additionally, I’m looking at how beekeeping can help marginalized groups, including women and residents of poorer villages, increase their food and income security.

My research continues to bring me close to swarms of bees, but this is balanced out by finding myself in close proximity to tons of delicious honey. I think it’d be rude not to taste every variety put in front of me.