Beekeepers Mustafa Alti and his son Fehmi were kept busy tending to their hives before wildfires tore through a bucolic region of Turkey that makes most of the world’s prized pine honey.
Now the Altis and generations of other honey farmers in Turkey’s Aegean province of Mugla are scrambling to find additional work and wondering how many decades it might take to get their old lives back on track.
“Our means of existence is from beekeeping, but when the forests burned, our source of income fell,” said Fehmi, 47, next to his mountainside beehives in the fire-ravaged village of Cokek. “I do side jobs, I do some tree felling, that way we manage to make do.”
Nearly 200,000 hectares of forests — more than five times the annual average — were scorched by fires across Turkey this year, turning luscious green coasts popular with tourists into ash.
The summer disaster and an accompanying series of deadly floods made the climate — already weighing heavily on the minds of younger voters — a major issue two years before the next scheduled election.
Signaling a political shift, Turkey’s parliament this week ended a five-year wait and ratified the Paris Agreement on cutting the greenhouse emissions that are blamed for global warming and abnormal weather events.
But the damage has already been done in Mugla, where 80 percent of Turkey’s pine honey is produced.
Turkey as a whole makes 92 percent of the world’s pine honey, meaning supplies of the thick, dark amber may be running low worldwide very soon.
Turkey’s pine honey harvests were already suffering from drought when the wildfires hit, destroying the delicate balance among bees, trees, and the little insects at the heart of the production process.
The honey is made by bees after they collect the sugary secretions of the tiny Basra beetle (Marchalina hellenica), which lives on the sap of pine trees.
Fehmi hopes the beetles will adapt to younger trees after the fires. But he also accepts that “it will take at least five or 10 years to get our previous income back.”
His father Mustafa agrees, urging President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government to expand forested areas and plant young trees.
“There’s no fixing a burned house. Can you fix the dead? No. But new trees might come, a new generation,” Mustafa said.
For now, though, the beekeepers are counting their losses and figuring out what comes next.
The president of the Mugla Beekeepers’ Association, Veli Turk, expects his region’s honey production to plunge by up to 95 percent this year.
“There is pretty much no Marmaris honey left,” he said.
“This honey won’t come for another 60 years,” he predicted. “It’s not just Turkey. This honey would go everywhere in the world. It was a blessing. This is really a huge loss.”
Beekeeper Yasar Karayigit, 45, is thinking of switching to a different type of honey to keep his passion — and sole source of income — alive.
“I love beekeeping, but to continue, I’ll have to pursue alternatives,” Karayigit said, mentioning royal jelly (or “bee milk”) and sunflower honey, which involves additional costs.
“But if we love the bees, we have to do this,” the father of three said.
Ismail Atici, head of the Milas district Chamber of Agriculture in Mugla, said the price of pine honey has doubled from last year, threatening to make the popular breakfast food unaffordable for many Turks.
He expects price rises to continue and supplies to become ever scarcer.
“We will get to a point where even if you have money, you won’t be able to find those medicinal plants and medicinal honey,” Atici said.
“It’s going to be very hard to find 100 percent pine honey,” beekeeper Karayigit agreed. “We have had so much loss.”
Looking ahead, the president of the Turkey Beekeepers’ Association, Ziya Sahin, suggests selectively introducing the Basra beetle to new areas of Mugla, expanding coverage from the current 7% to 25% of local pine forests.
“If we conduct transplantation of the beetle from one area to another and continue this for two successive years, we can protect the region’s dominance in the sector,” Sahin said.
“There will be a serious drop in honey production if we don’t do this,” he added, calling this year the “worst” of his 50-year career.
Yet despite the pain and the troubled road ahead, the younger Alti has no plans to quit.
“This is my father’s trade. Because this is passed down from the family, we must continue it,” Fehmi said.