Turkey Is the Second Largest Honey Producer and A Gene Reservoir for Apis mellifera

In a village near the Black Sea coast of Turkey, a couple named Cavit and Rukiye Ozdemir keep 75 hives, with about 300,000 honeybees. Their hives are perched atop a hill overlooking green wooded valleys. There annual yield is anywhere from 1,100 to 2,200 pounds of honey, most of which is the chestnut variety. They sell their honey at a local Sunday outdoor market in Bulancak to the public, to a European grocery store chain and to the local honey cooperative.

Cavit Ozdemir has been a beekeeper for over 30 years. Beekeeping is a tradition that is passed from father to sons, and Cavit’s family have been beekeepers for 60 years or more.

In the bigger picture, this means his family are relative newcomers to the bee business, since apiculture has existed in Anatolia—now called Turkey—since about 1300 BC.

This 3:02-minute video by TRT discusses how Turkey is defying the global decline in bee populations and why.

The country has a rich variety of honeys available—a veritable smorgasbord—from acacia, chestnut, citrus, lavender, pine, thyme and wildflower to the hallucinogenic “mad honey” made from rhododendron nectar.

The only country currently out-producing Turkey in honey production is China. Turkey produces about 100,000 tons of honey each year now, according to the Turkish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. Just ten years ago that figure was 70% lower, indicating a vast expansion of apiculture in Turkey.

There is a high demand for honey consumption in Turkey, since many Turkish recipes call for copious amounts of honey to be used as a natural sweetener, especially in breakfast and dessert dishes. 

Turkey is not making large-scale exports of honey, much to the regret of the agricultural minister last April. Only 6,000-7,000 tons of Turkey’s bounty of honey has been exported annually. Although Turkey exports honey to 48 countries, the top 5 countries it exports to are Germany, USA, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Austria. Germany and the USA import most of the Turkish honey available for export. Some 1,611 tons of honey went to Germany and 713.5 tons went to the USA, according to Saffet Kalyoncu, chairman of the Eastern Black Sea Exporters Association. The Minister of Agriculture believes that as the second largest global honey producer, Turkey should have a larger market share globally, and that they need to focus on overseas marketing in the future.

In recent years, Turkish beekeepers are also starting to produce propolis, royal jelly, pollen and bee venom, all of which are popular nutritional and medicinal products globally.

In Turkey there is no need for farmers to pay for pollination services. The country has about 8 million honeybee hives, and there are three phytogeographically rich areas in Turkey, replete with about 10,000 species of plants and of these about 3,500 are endemic to Turkey. About 500 of these species produce large amounts of pollen and nectar for bees.

There is a small market for pollination services, but only for a few crops like sunflowers, cherries and almonds, according to the Beekeeping Development Application and Research Center in Bursa, Turkey.

In fact, it is far more common for traditional traveling beekeepers to have to pay landowners to host their beehives. This can cost about US$700 per season.

The going price for honey at a Turkish grocery store and market is about $4.75 per pound and up, depending on the type of honey it is. Beekeepers typically can earn $1.36 per pound of honey sold wholesale.

This 2:03-minute video shows how a new generation of beekeepers is educated in Turkey in the pine forest area where honeydew honey is made:

The volume and diversity of Turkey’s honeybee (Apis mellifera) population has meant that Turkish hives have experienced less of an impact from colony collapse disorder (CCD). The daily Hurriyet newspaper issued a special report that as of late 2018, CCD had wiped out about 150,000 of Turkey’s 8 million honeybee colonies.

In December 2018, Turkey’s Agriculture and Forestry Ministry banned three nicotine-based insecticides (Neonicotinoids)—clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam—in response to the honeybee losses. This followed an EU ban on the same chemicals earlier in the year.

According to a July 2016 report by the Beekeeping Development Application and Research Center, Turkey has at least 5 subspecies of the European honeybee and is a “gene reservoir” for the Apis mellifera.

The genetic diversity found in Turkey could help solve many of the problems causing colony collapse, but so far that potential has been hindered by a lack of interest or resources in bee breeding according to the study’s authors, Ibrahim Cakmak of Uludag University in Bursa and Selvinar Sevencakmak of Ankara University.

The authors wrote that genetic variation may provide natural protection against pathogens and predators thought to be a major factor in colony collapse. Some studies on resistance to parasites and diseases are coming soon to explore how the great diversity of honeybees could be efficiently used for breeding purposes in Turkey.

They indicate that preserving endemic honeybee subspecies and ecotypes are essential for the future of the beekeeping industry, not just for Turkey but for the world.