We’re in Skoura, a small town located in the Atlas foothills, at the Sahara gates. Our research on the saharan yellow bee conservation efforts have led us to Sawadi (read the article), an ecolodge run by people who sheltered several control hives. They were the ones to put us in touch Mohamed Aglagane, former President of the Albisher organzation, to which this ambitious project owes its existence.
Mohamed, a desert philosopher
We meet Mohamed one evening after school, for in addition to being a beekeeper, he’s also a school teacher. We seat around the traditional mint tea and discover a man full of will and passion.
« Saving the yellow bee is a loooooong term job! » he tells us with a sigh. But a hard work that is worth it, so much of a symbol of hope is this bee in an environment only getting tougher and tougher. Keeper of the ancestral knowledge linking Men and Nature, she is also the guardian of the unique biodiversity that makes this arid, but very resourceful area, so rich.
« I could’t just sit there and watch, so I started to learn. » Mohamed
Mohamed became a beekeeper ten years ago, when he realised that this very special bee was to simply disappear if nothing was done. « I could’t just sit there and watch, so I started to learn » he tells us. With the help and the support of numerous organisation and people*, Mohamed launches the non profit organisation Albisher, in order to support the conservation project.
He is also involved in raising five sons, to whom he teaches that you have to reconnect to nature, not go against. His philosophy is full of wisdom and pushed him into exploring the technics of traditional medicine and homeopathy, that he now uses in his job, as well as his everyday life…
HOW TO NATURALLY TREAT AGAINST VARROA?
« Do you know about the principle of analogy? » he starts. It is one of the fundamental principles of homeopathy, that says that for similar afflictions, you can use the same remedy. For exemple, to treat the varroa, which is kind of the bee lice, one can use Staphysagria, a remedy issued from a plant called the lice plant growing in the Mediterranean area. He also mentions that it is what the elders used to employ, a method Albisher tested when working in Skoura with Homeopaths Without Borders to treat the almond tree aphids…
*The Regional Office for Agricultural Valorisation in Ouarzazate, of which Mr Mohamed Benidir is responsible for the livestock services; The Science Faculty of Semlalia in Marrakech, from which Mr Ahmed Ouhammou, a botanist, helped a lot on the project; The Beekeeping Technics Studies Center of Moselle, of which Paul Schweitzer is the ecological laboratory director; The Regional Beekeeping Sanitary Organisms National Federation in France, of which Louis Pister is the administrator and organised and held a lot of beekeeping training cessions for Albisher; The Interprofessional Moroccan Beekeeping Federation, of which Mr M’hammed Aboulal is the President; The French Embassy in Morocco; The French Foundation; And the Algerian Beekeeping Organisations Federation, of which Mahmoud Lakhal is the President.
He now wishes to share a little experiment with us. He puts a big spoon full of honey in a soup plate, and lightly flattens it out with the back of the spoon. He then adds a little water on top of it, and slowly moves the plate in circles for a few seconds. We’re asked to look into it and to tell him what we observe. To our greatest surprise, the surface of the honey is recreating a perfectly sized honeycomb pattern. We can’t believe what our eyes are telling us. He explains that it is a way to differentiate real honey (from nectar) from fake honey (from sugar), and that it is called the water memory…
Ok… We’re all ears.
The yellow bee and her challenge for survival
In this barren environment located between the High Atlas mountains and the Sahara at the altitude of 1200 metres, the rocky landscapes seem deserted. Yet, they hold a secret. Watching closer, an extraordinary diversity of plants lies here, with an abundance of species specially adapted for these extreme conditions. The vegetation generally stays small, displaying thorns, a limited leaf surface to avoid evapotranspiration, and small flowers with shallow honey wells.
« You cannot do better than nature, The best you can do is to protect it, just like these bees, so perfectly adapted to their area’s climate. » Mohamed
Mohamed says that it is because of this difficult climate that the yellow bee, or Apis mellifera sahariensis, is so remarkable. « You cannot do better than nature. The best you can do is to protect it, just like these bees, so perfectly adapted to their area’s climate » he explains.
Her tongue is smaller than the other bees, giving her access to smaller flowers, she can gather pollen up until seven kilometres from her hive, against just three for the others, and she’s also capable of regulating her colony numbers depending on the food availability to ensure survival. A fascinating demonstration of adaptability, topped up by the fact that she has a very gentle behaviour… Making her a perfect companion for beekeepers!
Nevertheless, her survival is threatened. Her existence was seriously compromised by the massive spraying of insecticide to fight the destructive cricket plagues and her population, although resistant, has become alarmingly low on numbers. The bees are here in great numbers, but they are all almost black. « That’s because of the transhumance, and also the beekeepers buying black bees hives to replace the ones lost because of spraying » Mohamed explains. The beekeepers from the north and the west of the country work with black bees (called tellienne bee) because they are today easier to find, and move their hives following the flowerings. The yellow queens will meet with the black drones, and the genetic dilution will start, leading to the disappearance of the first ones.
To find trace of the yellow bee, one now has to go deep into the Atlas valleys away from the transhumance areas, where a traditional beekeeping is still practiced.
Comparison between a yellow bee and a black bee, also called tellienne bee
The honey memory
« Someone one day said that this village holds the hives in its hands » Mohamed
The next day Mohamed takes us into the yellow bee realm, in the heart of the High Atlas mountains. We’re heading to the berber village of Tagragra, where the community troglodyte apiary is still tend to according to ancestral techniques. « Someone one day said that this village holds the hives in its hands » he says when arriving at the foot of the hives, carved directly into the rocky wall a few meters away from the houses.
The hives, of which the front facing us is sealed, are made of two distinct parts, partially divided by an inside partition. On one side are the queen and the brood, with the exit hole, and on the other side is the equivalent of the top box, where the honey is collected.
« The work for the yellow bee conservation starts here, it’s tradition helping modernity! » Mohamed, quoting one of his friends, Paul Schweitzer
In here, tradition is queen and the bees are an integral part of the family. Quoted in the Coran as good for the health, honey is one of the main ingredients in cooking, as well as in medicine. The women, often in charge of the bees, also learned how to use their venom to heal humans and animals.
To treat a cyst on livestock for exemple, they use the bee to sting into the cyst, then empty the abscess that the sting helped to burst, and after that fill the wound up with honey to ensure disinfection and healing… They also use the venom against leishmaniasis, scorpion stings, migraine, eczema, and sore throat. And it also seems that honey is the best cure for haemorrhoids!
« The work for the yellow bee conservation starts here, it’s tradition helping modernity! » Mohamed says, quoting one his friends Paul Schweitzer. Because it’s in here, in the depth of the Atlas mountains, that they will find the yellow queens that will repopulate the colonies in the valleys and palm groves such as Skoura’s one.
The challenge, rearing yellow queens
The process isn’t simple and requires time and attention. To sum up, the idea is to collect yellow queens brood in the remote mountain valleys, where the breed is the purest, and then to use it to raise new yellow queens that will replace the black ones in the targeted hives. Little by little, restraining drastically the presence of black drones, the yellow bees will eventually take over the black ones.
But like Mohamed said in the beginning, it’s a long term hard work requiring full involvement. Yet the goal is worth every drop of sweat of it, and that’s why the non profit organisation Albisher, of which he is the spokesman, offers motivated young people beekeeping training courses. And the yellow bee is the perfect candidate, for she also offers, among all her other qualities, a far better efficiency regarding the actual average five kilos… That’s what we like to call a win/win situation!
The organisation is by the way always looking for volunteers ready to share their knowledge. So if you know your way around bees and queen rearing, and have some time to offer, get in touch with Mohamed!
Back from this expedition in the mountains, we’re invited to share the traditional Friday couscous. Between two couscous balls, he tells us that he has a surprise for us… He contacted two of his friends, involved in a food forest plantation in the desert, and another of his friends, practising homeopathy for plants, so we could meet them! Seeing our stunned faces, he adds with all the restraint and wiseness that defines him « I’m only giving nice flowers to forage upon ». We now know our next destinations!
Thank you Mohamed. We came to learn more about the saharan yellow bee, et we now go knowing that we only picked one sand grain up…