Zühtü Sezer controlling the hive. (Credit: Elif Ünal)

Beekeeper Zuhtu Sezer specializes in producing royal jelly, a rich secretion that worker bees produce to feed the queen bee. His 130 hives sit in a forest near the village of Demirci in western Turkey’s Bursa province.

The forest’s biodiversity and favorable climate used to provide his bees a perfect home. But increases in housing, deforestation, pesticides, and climate change have changed things. 

“We used to get 33 kilos of royal jelly; now it’s 15 kilos at most,” said Sezer, who’s been a beekeeper for 27 years. “We long for the old days. Our bees used to work all the way to the other side of the river. Now there are new villas and buildings. The field has narrowed; beekeeping is harder.” 

Fellow beekeeper Ahmet Topsever complains about the changing climate. “When the weather becomes suddenly cold, the bees do not leave the hives. You can’t get the product and must feed the bees, which increases the costs. The weather is more unpredictable now.” 

Ahmet Topsever (Credit: Elif Ünal)

In Turkey, second in honey production only to China, about 85 percent of beehives are located in forests. Recognizing the crucial place forests play in producing honey and other bee products, the government a decade ago began designating selected “honey forests” to boost incomes for tens of thousands of beekeepers with minimal impact on the environment. Soon, Demirci forest will be added to the list to become one of nearly 600 honey forests nationwide.

Local beekeepers are counting on the designation to bring improved working conditions and government support.

Where Nature and Business Coexist

Honey forests, natural areas where beekeeping brings extra income to thousands of families, almost didn’t happen because of what one forestry official calls a badly thought-out decision to protect forests. After an outbreak of forest fires in 2006, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry forbade beekeepers from entering forests.

“It was an irrational decision,” Ismail Belen, who was a ministry official at the time, told Transitions. When Belen became deputy director general at the General Directorate of Forestry in 2007, he ordered the ban overturned. Other officials rejected it, arguing that beekeeping activities posed a threat to forest ecosystems. 

The ban struck a blow to the livelihoods of thousands of beekeepers. Honey production the year after the fires fell from 84,000 tons to 74,000 tons.

“We needed to find a solution,” Belen said. The ministry set up a committee to study the issue.

“We worked really hard and came up with the idea of honey forests,” he said. By 2010, the idea was transformed into a law meant to raise production of bee products and generate income for beekeepers without damaging the forests. The first three years were a kind of testing period. In 2013, a five-year honey forest action plan took effect, smoothing out some of the bumps of the initial years by clarifying the criteria for the selection of honey forests. They were to be sited in areas where intensive beekeeping was already taking place, away from busy roads and human or animal activity, with a reliable source of clean water. The current five-year plan highlights the need to involve beekeeping associations in the selection of honey forests.

Since 2010, 596 honey forests have been designated on 77,166 hectares of land. The ministry’s action plan aims to increase the number to 720 by 2023.

Pesticides Blamed for Bee Deaths

Beekeepers still face unpredictable weather and other problems. The most pressing is the continued use of hazardous pesticides.

Topsever explained that his bees sometimes visit nearby fruit orchards where pesticides are applied.

“They should use pesticides at night when bees are not flying, but they use them during the day, and the bee dies when it lands on a flower,” he said. “What is worse is when the bee does not die and carries the poison into the hive. Then, the entire colony collapses.”

In 2018, the Turkish Beekeepers Association blamed neonicotinoid pesticides for bee die-offs in Bursa and two other provinces and echoed demands by environmental groups to follow the EU’s ban on these pesticides for outdoor use.

Turkey is far from alone in dealing with the effects of bee die-offs. Large drops in bee populations in the United States and Europe have been linked to pesticides and viruses, among other, less-understood factors.

The Fruits of Honey Forests

Although honey is the major bee product in Turkey, honey forests are meant to support all bee products, including beeswax, pollen, royal jelly, and bee venom. Bursa province produces most of the country’s royal jelly, a high-added-value product used in alternative medicine or as a dietary supplement. When the Demirci forest is designated as a honey forest, the Forestry Directorate will build shelters and storage areas for beekeepers, dig ponds, and plant trees whose flowers attract bees. Local beekeepers hope enriching the flowering species in this heavily damaged forest may compensate for some of their losses.

According to the Forestry Directorate, “About 50 percent of the forests where honey is produced have a damaged structure. The amount of degraded land is reduced by the establishment of honey forests, and the soil is protected against erosion by increasing the vegetation cover.”

Right now, there are 15 honey forests in Bursa province, and three are on the way. Both the beekeepers and the Forestry Directorate want to increase this number.

Kursunlu forest in the Karacabey district in the west of the province was designated as a honey forest in 2019. Here, Gursel Sukur keeps 215 hives, double the number he had before 2019, he said. His annual honey production has risen to one ton, he said, clearly proud of his achievement. 

Gürsel Şükür in front of the entrance of Kurşunlu Honey Forest. (Credit: Elif Ünal)

Kursunlu forest has always been attractive to his bees with its flowering trees and shrubs. And its location further away from fields and orchards means bees here are less affected by the pesticides that pollute Demirci. Its listing as a honey forest allowed the construction of facilities for beekeepers. Since forests are protected under the Turkish constitution, work like this was not possible prior to the introduction of the honey forest law, or it was done illegally.

The Bursa regional forestry directorate provided shelters and covered rest areas for beekeepers, along with wells and sheds to store hives, in 13 locations in Kursunlu forest. Beekeepers with fewer than 60 hives were given extra hives to increase their capacity. Foresters also planted lavender and heather to prolong the beekeeping season. “The longer the flowers remain, the more honey the bees produce,” Sukur said.

Hasan Cengiz, an agricultural engineer at the Bursa Forestry Directorate, said Kursunlu is a “rare natural honey forest in Turkey,” relatively healthy and well-stocked with chestnut and linden trees, heather, lavender, and arbutus.

In Demirci, the forest is not so naturally well-endowed and proximity to residential areas results in environmental damage, beekeepers believe. Zuhtu Sezer said the local beekeepers are waiting for the Forestry Directorate to fulfill its plan to plant chestnut and linden trees there.

Zühtü Sezer in front of the cabin he built in the forest. (Credit: Elif Ünal)

Not all honey forests succeed as well as Kursunlu, says Cengiz. “Honey forests should be established in the forests where there is ongoing beekeeping activity,” he told Transitions. Some forests are too hard to reach, he said, mentioning instances where foresters built shelters for the beekeepers and planted bee-attracting species, but the area stayed empty because of lack of interest.

Officials began to pay more heed to the needs of beekeepers after the first five-year honey forest plan took effect in 2013, when the Forestry Directorate started to collaborate with beekeepers’ unions. From that point, the productivity of honey forests improved, Cengiz said. 

Kurşunlu Forest has a rich and natural flora. (Credit: Elif Ünal)

Official statistics lend support to his statement, with the caveat that specific data for honey forests is lacking. According to the Turkish Statistical Institute, total honey production increased from 81,000 tons to 110,000 tons in the decade beginning in 2010, when the honey forests law passed. Over the same period, the number of hives rose from 5.6 million to 8 million.

Government support for the industry helped push Turkey into second place among world honey producers, according to the Forestry Directorate. China is by far the largest producer, making 444,000 tons in 2020. Canada was third, producing 80,000 tons.

Turkey’s beekeepers and the forests that sustain them remain highly vulnerable to man-made and natural dangers.

Demirciköy forest. (Credit: Elif Ünal)

“Bees are under great threat from the combined effects of climate change, intensive agriculture, pesticide use, biodiversity loss, and pollution,” Jose Graziano da Silva, then the director general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, said in 2019. He urged a shift to agriculture policies that favor pollinators and other sustainable practices.

Forest fires are also of rising concern in Turkey, as in other countries at risk of hotter weather and fluctuating rainfall patterns associated with climate change. In summer 2021 wildfires ravaged southern coastal areas for two weeks in what officials called the country’s worst-ever fire catastrophe.

Bees Are Big Business

Honey production contributes about $450 million to the Turkish economy annually and generates income for 150,000 families, the Forestry Directorate estimates. Cengiz said the number of beekeepers doubled to 80,000 after 2010.

Beekeeping is particularly important in Bursa province, where 1,500 beekeepers with more than 30 hives are registered, said Umut Bugra Kavas, head of the Bursa Beekeepers Association. “If we include non-registered beekeepers, the number could reach 2,500, which means a livelihood for 10,000 people,” he said.

Umur Buğra Kavas. (Credit: Elif Günay)

“I get 50 percent of my income from bee products,” said Kursunlu beekeeper Sukur. He plans to add more hives in the coming years and says this should enable his two sons to earn their living solely from beekeeping.

Beekeeping is a male-dominated sector, especially in Bursa. However, Sezer said, “If the wife does not help, most of the beekeepers cannot work. It is a family business.” Most of the year, women stay at home but enter the picture during harvest time.

Royal jelly is a specialty of the Bursa region. “Most of the royal jelly in Turkey is produced here. Our royal jelly masters are here. We want Bursa to be the royal jelly center,” Kavas said.

Before the creation of honey forests, Turkey produced 500 kilograms of royal jelly annually. The amount has risen to 1.5-2 tons, half of it from Bursa, said Cengiz.

“We want more people to get into beekeeping, but the conditions are getting worse,” Kavas said. “Most of them do beekeeping as a side job. If we can do something to improve their conditions, they will be able to make a living just by beekeeping, and they will be able to support their families.”

This Solution Journalism story was produced as a result of cooperation between Inside Turkey and Transitions.