Even the casual observer visiting the Bregalnica region of North Macedonia is likely to notice the brightly colored beehives clustered across the landscape. There is a high demand for honey in the Balkans and good money can be made from its sale. However, it is a precarious income; hives can be easily lost to the varroa mite or many other causes. Honey quality (and thus price) can also vary greatly according to where the bees have fed and how they have been treated. Beekeeping is also important for ensuring the pollination of many of the flowering plants in the region. In short, as demonstrated so memorably in the film Honeyland (shot in the Bregalnica region), sustainable beekeeping is a skilled business.
The Nature Conservation Project
The Nature Conservation Project (NCP), which is project of the Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation, is implemented by the local company Farmahem, with technical backstopping from Helvetas. Given the exceptional biodiversity of the region, one of the project objectives is to facilitate the establishment of two protected areas: Osogovo and Maleshevo. Proclamation of the protected area of Osogovo was achieved in November 2020; the process for Maleshevo is still ongoing. In both cases, it has been a consultative process, aiming to include all interested parties – from local people, companies, and municipalities to national agencies. One thing that was clear from the outset was that to ensure local support for the protected areas and to stem the tide of rural depopulation, income-generating opportunities had to be developed – especially for younger people. Beekeeping was identified as having potential in this regard, if undertaken organically. The aim is to ensure conditions that are good for bees and the environment, as well as attracting an adequate price margin. Hence in 2018 the concept of the Honey East Association was born: a group of Bregalnica beekeepers who follow strict quality guidelines and market their honey jointly.
The “leading light” behind Honey East is Vancho Kirovski. Now in his 50s, he has been keeping bees for 28 over years, originally as a side income and now as his primary source of revenue. It was Vancho who saw the potential to market organic honey production as a niche product from the region, and who led the design of a beekeeping course. Supported by NCP, the course offers both novices and practicing beekeepers the opportunity to learn organic methods. As Vancho observed, “If I’m the only beekeeper who’s successful and the others are not, that’s no good. Organized, we have a better chance of being recognized in the market and to promote the quality of our product.”
At EUR 350 (USD 396) per person, the cost of the course ensures that applicants are serious. However, the price is not excessive given that it includes necessary equipment (protective clothing and a smoker) and leads to a certificate that is recognized nationally in the field of Vocational Education and Training (VET). Course graduates are entitled to further coaching as needed, and can sell their honey under the Honey East label following an agreed pricing system, quality production protocols and sustainable beekeeping practices. The course entails 110 hours of tuition over four months, combining theoretical and apiary work. Vancho half jokes, “Our biggest mistake was to make the accreditation process so long! However, there are always interesting things to discuss and to learn.”
But the time passes quickly. The on-field training sessions are held at a beautiful site beside a reservoir just above the town of Kochani. The first course was rapidly booked out, and there are applicants on the waiting list for the second.
Beekeeping is traditionally a male occupation in North Macedonia. As part of a thrust to engage women and youth in project activities, the NCP offered places on the organic bee-keeping course for women and young people. Mirjana Ivanovska, Nada Jangelovska, Vaska Spasevska and Snezana Ilievska all applied successfully. Each began with three hives; between them, they now average over 30 each.
On a visit to Mirjana’s hives, it is quickly obvious how at ease the women are with the bees – and with each other. Clad in their protective clothing, they inspect each hive with expert eyes, rapidly identifying the queen and checking the overall health of the colony. A gel containing formic acid placed inside the hive is very effective against varroa; little evidence of the mite can be seen. Mirjana strokes the bees gathered on the honeycomb; they seem almost glad to be touched. There is no angry buzzing; no-one is stung. “You have to love the bees, to know them – and they know you,” says Mirjana.
The women, who have developed a visibly strong camaraderie, laugh about how much they have learned. They say, “Vancho is so patient and supportive; he’s been so since the beginning, continually coaching us when we need. Whenever we’re not sure about something, we call him. But now we’re confident we could manage on our own if necessary; we have each other. And we’re starting to share our knowledge with other beekeepers.”
It is Snezana who expanded production most quickly; she now has 60 hives. An energetic single mother with a teenage daughter, she has worked as a sports teacher, a physio-therapist and a football referee, but has experienced periods of unemployment and financial hardship. She believes organic beekeeping is a good way of ensuring a regular income – perhaps even a primary source of income in the future.
Choosing to remain living in rural Bregalnica
Beekeeping is often seen as an activity that contributes to sustainable livelihoods but brings only a small side income. However, the vision of Honey East is more than this. It is to make sustainable honey production an economically attractive occupation that allows a significant number of women and men to continue living in the Bregalnica region rather than migrating to urban areas. So far Honey East has 30 members, of whom only 11 have fully completed the registration process to sell their honey under the Honey East label – an indication of the standards required. Clearly there is still a long way to go in expanding the concept. Nevertheless, the experience of the women beekeepers is promising – and they are convinced of its replicability.
In a good year, a hive can yield 20kg honey; with 30 hives and following the Honey East pricing model, it is possible to generate an annual income of nearly USD 6,000, which is roughly equivalent to the net annual salary of a primary school teacher in North Macedonia. While none of the women beekeepers currently earn a living from selling honey alone, it has become a very significant source of income. Furthermore, it binds them, and others like them, together in a rural community.