‘There will be honey’: supporting Ukrainian beekeepers in a time of war

While Ukrainian honey is sent to fighters on the frontline, the beekeeping community rallies to support the nation’s hives

Dmytro Kushnir, Honeymaker, hopes that there is more to the old Ukrainian proverb than just a grain of truth. ‘whoever has honey has strength’.

Last month, with business grinding almost to a halt, he handed over a van-load of surplus honey – a tiny percentage of the 80,000-100,000 tonnes a year produced in Ukraine – to volunteer soldiers defending against the Russian onslaught.

“They are my friends, I wanted to help them,” says Kushnir, who is currently based in Kyiv where his company keeps a warehouse. 

He had previously visited the frontline and gained a clear insight into the conditions facing the fighters. “They are living in wet trenches, freezing cold. Many are suffering from illness and have begun to cough. Honey will help them stay healthy.

“I told them, ‘honey will make you strong’. They said they had strength, but they couldn’t have enough right now. Any support is important.”

Ukraine has a rich history of beekeeping stretching back to medieval times, when bees were coaxed into colonising ‘wild hives’ fashioned from hollowed-out trees.

Beekeepers were revered for their magic and used mystical spells in order to protect their bee colonies. This was to pass down their ancestral sorcery to their sons. They believed in prayers as much the leather ropes they used to climb tree trunks to tend to their hives perched at dangerous 15 metres above ground.

In recent years, Ukraine’s beekeeping tradition – and not a little skill – has made it Europe’s most prolific honey producer, and one of the largest in the world, with exports worth almost $140m (£114m) in 2020. 

Ukraine

Before the war, Ukraine had 400,000 beekeepers who managed 3.6 million bee colonies. Image: Bees for Development

Kyiv hosted the event. Apimondia’s international beekeeping congress in 2013, where Ukraine’s apiarists cemented lasting friendships with colleagues across the globe.

The country has around 400,000 beekeepers caring for 3.6m colonies, and pockets of its wild hive heritage survive to this day in the wilderness region of Polesia, often dubbed ‘Europe’s Amazon’.

In the midst of conflict, beekeepers in modern Ukraine need more then prayers. Many, including Kushnir’s brother, Yuriy Yanyshyn, have swapped their hive tools for weapons.

“Around half our beekeepers are away fighting,” says Kushnir, who co-founded his family enterprise Honey Brothers Seven years ago.

Others, however, agree with Brotherhood of Ukrainian BeekeepersAn NGO with 55,000 members who keep bees, ‘The Beekeepers Association’, has evacuated their apiaries in fleeing from the Russian invasion.

Traditional beekeepers climb tree branches to tend to their colonies. Image: Bees for Development

“It’s a horrible thought,” says Nicola Bradbear of Bees for Development(BFD), a UK charity which supports beekeeping in the most hostile and dangerous parts of the planet. “The beekeepers have had to go off to fight, and the one positive is that the bees will get on with it in their absence. There will be honey to harvest on their return.”

BFD is one of a number of charities and businesses worldwide that have answered the Brotherhood’s impassioned plea for aid. 

Alongside Apimondia – which this year relocated a planned congress in Russia to Istanbul – it is raising funds for long-term recovery projects such as re-establishing apiaries and local beekeeping association buildings. 

Previous charity work in Chechnya suggests the possibility of beekeeping in Ukraine once peace is restored. 

“Mined land can be left to grow wild, and bees will forage on it. They’ll come back with nectar and pollen to produce honey,” says Bradbear. 

The beekeepers had to leave to fight, but the good news is that the bees will continue to do so in their absence

“When infrastructure is destroyed, it’s quite hard to re-establish, say, dairy which needs equipment, roads and transport – but beekeeping is something that you can recover quite quickly. 

“It’s highly sustainable and resilient. You can kind of do it for free, and harvest a nutritious food commodity at a time when market systems aren’t working.”

The Brotherhood has for years supported ex-soldiers through its ‘Bee Wings’ programme, helping veterans master the craft of beekeeping. In war, the aid mission has undergone a reversal – Bee Wings is now supplying ammunition to beekeepers-turned-soldiers, as well as supporting their families.

The Brotherhood has been associated with the UK Brotherhood for many years. National Honey Show – the biggest beekeeping convention in the world – and for 10 years sponsored the Medal of Ukraine, awarded to the best honey from outside the British Isles.

Yuriy Yanyshyn tending a hive. Image by Honey Brothers

A Just Giving fundraiser organised by the show has received over £15k in donations for the Disasters Emergency Committee’s Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal. 

“It’s a drop in the ocean in terms of what’s needed,” says Bob Maurer, chairman of the show, “but it was just an opportunity for British beekeepers to make a gesture.

“Hopefully as things improve, we can review that and start looking at ways we help beekeepers and beekeeping in Ukraine directly.”

Kushnir is currently exploring export opportunities for his honey. It is grown in five different regions of Ukraine and each region brings its own flavour notes to the final product.

“The Russians destroy everything in their path, and of course that includes apiaries,” he says. “Beekeeping here is a passion and for some it means everything – and then it is gone. But we can rebuild. Life is the most precious gift we have right now. 

“The help and support we receive from the UK and the beekeeping community is very appreciated. We will never forget your kindness. We are fighting great evil and we feel like you are our brothers.”

Main image: Honey Brothers