Traditional Beekeeping in Eastern Yemen

by Giovanni Canova (1)
(University of Venice, This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ).

Yemen Update 43 (2001)

Fig. 1. Rock painting from Dhofar (Oman) that possibly represents a swarm of bees.

I. Since ancient times Yemen has been famous for the excellent quality of its honey. Erathostenes pointed out that Southern Arabia was a fertile land and possessed many ideal places for the production of honey. (2) The evidence that beekeeping was widespread in the wadis of eastern Yemen in the pre-Islamic period also seems to be supported by the presence of rock-paintings - possibly to be interpreted as swarms of wild bees. When the Tubba' Tibân As'ad Abû Karib went to Mecca, he covered the Ka'ba with a kiswa of fine Yemeni fabric, sacrificed animals which he distributed to the people and "gave them honey to drink". (3) Al-Hamdânî informs us that the slopes of Mount Hinwam, a territory inhabited by the Ahnûm (Hamdân), are "the richest in bees and honey among the lands of God, where a man can have fifty beehives (jibh) or more". (4) Unfortunately, no specific information about Yemeni honey is given by Yûsuf b. ‘Umar. (5) The almanacs of the Rasulid period, even without mentioning the bees, record the best days for collecting the various types of Yemeni honey.(6) According to the Egyptian historian al-Maqrîzî (d. 1441), the author of one of the few Arabic treatises on beekeeping, 'the whole of Yemen is a land of honey'. (7)

In the Yemen, bees are called nûb (sing. nûba). C. Landberg remarks that 'nûb is part of the Southern Arabia vocabulary, whereas nahl is seldom used'. (8) Yemeni bees are classified as Apis mellifera yemenitica. They are not aggressive and have a smaller body to the European Apis mellifera, displaying grey stripes on the abdominal segments. They are ideally suited to the Yemeni climate and, until a few years ago, were not subject to disease. The techniques of beekeeping and honey extraction have remained, substantially, the traditional ones, even if now modern methods and equipment are being introduced. (9) H. Ingrams describes how the smarms were captured in Wadi Daw‘an: the beekeeper identifies and captures the queen, putting her in a small box built especially for the purpose; then he inserts her into a mat woven in cane rolled-up in the shape of a hive and closed at one end, such that the bees follow her. (10)

Fig. 2. Sanaa, National Museum: traditional beehives in wood.

There are essentially three types of traditional beehive (khaliyya, pl. khalâyâ): 1. hollow trunk of wood; 2. earthenware hive; 3. cane basket. They are sealed at each extremity, leaving a few holes for the bees to pass. Both stationary beekeeping, with the hives placed either in the gardens or on the rooves of houses, and nomadic beekeeping, particularly in the eastern regions, exist. For nomads, basic wooden hives are nowadays costructed, to give better stability when transported from wadi to wadi on pick-ups. Not long ago, camels were used; honey was carried in goat skins and conserved in pumpkins. (11) When the combs are full of honey, they are cut with a knife. A bit of honey is left in the hive as a provision for the bees in drier months. Hives vary from those kept by families, with two to three hives, such as can be found in the Zabîd area, to those of professional beekeepers in the valleys south of Wadi Hadramawt, with up to a hundred units.

The exchange of honey was used to put a seal on the resolution of disputes and the creation of pacts between both tribesmen and tribes. The possession of honey of local production is a status symbol. In modern-day Yemen, an offer of honey continues to have an important role when welcoming a guest. Honey is often served in banquets. Honey and eggs are considered important for fertility and physical strength and therefore are given to young bridegrooms or circumcised boys. Yemeni tradition prescribes honey together with melted butter for consumption by mothers immediately after childbirth. It is widely used in folk medicine. For example, when mixed with myrrh it provides efficient relief from constipation, with carrot seeds it is an aphrodisiac, with hiltît (Asa fœtida) it facilitates menstruation, and with various plants it can be used against epilepsy.

The most highly esteemed honey is that produced from the flowers of 'ilb (Ziziphus spina Christi, L. Willd.) and sumar (Acacia tortillis, Forsk. Hayne). (12) Connoisseurs are able to distinguish between a Yemeni honey and one imported from abroad, as well as recognizing its regional origin from the colour, aroma, and taste. The degree of the humidity and consequent viscosity are of great importance in the valuation of honey. A traditional test consists of letting a drop of honey fall into the dust. If it remains spherical, the honey is considered to be pure; if, on the other hand, it expands, it can be presumed either that the honey has been lengthened or that the bees have been fed with syrup.

Fig. 3. Wadi Markha, 1993: nomadic beekeepers.

II. Recently in Sanaa a few retail centres have been opened for the sale of honey and modern equipment for beekeeping. As well as varieties of the most expensive and sought-after Yemeni honey, imported products from Europe and Arab countries (Jordan, Saudi Arabia) are offered for sale, together with grains of pollen and royal jelly. Basic beekeeping manuals printed in Cairo and Beirut are also sold along with booklets on the benefits of honey in medicine and nutrition, mostly based on religious literature (Tibb al-nabî). (13) In fact the Koran underlines the particular virtues of honey: God gave 'inspiration' to the bees, and the beverage (shurâb) that comes out from their bodies is a remedy for all men (Qur. 16:68-69); in Paradise rivers of pure honey run (Qur. 47:15). The social organization of the bees has been indicated by the Prophet as a model for the community of believers. Bees and honey carry a blessing (baraka).

In Sanaa, the first of these centres to be established was the Markaz al-'asal (Honey Centre). Here all those who 'wish to taste the fragrances of original Yemeni traditions' are welcomed. Honey produced from 'the best Yemeni wadis' is offered for sale: 1. honey from Wadi Jirdân; 2. honey from Wadi Daw'an; 3. honey from Salam; 4. honey from Wusâb; 5. marâ‘î honey, and every type of honey from the country (baladî). The first two are winter honeys, which come from the aforementioned wadis in the districts of Shabwah and Hadramawt. The other honeys are produced in the Tihamah during summer and autumn and are considered to be of lower quality due to their greater fluidity.

Fig. 4. Wadi Jirdân, 1996, during a drought.

The following information was gained from conversations with Samîr ‘Îsâ, the head of the Markaz. The best honey comes from Wadi Daw'an (14) and Wadi Jirdân. The first is darker in colour, and it is the most famous and highly-requested by local customers. (15) Nonetheless the beekeepers of Wadi Jirdân are considered to have greater experience. The best quality honey comes from the flowers of ‘ilb, in November and December. After this, bees visit various flowers and plants, resulting in the honey, marâ‘î. Towards June a second more modest blossoming of the ‘ilb flowers takes place, with a honey called ‘asal baynî, which means between ‘ilb and marâ‘î. The marbâ‘î is a spring honey (rabî‘ 'spring'), from sumar flowers. In eastern Yemen honey is sold in slices of its comb, placed in cylindrical tins, roughly 20 cm in diameter, each containing two slices. At the Sanaa Centre, honey is usually sold in bottles or plastic tanks, but also in circular combs. More luxuriously decorated boxes of honey to present as gifts are called malikiyyah (royal). They are produced in Aden and contain approximately 300 g of honey. The average annual production of honey in Wadi Jirdân fills roughly thirty Toyota pick-up trucks. In periods of drought, beekeepers feed their bees with a sugary syrup. Once there was no disease, but in the past few years a number of wild colonies have been decimated by a 'red worm', which kills them within the hives. No experts are available to provide assistance. In cities beekeepers are called nahhâlîn, but the local name ismunâwaba (cf. nûb 'bees').

Fig. 5. Beekeepers of Wadi Jirdân.

III. My field research was carried out in eastern Yemen: Wadi Markha, Wadi Jirdân, and Wadi Daw‘an. The first encounter with a group of nomadic beekeepers took place in Wadi Markha, in 1993. They used two types of hives: bored-out sections of local lumber, and boards of wood nailed together to form a rectangular box. These are raised up approximately half a meter from the ground by a metal support - the legs being inserted into tins of motor oil in areas of high ant population. Beehives can also be found around houses along the road down to Mukalla and in the Yashbun area. The hives are placed beside the habitations, on terraces and rooves, or in the windows of traditional tower-shaped houses, which stand out for their extraordinary architecture. Honey merchants can be found in the principal towns of Hadramawt. Wadi Daw'an and Wadi Jirdân have been specialised, for as long as can be remembered, in honey production and a lively spirit of competition has been established between them for the highest yield and quality. Wadi Jirdân beekeepers maintain that in Wadi Daw‘an bees are fed during dry periods to raise the honey production, which is not their tradition. They are very disturbed by the fact that in the last few years very little rain has fallen and many bees have died. During my stay, everyone who arrived was questioned about the rainfall in nearby regions. Once Wadi Jirdân possessed much more abundant vegetation than is now the case. Beehives can be seen scattered among the palms of Wadi Hadramawt, maintained by the farmers for domestic use. Nomadic beekeepers, however, are to be found by the banks of the wadi. They set up a big circular tent and place all their beehives in the surrounding area. The hives are in wood or earthware. The latter are made of a cylindrical body and a cover with a hole; the two parts are fitted together with cloth soaked in mud, which is removed during honey extraction. The hives are covered with mats or cardboard to protect them from the sun.

Fig. 6. Beehives on the slopes of Wadi Hadramawt, 1996

Fig. 7. Al-Hajarayn, 1996: beehives in the wadi.

IV. A stop at Hajarayn, in Wadi Daw‘an, gave me the opportunity to meet a group of nomadic beekeepers working along the wadi, and to collect information about their activities and organisation. The following is an extract from the recorded interview carried out at the time.

"My name is Mubârak S. B., from the Nu‘mân tribe, whose territory is Wadi ‘Amd. I am a beekeeper (‘âmil nahl, murabbî nahl ). I move with the bees (nûb) using my pick-up wherever I go in Wadi Daw‘an, where there is vegetation, where the rains have fallen, where there are plants. Winter honey is the best honey, of high quality, the most highly appreciated. But even now, in autumn, we bring the hives to the ‘ilb trees. Bees harvest this tree, they take the honey for ten days or so. The resulting honey is pure, good, excellent, but the blossom ends before the honeycombs are filled.

We bring up the bees ourselves. We capture wild swarms in the mountains and the rest we buy at the annual bee market along Wadi Daw‘an. Hives are made of mud, of clay. We buy them from people specialized in their construction. We buy the queen for 50 shillings (16) at ‘Amd, Qutn, Tarîm. The bees have a queen... we know now that we are dealing with a queen, the queen of the bees, however we continue to call her 'father' (ab). We call the worker bees her sons (‘iyâl ) or workers (shaghghâlîn). The queen is bigger than her sons and workers.

Fig. 8. Al-Hajarayn: beekeepers from the Nu'mân tribe.

Our ancestors did the same work as us; they were professionals. It is an activity which has come down through time like an inheritance. Everyone in the country loves honey, even those outside Yemen. This is not only for its excellent taste, but also because it is useful; it is a succesful remedy to every disease, fîhi shifâ' li-l-nâs ('wherein there is healing for men', Quran 16:69).

We sell the honey in markets; sometimes, however, tradesmen come to us to buy the honey, they then go to the suq to resell it. At Say'ûn, Qutn, Shibâm, and everywhere. In every city the honey is bought and also exported abroad. Shatwî (winter) honey is the best of all, rabî‘î (spring) follows it, then comes sayfî (summer honey), and last comes honey from cultivated fields. In this region there are various types of trees. A good honey comes from the zubb (Acacia mellifera, Vahl Benth.) in the wadi, above here, near the villages. Then there is sumr honey, and then honey from other plants. A mixed honey (mushakkal) is the result. Honey from the ‘ilb and sidr is the most expensive. We sell a ratl of shatwî for 1200-1300 shillings, whereas honey from sumr costs roughly 200 shillings. Sometimes we sell it in honey combs inside tin boxes. Every honey has a different taste and color.

For us there is little danger from the stings (las‘a); we are used to them, they do not hurt. Even if I get stung a hundred times! There is no venom... We are very experienced. To extract the honey we use smoke. Burning a clean piece of cotton fabric close to the beehive we make smoke that forces the bees to come out and move away. Then we take off the cover and the comb is extracted with a knife. It is put into boxes or larger containers by hand. We do not use equipment; everything is done using our hands and some smoke. There are two ways of selling the honey: directly in honey combs (agrâs) or squashing them to make the honey pour out into a container.

In our tribe, most people work with bees and honey, perhaps ninety per cent of the men from a young age. Women stay at home. Here in this tent we are all from the same family. Some are from the Ja'da tribe, but we stay together. There is no chief, we are all equals, we all have the same experience. The work is the same, the skills are the same.

I do not remember stories or poems about honey; however, a few lines from songs come to mind. But we all know the Sura of the Bee in the Quran, "and thy Lord revealed unto the bees, saying: 'Take unto yourselves, of the mountains, houses, and of the trees...'" (Qur. 16:68-69). Arabs have kept bees for a long time, since the time of the Quran, God knows, perhaps even before the Prophet. Since the time of the Prophet honey was used as a remedy. Honey takes prime place in traditional Arab medicine. Once there were no doctors, hospitals, medicines. Honey cured vomit, toothache, and every type of disease.

Fig. 9. Traditional earthenware hives in two parts, body and cover.

We will stay in this area for forty days, then we will extract the honey and move camp going northwards, for three or four hours by car. When we see the right place, where rains have fallen, we stop. Rain falls in spring, a little in summer, and then in autumn; in winter there is not much rain and it is cold. There are five of us here in the tent. After ten to twenty days two of us return home, in shifts. Two others come to the tent, and take their place. There is no fatigue in this work, we only get tired when we move. We have to load the pick-up and then unload. In transit, everything has to be tied together well. We leave at night, after sunset. We travel, we unload, everything has to be finished before the light of dawn.

Some people have a hundred beehives, others two hundred. Sometimes the bees leave the hives and die. There are diseases and we are forced to burn the hives. We have no problems with other people. If we are all honest, there are no disputes. There is no need to ask for permission to set up in a place: we are all one people in this region. The best honey is the shatwî from Wadi ‘Amd, Wadi Daw‘an, Wadi ‘Ayn, Wadi Rakhya, and Wadi Jirdân. The honey from these five wadis is of the best quality. Honey is also collected from cultivated fields in Hadramawt, but it is of lower quality. We work both here and elsewhere, we move from place to place with God's blessing, together with the bees, depending on the seasons..."

Fig. 10. Tin of honey combs for sale.


  1. This article is an abstract from a paper published in Quaderni di Studi Arabi (14, 1996, 179-193), based on data collected in November 1993 and March 1996. For a general overview of bees and honey, with a more extensive bibliography, refer to "Api e miele tra sapere empirico, tradizione e conoscenza scientifica nel mondo arabo-islamico", in: G. Canova (ed.), Scienza e Islam, Venice 1999 (Quaderni di Studi Arabi. Studi e testi, 3), 69-92.
  2. Cf. Strabo, Geogr. xvi, 4,2.
  3. See Ibn Hishâm, al-Sîra al-nabawiyya , Cairo, 1955, 2nd ed., i, 24.
  4. See al-Hamdânî, Sifa Jazîrat al-‘Arab, edited by Mu|hmmad al-Akwa‘, Sanaa 1983, 311. The editor points out that jibh is the common Yemeni term for beehive, and that they are normally made in cane or wood (311, note 2).
  5. al-Malik al-Muzaffar Yûsuf b. 'Umar, al-Mu‘tamad fî al-adwiya al-mufrada, edited by Mustafâ al-Saqqâ, Cairo 1983, 3rd ed., 323-325.
  6. See D.M Varisco, Medieval Agriculture and Islamic Science. The Almanac of a Yemeni Sultan, Seattle-London 1995, 148-150, where historical and botanical information on Yemeni honey is presented.
  7. al-Maqrîzî, Nahl 'ibar al-nahl, edited by Jamâl al-Dîn al-Shayyâl, Cairo, 1946, 36.
  8. Comte de Landberg, Glossaire datînois, iii, Leiden 1942, 2831.
  9. For a general assessment, see E.R. Jaycox and J. Karpowics, "A Beekeeping Project in the Yemen Arab Republic" Arabian Studies 9 (1990), 1-10; J. Karpowics, "Traditional Beekeeping in North Yemen", in: W. Daum (ed.), Yemen. 3000 years of Art and Civilisation in Arabia Felix, Innsbruck - Frankfurt/Main 1988, 372-374.
  10. W.H. Ingrams, "Traditional Bee-keeping in Wadi Du'an", Man 37 (1937), 32.
  11. D. van der Meulen and H. von Wissmann indicate that in the Thirties 400-500 camels loaded with honey were sent every year from Wadi Daw‘an to the coast (Hadramaut. Some of its Mysteries Unveiled, Leyden 1932, 67).
  12. For the various names of Yemeni plants, see A. Schopen, Traditionelle Heilmittel in Jemen, Wiesbaden 1983; Varisco, Medieval Agriculture; 'Alî Sâlim Bâdhîb, al-Nabâtât al-tibbiyya fî al-Yaman, Sanaa 1991, indexes.
  13. See, for example, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, al-Tibb al-nabawî, Riyadh 1996; or the widely-circulated manual of folk medicine, al-Rahmah fî al-Tibb wa-l-hikma, by Jalâl al-Dîn al-Suyûtî, several editions.
  14. On the beekeepers of Wadi Daw‘an, see the notes of Ingrams, "Bee-keeping", and the more recent report "The Beekeepers of Wadi Du'an" by E. Hansen, in Aramco World 46/1 (1995), 2-7.
  15. 15. In 1993, the cost of Wadi Jirdân and Wadi Daw'an honey reached 3,300 Yemeni Riyals per kilo, whereas marâ‘î honey cost only 350-600 YR per kilo (YR 54 = $ 1 approx.).
  16. 16. In Hadramawt (formerly a district of South Yemen) prices were commonly quoted in shillings (20 shillings = 1 Dinar; 30 Dinar = 1 $ approx.).

All photos by Giovanni Canova.

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