The bees of war
Ukraine’s honey business is one of the largest in the world. Sadly, as a result of the war, dozens of apiaries and beehives are being destroyed every week. In some cases, beekeepers are able to get some financial support from the government, but it is not enough. Yet, the beekeepers remain optimistic. They share everything they have: their honey, knowledge and optimistic spirit.
The honey that you enjoy so much might be one that is produced in the Donbas region. Ukraine’s eastern and southern territories contain rich melliferous plants. Most people who produce this honey had to flee their homes and move to safer regions following the outbreak of the war. Their families might now even be living in your neighbourhood. Some have attempted to save their bees and take them to a new place. This is very difficult, as it is not as easy as transporting a cat. But those beekeepers who were able to stay found themselves at risk, trying to visit beehives despite the constant Russian shelling.
Ukraine is the largest European producer of honey and the second largest producer in the world. According to reports from the European Commission, more than 30 per cent of the EU’s honey was imported from Ukraine. A bit less is imported from China, though most EU countries try to avoid Chinese honey due to issues related to quality. The countries importing the largest volumes of Ukrainian honey in 2021 were Poland (16,989 tonnes), Germany (11,692), Belgium (6,225), France (4,337) and the Czech Republic (2,673).
Ukraine produced even a bit more honey than the United States, which is not surprising if you consider the fact that for many Ukrainians beekeeping is a hobby, and bees are something akin to a pet at home. That is why the Ukrainian authorities struggle to provide official statistics on the total number of beekeepers. Even though Ukraine managed to export 81,000 tonnes of honey in 2020 and 58,000 tonnes in 2021, the official number of registered beekeepers is only around 220,000 with 2,280,000 colonies. According to the Ukrainian Union of Beekeepers, the real number might be twice as large.
Patience and care
The honey lands of Ukraine are mainly Mykolaiv, Kherson, Kharkiv, Dnipro, Zaporizhzhia and, of course, the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. These were the areas most affected by the war and home to one-third of Ukraine’s beekeepers. Obviously, the industry is seriously suffering at the moment, but beekeeping can actually help the Ukrainian economy to recover. The key factors for beekeeping are patience and care.
According to the Union of Beekeepers of Ukraine, in 2022, Ukraine will fulfil all its honey-related contractual obligations due to the good weather. This is in spite of the difficult wartime conditions. This year, we expect up to 140,000 tonnes of honey, but a large part of it will remain in the country for domestic needs. Another part will be available only after the liberation of the occupied territories and when the owners of the apiaries return from the war.
For Denys Soldatov, February 24th began with explosions in his native city of Kharkiv. Since 2014, he was expecting this to happen, but even for him, the first days were shocking; he could not imagine the scale and the number of bombs that would hit the city. Soldatov is the vice president of the Union of Beekeepers of Ukraine, an umbrella organisation for everyone involved in beekeeping in the country. With 20 years of experience in beekeeping under his belt, he understood the value of organic products and popularised the idea of cooperation between farmers and beekeepers. He also had his own beehives located in fields full of phacelia. This plant naturally enriches the soil with nitrogen, which is good for agriculture and also helps produce very high-quality honey. Unfortunately, there has been no way for him to get to his bees since the beginning of the full-scale invasion. The last time the beekeeper got news from his apiary was in May when he received some photos.
Denys lost his beehives, equipment, laboratory and even shops, but not his hope. “I just want all of them to be gone. Every day I read the news, I feel glad that less of them are here, and I wish I could help more. That is why I continue helping as a volunteer,” he says. “My duty now is to do everything to help provide our soldiers with as many bullets as they need, and we will take care of our business afterwards.”
Now, with Denys having no bees or business to attend to, he has thrown himself into volunteering. After his family left, he started helping people leave Kharkiv when it was under constant shelling. One day he lost his friend. He remembers that in the first days, he wanted to join the army, but was dismissed due to his age. Servicemen were joking about people hiding from the draft but now they are trying to bribe their way in.
In the framework of the Union, Denys organised honey sales with donations going to the Ukrainian military. The initiative also supported therapy and treatment for 65 soldiers in hospital. While helping at a hospital, he came up with the idea of an initiative designed to educate military personnel who were injured in combat on beekeeping. “I want to be sure that they will be able to earn money for their families themselves, because it is difficult to rely on the payments from the government. They are good people who were just unlucky to have such a neighbour,” Denys says. He is sure that after physical and psychological therapy, this can be the next step in their social adaptation. To educate servicemen, Denys is preparing online lessons with further certification courses at the National University of Urban Economy.
Our brave beekeeper is sure that beekeeping will help Ukraine recover after the war by producing organic and ecological products. “Kharkiv is the beekeeping capital of Ukraine. We will get the territories and our bees back,” Denys says confidently. “Many apiaries were destroyed, many beehives were burnt down, and the beekeepers had to leave, because of the constant shelling. Some of them even lost their homes and we had to help them get to western Ukraine. We are trying to evaluate the consequences, but it is hard since many locations are unreachable. But we will continue to develop beekeeping even with the occupied territories to make the economy work, and to help our army get our territories back.”
What does not kill you makes you stronger
Just a week before the full-scale invasion, Yakiv was getting ready for the new season and buying new frames in Kherson. He remembers a clear sky with lots of helicopters. On February 24th, he woke up at five in the morning from a loud sound. At first, he thought it was an empty truck on the road. But the second explosion made him get up and go to his girlfriend. Upon hearing the news that multiple cities were under attack, they decided to escape back home to the countryside, just like many of the victims in Irpin, Bucha and Borodianka did. Yakiv is very glad they did not make it, because it saved their lives.
Yakiv is a 25-year-old PhD candidate studying agriculture and developing his own honey business in a village in the Mykolaiv region. Before opening his own apiary, Yakiv had been working on family farms in Europe, where he studied ways to intensify the production without harming the environment. He used the money he earned during those years to buy simple beehives and equipment, which he upgraded with time.
His apiary was located in the village of Stepova Dolyna, which is almost right on the border between the Kherson and Mykolaiv regions. An official evacuation happened there in March and April as the village and neighbourhood faced severe shelling. After the evacuation, only four people remained. Russian troops entered Stepova Dolyna only once.
When the Ukrainian military identified and destroyed a 50-vehicle Russian convoy, the soldiers spread out and hid in the village. “They were so surprised that in a two-street village we had roads, electricity and gas. I wish they saw our newly built concrete road between the Kherson and Odesa seaports that was built in the framework of the Big Construction Programme. They stole honey, because my neighbour found several jars in his yard; they tried to get inside my garage, but couldn’t manage it,” Yakiv says laughing.
On the other hand, he recalls one story a neighbour had told him: “He saw a man knocking very hard on my door. My neighbour asked him what he wanted. The man told him that he wanted to stay in position in the fields behind my garden, and he wanted to ask for permission to leave the position through my garden. The other time he told me that when Ukrainian troops were moving in and demining the villages, one of the senior officers saw my mother’s homemade wine fermenting, and ordered that it all be poured out; the discipline [to stick to prohibition] is very high, which makes me feel very proud.”
The first time Yakiv visited the village to look for some documents was in the middle of May. At that time, he saw a crater next to his house, but his house seemed only slightly damaged compared to others on the street. He arrived there one more time to take care of his bees and provide them with better conditions, because without human supervision, they can die. He knew that some of them would fly away.
“When I arrived the second time, I saw that some of the bees that left the beehive have found the old frames which smelled of beeswax in my barn. So, the next time, I might find a huge brick beehive there,” Yakiv says cheerfully.
The only thing this young beekeeper knows about his house at the moment is that in the following weeks there was a fire in the fields caused by drought, or possible enemy fire, and that his house was struck again. “The roof was damaged and most probably one of the walls. Back then, it was impossible to walk and look around. At that time everyone left the village,” he says calmly. “Recently, my village and the villages around it are in the reports on a daily basis. So, there is a very high chance that my house and apiary are already destroyed. If not destroyed, then burnt down; there are fires all the time.”
But Yakiv is optimistic: “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger,” he laughs. “I understand that everything is going to be destroyed. So, I am not planning to rebuild anything, but I want to build new facilities that meet all international safety standards and ISO certification.” He wants to develop his business in Ukraine, and is sure that lots of Ukrainians will return when the economy recovers. Since the conversation, Yakiv’s village has been liberated by Ukrainian forces.
How the war will change the honey market
The war forced Ukraine to reorganise its agrarian policy in line with the new reality. One of the decisions made back in February was not to plant sunflowers close to potential areas of military fighting. This, in fact, includes the entire 1,200-kilometre border with Russia and Belarus, as it is easy to hide vehicles in fields of sunflowers. As a result, the amount of sunflower fields is 30 per cent less this year compared to last. The other reason for the decrease is that the seed storages were destroyed and most of the seed suppliers did not take the risk of ordering seeds from abroad.
To meet the demands of Ukrainians, some farmers decided to plant more buckwheat, which is very popular among Ukrainians in times of crisis. It is also a source of delicious dark honey. At the same time, some fields were abandoned, as it was hard to predict what would happen. They are now covered with carpets of wildflowers.
The Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports has also significantly affected the situation. As a result of the blockade, Ukraine still had 20 million tonnes of grain from 2021. According to Mykola Solskyi, the Ukrainian agriculture minister, this year we can expect around 67 million tonnes more. Despite this, we still face logistical problems as we are currently exporting only up to 2.5 million tonnes per month. Therefore, farmers will soon have to make the decision on what they are going to sow next season. If the grain prices do not increase, some of the farmers will have no resources for new sowing and others might prefer sunflower and rapeseed to wheat and barley. This is because they are easier to ship and more expensive. That can also positively influence the volumes of Ukrainian honey in 2023.
We shall start anew, on the ashes of our past lives
The Union of Beekeepers of Ukraine is informed about dozens of destroyed apiaries every week. In some cases, the beekeepers are able to get some financial support from the government, but it is not enough to cover the losses if you take into account the devaluation of the Ukrainian currency. Yet, the beekeepers remain optimistic. They share everything they have: honey, knowledge and spirit. It already seems as though they have nothing to share given the daily air-raid sirens. However, they still find something to give them hope. They are certain that Ukraine will be victorious; it is only a matter of time. Until then, they have to work, just like their bees.
The late Lithuanian filmmaker Mantas Kvedaravicius, a director of two documentaries about wartime Mariupol, used to say that war is a concept with so much attached to it. While battlefields span over hundreds of miles and thousands of lives are at stake every day, villages and cities remain in the crosshairs of the aggressor. Lifetimes are also lived in a single day. Trapped in the horrific reality of full-scale war, a proud nation is fighting for the future. Those who dedicate themselves to beekeeping are no different from those devoted to other areas of expertise. The hives can burn down, the bees can flee their homes set ablaze by enemy fire, and the land can be scorched by thousands of bombs.
Yet, every war ends and the innate human desire to build and create stays with us. We shall start anew, on the ashes of our past lives; with a will and dedication hardened in the tumultuous weeks and months of battle. We are living in very turbulent times that have a definitive bitter taste. All the more need for the sweet taste of honey.
Alisa Koverda is an interpreter with ministry of agrarian and food policy of Ukraine. She has an MA in Korean and English languages and is a PhD candidate in political science.
This article is published in the framework of the “Bohdan Osadchuk Media Platform for Journalists from Ukraine” co-financed by the Polish-American Freedom Foundation as part of the "Support Ukraine” Program implemented by the Education for Democracy Foundation and the Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation.
Texts published as part of this project are available free of charge under open access Creative Commons license. Republishing is allowed under the CC license, however requires attribution and crediting the author and source.