British honey bees, Syria, refugee

After finding a new home in North England, beekeeper Ryad Alsous, a Syrian refugee, has grown into a genuine advocate for native bee species. Even after living in England for the past four years, Alsous still cannot believe the hardiness of British black honeybees, furry strains from the Baltics and Germany that adapted to Britain’s climate long ago. “I never thought bees could be so successful in this climate,” he said, referring to his bees’ unusually strong tolerance of dampness that is so unlike other bee species. Alsous added, “Syrian bees can’t go out in even the lightest rain. If it’s 15 degrees [Celsius], there is no activity. But here, they work normally if it’s 15 degrees…even in the rain!”

Previously working with Damascus University as an agriculture professor, Alsous, 64, fled Syria with his family after receiving death threats as well as his vehicle being bombed, forcing him to abandon his research efforts into environmental pollution and beekeeping. He and his wife eventually settled in Huddersfield where Razan, their daughter, already lived. Having arrived the year prior, Razan was a bit of a local star, making appearances in a national cooking show due to award-wining halloumi her business produces.

Building a New Home

As for Alsous, he managed over 500 bee colonies in Syria, producing 10 tons of honey per year. Along with his university research, Alsous also ran a business that sold honey and herbal-based cosmetics. His passion for bees was among the few things that made the journey with him to the UK, but, as Alsous put it, “I needed only one hive to start.” Admittedly, however, it took the former professor time to find proper footing once he arrived in England. He was fluent in a little English, but he had little contact with other native speakers. Also, he found himself being rejected for jobs due to his overqualifications.

Eventually, Alsous approached Huddersfield’s beekeeping association in order to volunteer. Here, he made contacts and friends, and a Manchester woman offered to donate a hive with British black honeybees, which until recently were believed to be extinct in the UK. “That first hive, I’ve split it seven times,” Alsous said. “Really, it’s like a treasure. My aim is to cooperate with the community to improve the strain.” Built using recycled materials, Alsous’s apiary currently comprises of 17 hives.

Teaching Beekeeping

After spending a year building his apiary, Alsous realized how many hives Britain’s lavender and heather banks as well as its rapeseed fields could support. This inkling grew further when he went to a dinner for new arrivals and refugees in Huddersfield, and he knew he wanted to teach beekeeping to jobseekers and fellow refugees. Two women, Jane Wood and Jean York, who both work often with refugees, were at the dinner, and according to York, “This lit it up for me.” Local beekeeper Geof Hughes was equally impressed, saying, “I really valued the idea. I wanted to help.”

In 2016, all of them assembled a committee and began working on the “Buzz Project,” which greatly took off after Alsous’s chance encounter with Huddersfield Mayor Jim Dodds. Since then, the project just gave its second workshop to 12 participants, including three women from Syria, one Congolese refugee, and one Nigerian student.

Remembering Home

Even within the security of Britain, Alsous still remembers his home country, which, before the civil war, had had over 500,000 hives. These colonies, per Alsous, have all likely collapsed while the war has raged on. “I hope to go back one day and help to rebuild. It’s very important.”

Copyright: zagzig / 123RF Stock Photo

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