TEHRAN, Young Journalists Club (YJC) - Beekeeping has a long tradition in Iran, dating back to 2,000 to 3,000 years ago, though apiculture as we know it in its modern and industrial form started in the country around three decades before.
Across the world, demand for honey is growing as awareness about health benefits of the sweet food and the importance of honey bees in the food chain is rising.
Meanwhile, the increasing number of innovations in honey harvesting is driving growth prospects for the global honey food market.
Last year, the United Nations announced an annual World Bee Day on May 20 to raise awareness of its importance and declining numbers.
Honey is produced by bees foraging nectar from flowers and converting it to the sweet food through regurgitation and evaporation. The bees store the honey in wax honeycombs inside beehives. Beekeepers extract the honey by removing the honey comb.
According to UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) officials, Iran has improved its global ranking in honey production from the seventh place to the third, overtaking the US, Russia and India and sitting pretty only behind China and Turkey.
It currently produces 90,000 metric tons of honey a year, more than 1,700 tons of which is exported, deputy agriculture minister for livestock affairs Morteza Rezaei told the Young Journalists Club (YJC) news agency on Monday.
The country also owns the world’s fourth largest bee colonies put at 8.4 million, which are held in more than 85,000 apiaries, he said.
In Iran, as many as 138,000 people are directly involved in apiculture, which brings them a healthy income by producing honey, beeswax and propolis.
However, adept beekeepers make better earnings by extracting high-end products, such as bee venom and royal jelly.
According to Rezaei, the average raw price for each kilogram of royal jelly is $355, but this value can increase multi-fold if the royal jelly is turned into cosmetics and toiletries.
As for bee venom, each gram of the apitoxin sells for $80 which is a very high price given the dollar rate, but “unfortunately we have not worked well enough in these areas,” he said.
“Although Iran is ranked third in the world in terms of honey production and fourth in colony count, it doesn’t have a good position when it comes to derivatives,” Rezaei added.
The prospects, however, are brightening as the government is implementing a number of initiatives related to supporting bees and promoting apiculture in cooperation with FAO.
Meanwhile, the market is expanding as innovations in honey harvesting are improving the quantity and quality of the final product harvested.
“Given the importance people attach to honey and its products in Iran, the country will definitely have excellent prospects of reaching loftier heights,” FAO representative to Iran Rao Matta was quoted as saying.
In 2017, 60 trillion rials ($1.5 billion) of investment was made in apiculture. Rezaei said the industry is viewed a strategic development area under Iran Vision 2025.
Its mega objectives include product quality guarantees, increased productivity, development of new high value-added products, training of beekeepers, risk reduction and resilience improvement.
Rezaei said the annual value of bee products is about 30 trillion rials ($200 million on the unofficial market) which indicates how lucrative the business is.
“The industry is one of the key examples of resistance economy because it has the least dependence on imports,” he said.
Resistance economy, initiated by Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, is Iran’s roadmap to circumvent sanctions.
It includes increasing the country’s resilience by substituting local inputs for imported goods, checking the smuggling of goods and increasing barter trade.
The formula has gained traction amid a US bid to starve Iran of its oil revenues, with Iranian officials saying the country now runs the best chance of weaning itself off petrodollars which have become its worst liability.
Food security is a key policy area for global state planners, and for Iran, it is additionally crucial in the face of a protracted drought which is adversely affecting harvests and narrowing the agricultural products basket.
As super-important pollinators, not only do honey bees contribute directly to food security, but they are also key to conserving biodiversity. They allow many plants, including food crops, to reproduce and preserve the food chain.
“Honey production is the side activity of honey bees, with pollination being their main job which is unfortunately neglected,” Rezaei said.
According to FAO Director General José Graziano da Silva, “a world without pollinators would be a world without food diversity, and in the long run, without food security.”
FAO estimates that out of some 100 crop species, which provide 90 percent of the food worldwide, 71 are bee pollinated.
Beyond the importance of pollination for food security, bees are key to maintaining the ecological balance and ensuring biodiversity conservation.
According to FAO Iran representative Matta, bees are a sign of well-functioning ecosystems. “To a great extent the decline of pollinators is also a sign of the disruptions that global changes are causing to ecosystems of the world.”
The bee is one of the three insects after which chapters are named in the Holy Qur’an – the others being the ant and the spider.
Today, habitat loss, heavy pesticide use, climate change and increasing urbanization are taking a heavy toll on bee numbers.
World Bee Day seeks to raise awareness of the importance of pollinators, the threats they face and their contribution to sustainable development, according to FAO.