Artisanal honey making in Lebanon
Beirut - Looking for a sweet and sticky experience? L’Atelier du Miel boutique in Achrafieh, a posh Beirut neighbourhood, is the place to be. Displayed in a modular structure inspired by beehives, honey pots of different sizes and colourful labels hold more than 20 types of the elixir, summing up the various flavours of Lebanon’s diverse ecosystem.
Honey making, which offers a sweet facet of the increasingly popular artisanal food in Lebanon, for the shop’s proprietors is also about empowering farmers and beekeepers and boosting awareness about the environment.
Architect by training but beekeeper by avocation Marc Bou Nassif said he is proud of the product. “Honey is the essence of nature,” he said. “Flowers feeding bees and bees turning the nectar into honey and giving it to us, it kind of summarises nature.”
Growing up in the city and holding regular 9-to-5 job as adults, Bou Nassif and his partners — his brother Ralph, a business consultant; and computer engineer Rabi Traboulsi — wanted to be close to nature and engage in an eco-friendly project.
They decided to try beekeeping, even though they had no clue about how to do it.
“Beekeeping is also about discovering nature because we move our beehives from one place to another all year round, following the seasons and flower blossoming to get different flavours of honey,” Marc Bou Nassif said.
Enlisting the knowledge of a French expert, the three amateurs began with 90 beehives four years ago, with the aim of introducing a new and professional concept of honey production in Lebanon, a country where beekeeping is undertaken mostly as a hobby and without innovation.
“We wanted to bring in a fresh eye to the process of producing honey. Traditional beekeepers move their beehives twice a year from the mountain to the coast and vice versa but in Lebanon you can do much more in view of its special geography,” Marc Bou Nassif said.
With a small area but diverse flora and climes from the coast to the highest mountains, Lebanon offers a special “grazing” ground for bees, making it the “land of honey and milk”, as mentioned in the Bible.
The young entrepreneur pointed out that his bees travel across Lebanon at least 20 times a year, depending on the season. “We have 20 locations for placing the beehives according to the season and the type of blossoms,” he said.
For instance, to produce cedar honey, the beehives are placed in the summer in the cedars forests of Ain Dara and Barouk in the heart of the Chouf mountains; for thyme honey, it is the “pastures” in Enfeh in northern Lebanon; for eucalyptus honey, the northernmost province of Akkar is the best place; while for orange blossom honey, the bees are taken to the coastal area of Tyre in the south.
As the business grew, the three partners contracted five beekeepers to increase their product’s quantity and variety.
“The contractors are all freshly graduated agriculture engineers,” Marc Bou Nassif said. “We adopt the beehives, they take care of moving them around and collecting the honey and we buy the product after it is submitted to a special system for quality control.”
By working with local beekeepers and young farmers freshly out of university, L’Atelier du Miel is providing sustainable and eco-friendly work opportunities across Lebanon.
From 250 kilograms of honey produced in the first year from 90 beehives, the quantity increased to more than 20 tonnes with 1,000 beehives in a span of four years.
“We work as a team,” explained Jimmy Aoun, a beekeeper contributing to the production of L’Atelier du Miel.
“It is a tightly interlinked chain that starts with the breeding of queen bees and the army of each queen, to the travelling of beehives to various feeding grounds and then the extraction and marketing of the honey. Any break in that chain would disrupt or slow down the process,” said Aoun, who employs several farmers and young agriculture engineers.
Aoun, an agro-engineer, said he does the reproduction of queens and armies, which are placed in the hives of 20,000 bees each.
“It is a science to make queen bees. Each queen bee fits in a particular environment and is placed in the location where it can thrive and produce at the maximum,” Aoun explained. “Some bees are more productive on the coast or in locations at a low altitude, because they cannot resist colder weather, whereas others thrive in colder places for instance.”
Honey making did not divert Bou Nassif and his partners from their original professions.
“For me, architecture and beekeeping are complementary,” Marc Bou Nassif said. “Nature has been a great inspiration for me as an architect, especially in the design of the boutique.”
A visit to the boutique is also an opportunity for “honey tasting” as exciting an experience as wine tasting, with more than 20 flavours on display.