Once thought to be extinct in the UK, the black bee is reappearing thanks in part to two refugee-run beekeeping projects
“It’s amazing,” says beekeeper, Ali Alzein, sounding excited over the phone to Positive News, from his home in Hammersmith. His community-led beehive project, Bees & Refugees, has just raised nearly £12,000 on the crowdfunding platform Spacehive – hours before it was due to end.
Bees & Refugees was founded to provide free beekeeper training and equipment to refugees living in the UK with the aim of establishing 20 native black bee colonies in west London.
Alzein maintains the hives and extracts the honey himself, but when the lockdown is lifted, he will encourage refugees to take ownership of the hives, many of which are located on private land donated to the initiative by Londoners. “I almost lost hope with Covid-19 and everything that’s happening,” says Alzein, “but it feels really great that we’re going to be able to go ahead.”
A generous £10,000 donation from Hammersmith and Fulham Council got the project over the line. The beehives have been ordered and the colonies will be installed in early May.
For Alzein, the project means more than just honey. “I believe that being around bees is really therapeutic,” he says, “it calms a person down.”
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Alzein learned beekeeping techniques from his grandfather in his native Syria, but it wasn’t until he settled in London, as a refugee in 2013, that he turned to the practice. “I was really suffering from PTSD and severe depression,” admits Alzein, who was imprisoned in Damascus during the war and had his knitwear factory burnt down by the government. “My [London] beehive really helped me through all the trauma.”
Bees & Refugees was founded not only to give displaced people a fresh start, but also to give the black bee another bite of the pollen. Once mistakenly believed to have died out in the UK, the Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders Association now believes the native insect’s resistance to the parasitic varroa mite could help reverse the decline of the UK’s honeybee population – and Alzein is not the only one testing that theory.
200 miles north of Hammersmith, as the bee glides, another Syrian refugee has already reintroduced the black bee to the sunny surrounds of Huddersfield. Ryad Alsous, a former professor of agriculture at Damascus University, is using Facetime to proudly show Positive News the collection of 13 beehives that make up The Buzz Project.
“They are very lovely bees,” he says, lifting the lid of a hive. A plume of black bees escape, buzzing around his face. The hives, painted yellow-and-blue and made of recycled materials, are located in Marsden, on remote land owned by the Canal and River Trust.
Many of the bees currently kept in the UK are Italian, but Alsous believes that the native black bee is poised for a comeback. “British black bees have high resistance to varroa and are already integrated within this environment,” he says.
Alsous knows his stuff. Before he came to the UK in 2013, he had been working on a bee genetics programme in Syria since 1989. During the lockdown, he visits the hives alone every two days to care for the bees, and things are going well. When he started the project, only 5 per cent of beekeepers used local bees; now, as more European beekeepers become keen to reintroduce native species, he believes that it’s as high as 50 per cent. Alsous is helping boost those numbers by giving some of his bees away.
In as little as 25 years, the black bee could reach self-sustaining levels if current efforts to revive them are sustained.
Refugees are feeling the benefits too. “I love nature and I love supporting the community,” says Toba, a Nigerian refugee who moved to the UK in 2017. “I knew about gardening, but I didn’t know much about beekeeping, so [the Buzz Project] has allowed me to love my new environment right away.”
The article was updated on 27 April to remove an erroneous quote