Standing in the midday sun, surrounded by towering sandstone cliffs, I gazed into a trough made from half of a battered oil drum. It was partly filled with sugar syrup, and on the syrup floated chunks of rubber-sandal soles and a few dead bees. Looking around for the beekeepers' camp, I wondered where they had moved now.
It was mid-November, and at this same spot 12 months earlier, I had eaten lunch with the beekeepers in their tent. But this year, the ilb , or buckthorn, trees had flowered earlier than I had expected, and the men had moved on with their tents and-hives. My driver, Mohammed al-Osabi, smoked a cigarette and chuckled to himself at my bewilderment. He had just spent two days driving me across 500 kilometers (300 miles) of desert to meet again with the beekeepers of Wadi Du'an.
Wadi Du'an is a remote, little-known valley in Yemen, just south of the Rub' al-Khali, the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia. Here, generations of beekeepers have been perfecting their craft for at least a millennium. They work hard, using labor-intensive techniques of managing bees. Combined with the dry climate and short flowering season of local plants, their efforts have helped to produce the most expensive and sought-after honey in the world. The most frequent customers come from Saudi Arabia, and in Wadi Du'an, a two-pound tin of the very best honey in the comb can command a price of $100 or more.
Wadi Du'an produces what specialists call a dry-land, monofloral, wildflower honey, renowned for its unique buttery flavor, rich aroma and high viscosity—and for its medicinal qualities. The honey is thought to be the perfect medicine to help women regain their strength after childbirth. Elderly men maintain that a daily spoonful keeps them young, while young men believe that regular doses will help produce a male heir.
During this morning's drive, I had had plenty of time to mull all this over. A gravel track had taken us past storefronts selling the local honey, and farther out, in the villages, we met turbaned men sitting behind kick-wheels, fashioning mounds of slick clay into cylindrical beehives more than a meter tall.
One of the shopkeepers, Islam Ahmed Ba Dhib, had opened tins of honey to let us sample the three different types he had on hand that day. "There are many tests for purity," he said, "but none of them are certain, and, as with friendship, the honey business is based on trust."
The first type he showed us is known to merchants as bariyah , "the cream," a winter honey made from buckthorn (Ziziphus spina-christi) blossoms. The honey tin—25 centimeters (9") across, the same diameter as the terra-cotta hives—was filled with a double layer of round comb. The heady floral fragrance was unlike any honey I had ever smelled, and the taste was a complex mixture of butter, wildflowers and mysterious, aromatic herbs. Bariyah is eaten mostly by wealthy men.
Next, he opened a tin of marbahey , a summer honey also called sa'if ("of the summer"), after the trees' flowering season. This, I was told, is a "hot" honey, thus good for such things as getting rid of intestinal worms, but to be avoided by pregnant woman, because it can cause miscarriage. Marbahey is usually eaten by dipping warm bread into a mixture of the honey and clarified butter, and sprinkling the mouthful with nigella seeds.
The third type of honey Ahmed Ba Dhib brought out is called mardjah , and it, he explained, is collected between the winter and summer seasons. It is produced when fewer flowers are in bloom and is thus one of the most expensive varieties. He confirmed the stories I had heard of merchants from Gulf countries flying into nearby Wadi Hadhramaut to buy honey from the wholesalers.
Before we left, Ahmed Ba Dhib had told me of a traditional Yemeni way to preserve meat in honey. "Cut up either sheep or goat meet and submerge it in honey for six months. You must be careful to use a ceramic or glass container," he cautioned. "It is a dish that rich people eat for breakfast or at weddings." He had also mentioned that tins of honey are sometimes given to a bride's family as a special wedding gift.
Standing by the oil drum in Wadi Du'an that hot afternoon, I wondered who had taught the beekeepers the cheap trick of using sugar syrup to increase the yield—and lower the quality—of the honey. Mohammed al-Osabi, who had kept bees in his father's village, told me that the cut-up rubber thongs floating in the syrup served as platforms from which the bees could drink the syrup without falling in. He assured me that reputable buyers would avoid honey from beekeepers who ran such an operation.
Not far from where we stood, a band of wild baboons emerged from a nearby date grove. Gliding across the stony ground, they paused to glare at us and then, without hesitation, swarmed up the 90-meter (300-foot) cliff and disappeared from sight. Watching them, al-Osabi noticed a single abandoned beekeeper's at the foot of the cliff. Walking closer, we came upon rows of several dozen terracotta hives, set on metal frames and wrapped in. burlap and cardboard to protect them from the sun.
No one else was in sight, so we approached the hives on hands and knees to take a closer look. Unperturbed, small docile-looking bees with black and gray stripes flew in and out of the hives. I wondered about honey thieves, but then al-Osabi cleared his throat and nudged me. The shimmering profile of a man materialized in the heat waves. His body gradually transformed itself into a recognizable shape, and then I heard the sound of his footsteps on the hot gravel. We stood up to greet him.
"You have some interest in bees?" he asked. He introduced himself as Omar Sa'eed Abdullah, honey producer and owner of the hives. He lit a scrap of burlap sacking and waved the smoke toward the entrance of a rectangular wooden hive before opening the back of the hive to reveal a section of golden comb. The metal legs of the hives were set in tins of motor oil to keep out ants. Hornets are another enemy of the bees, and Abdullah showed us a cleverly constructed screen trap, baited with poisoned fish and swarming with confused hornets. Gesturing to the overhead sun, he invited us to his home so that we could discuss beekeeping in comfort.
We sat on the carpeted living-room floor, kept cool by the thick walls of the four-story, mud-brick building. Shuttered windows with decorative lattice screens overlooked an expanse of date groves and, farther off, small dusty plots of farmland awaiting the seasonal rains. On a flat roof a satellite dish was perched. "CNN," my host announced proudly.
I asked him how long his family had been keeping bees.
"For generations," he said as he poured out cups of ginger coffee and offered a plate of fresh dates. "We used to keep the jabali [mountain] bee," he said. "I can still remember it from my childhood 30 years ago. It was reddish in color, but now it's gone. The new bee we use is from Ethiopia, from people who grow crops, but the problem is that this new bee [Apis yemenitica] is not as drought- and hunger-resistant as the wild mountain bee was."
When I asked him about bariyah , he told me that it was named after a particular star that appeared above the horizon at the time of year when this honey was produced. Honey seasons are calculated in accordance with the sidereal year, he explained, rather than the Muslim lunar calendar, because the latter doesn't keep step with the flowering cycle of melliferous plants.
Behind a heavy wooden door that opened onto the sitting room, tins of honey were stacked waist deep. From this storeroom, Abdullah brought out a tin of buttery kharfi ("of the autumn"), a 100-percent-pure ilb honey selected from his private supply. This quality of honey is reserved for family, friends, and—as in my case—the arrival of an unexpected guest. Connoisseurs of Yemeni honey recognize a wide range of varietals within each growing region, and this tin contained a kilo of the finest honey from a special area of Wadi Du'an known as Jardan. We cut off small portions of the comb, and sat back to enjoy the sensation of thick honey melting in our mouths, revealing layer upon layer of delicate and unexpected flavors. I realized again that eating wildflower honey from Wadi Du'an is an entirely different experience from eating commercial honey—just as the finest Belgian chocolate is different from supermarket brands.
According to Abdullah, the nomadic beekeepers had recently moved their camps to the south coast in order to set their hives near the late-flowering ilb trees in that region. Honey profits had motorized their migrations in recent years, and they transported the hives in four-wheel-drive vehicles today; years ago they would have used camels, moving only at night in order to allow the bees to work during the day. But now as then, the mostly landless beekeepers follow their established semi-nomadic migratory pattern, and their families stay behind in often remote villages, tending the fields. Abdullah too stays put: He inherited beekeeping rights to sufficient nearby land to make it unnecessary to shift his hives with the seasons, and prefers to produce a limited amount of high-quality honey from a specific region, hoping to command a premium price that way. This strategy, he said, has brought him individual buyers from as far away as Kuwait and Bahrain.
In addition to honey, the Du'an area is also famous for its bee sellers. In March, there is a market out on the main road, known as suq al-mib, the bee market. There, swarms of bees are sold just prior to the spring season, along with hives, the only significant piece of equipment used by the beekeepers. A plastic-grid hair curler, with foam-rubber stoppers at either end, may be used as a miniature cage to transport the queen bee, and few people use protective clothing or honey extractors. Indeed, traditional beekeepers prefer to sell honey in the comb to attest to its purity, or simply squeeze the honey from broken combs into plastic water bottles. Bits of wax and the odd dead bee float into the neck of the bottle, offering another indication the honey was locally produced,
That night, Mohammed al-Osabi and I camped on the edge of a volcanic plateau overlooking Wadi Du'an. A full moon illuminated the villages far below. Donkeys brayed, camels roared, and the headlights of lone vehicles lurched along distant tracks until well after midnight.
The following morning we drove north to the city of Shibam, where I met Said al-Sakoti, a dealer specializing in honey from Wadi Du'an. He explained that modern beekeeping techniques were being introduced in the area, and,looking at his shelves, it seemed that the Walter T. Kelley Company of Clarkson, Kentucky, had virtually cornered the market on beekeeping devices, ranging from wooden hives to sheet wax to bee drinking stations. Al-Sakoti admitted that the new methods of mass-producing honey, with modern, large-capacity hives set at the edge of cultivated fields, were rapidly changing traditional practices. Quantity was becoming more important than quality, he said. The bees were being fed sugar syrups and cheap imported honey to increase yields. New customers from outside the area were less discriminating than the locals, he explained, and consequently more gullible. With their time more valuable, many beekeepers now preferred to drive their hives from place to place in order to produce honey year-round, rather than just during the short seasons, as before. "But, there will always be a market for the very best honey," al-Sakoti assured us.
I asked how the old-fashioned kind of honey could possibly maintain its high price in the face of inexpensive imported brands and now mass-produced local honey as well.
"Demand and limited supply is what drives up the price," he replied. "For the people who can afford it, there is no substitute for the flavor and taste of great honey, which is the result of the gathering skills of certain beekeepers. There are many ways to adulterate honey, but an expert judges it mainly from the aroma. The taste merely confirms what the nose tells you."
"And what is the best way to eat high-quality honey?" I asked.
"Sometimes with a spoon, but among friends I like to cut the comb like cake and eat it with my fingers. That is the very best way. And now," he said, "shall we see what the bees have brought us this year?" He smiled and reached for a nearby tin.
Eric Hansen is the author ofMotoring With Mohammed: Journeys to Yemen and the Red Sea. He lives in California.