How Beekeepers Are Experiencing the Effects of Climate Change in Bosnia

Unpredictable seasonal changes and odd effects on plants have made it a struggle to simply keep the bees alive

How Beekeepers Are Experiencing the Effects of Climate Change in Bosnia
Bees find shelter in a rose bush that belongs to the author’s grandmother. (Larisa Jasarevic)

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A lovely day, at the wrong time of the year. The wicker beehive, called a skep, below the window of my office at home has been buzzing since this morning. The bees’ wings in flight catch light and flicker like snowflakes in bygone winters. It’s Dec. 26, 2022, and the air temperature is 64 degrees Fahrenheit and rising. Our village on a lowland mountain in northeastern Bosnia historically would have been snowed in by now, the steep, sinewy road to it impassable for days at a time. But this year, it is warm enough that I need not build a fire in the wood stove. I head out to the forest.

When my thinking gets stuck, I go for a walk. I am preoccupied, as ever, with the research project that, in a nutshell, concerns beekeeping in the end times. My research does not foretell an apocalypse nor is it anti-apocalyptic. Rather, it speaks to the “end times” through which we are already living while our familiar world is being fast undone. In what follows, I will share with you the signs of the times that are easily missed unless you are in the habit of observing your natural surroundings with an eye for insects’ hunger or cravings. Local beekeepers will be our guides. Watching the signs, however, is by default a restless feat, the sort that requires thinking about what is to be done and what might happen next. Speaking in terms of the “end times,” as the rest of this essay will explain, suggests that we squarely stare at some discomfiting prospects, including the possibility of the world’s end — but that we do it by acknowledging subtle, not dramatic, signs of trouble, and we acknowledge it might not go how we think it will. If this inexhaustibly rich and diverse domain we call the world has forever excited the curiosity of poets and philosophers, mystics and scientists, we ought to consider the chance that the shape of its future or even its failure could surprise us.

As I head to the forest, chicory-blue sky spreads above, then softens into a haze over the valley below and all across the mountains rolling out to the horizon. The road ahead is aglow. It winds through brush and meadows, riotous and rewilding. The majority of the villagers have emigrated from here. We are a small, odd family of returnees, and the bees far outnumber us humans. Native plants, weeds and invasives are thriving here after human abandonment, an unintentional experiment in whether returning the land to its wild state will be enough to stave off catastrophe. Our mountaintop is a sweet spot on the broken planet, a heaven for birds and insects. Sunlit in late December, though, leafless thickets cast unnerving shadows, rosy and skeletal. I pick up the pace.

The dirt road gets rockier as the village falls behind. By the grove of thorny black locust trees, I cut a path through brambles and walk into an old, abandoned orchard, fringed with hazelnut shrubs. There, just as I feared, the branches have bloomed.

A bee foraging on false indigo. (Larisa Jasarevic)

Hazelnut catkins, silky like fox tails and luxurious in pollen grains, are known as the first signs of spring. Not just to us humans but also to the honeybees, a species that tracks seasons by environmental cues. Honeybees collect hazelnut pollen, and the fresh supply of this prized source of protein and vitamins puts the hive into a spring mood and fuels its effort to build a new brood.

For as long as anyone can remember, hazelnut catkins blossomed around here in late January or February, even as late as March, depending on the winter weather conditions. But with global warming, these rules do not hold. Each year, catkins have been coming a few days earlier in January. This is no longer surprising. Dates of spring arrival are notably advancing across the Northern Hemisphere, while winters are shot through with sudden spikes in temperature and thaw spells, known as “false springs.”

Hazelnuts blooming in late December, however, is not a case of false spring, since there has not yet been a winter. This season has no name. Worse, with the air temperature so high, the catkins are likely to wither soon.

Since 2014, I have been researching how local beekeepers and their bees in Bosnia and Herzegovina experience the effects of climate change. As an anthropologist and a recipient of several well-funded research grants, I have been fortunate to have the resources to observe local ecological practices for extended periods of time and across the country’s diverse ecological niches. I have also established an apiary in my paternal village. Years of research and bee care have taught me to take unseasonable catkins as a telltale sign of a quiet, quickening disaster that is dooming the local honeybees.

Local insights into the tattered bonds between bees and plants in Bosnia are pertinent, no matter where on Earth you are. No one is far from the crooked new customs of weather.

What wisdom does it take to relate to the trouble that is as discreet as it is profound? So far, modern humans have lived and dreamed toward a future that is never-ending. As the finite planet balks at such faith, might we think again about the meaning of “the end”? Thinking through the ground effects of climate change I find guiding insights in the efforts of local Muslim beekeepers as much as in Islamic eschatology: teachings on death and the end of the world. The eschatology recommends a commitment to the precarious present, precious in the light of its passing and meaningful because it flows with omens and chances. To local Muslims, Sufis among them, thinking eschatologically is to strive to do, at all times, that which you will not regret.

“I have a hunch,” Sefik says, his tall, burly figure barely visible in the final hours of the night. “A sign, of sorts, to the extent that we can ever know ahead, but in the next 10 years, everything will change. Our lives will be entirely unlike what we are living right now.” He tells me this as we walk through an apiary at the foot of an old forest in western Bosnia.

Sefik removes a tin roof from the first hive in a row, lifts a lid from a plastic feeder in the inner cover and pours in ruby-red liquid from a recycled Coke bottle. His wife and partner in beekeeping, Senada, does the same several rows below where we’re standing. It is the end of the summer of 2021, and the beekeeping couple are literally bottle-feeding their honeybees.

The author’s family apiary in the shade of apple and plum trees. (Larisa Jasarevic)

A blade of sunlight cuts through the horizon, illuminating the surroundings just enough for our camera to grasp the verdant wilds. This small apiary greets the eye and spirit with trees and blooming herbs, ornamental shrubs and weeds, all of which are precious fodder for the bees. While waves of drought and heat have turned flora thin and grass blades brittle, icicle-like, in much of the country, the strong forest creek flushes this area with morning dew and mist, keeping the vegetation lush. And yet, the resident bees are nearly starving.

My sister Azra and I are filming the two beekeepers, and Sefik is keen to explain what they are doing.

“This is a syrup: plain sugar and water. It is a punishment for her [the bee]. But we have to give it whenever there isn’t enough food in nature for the bees to collect. We didn’t used to do this, but now we are struggling to keep the bees alive. That’s all we do, all year long, working hard to keep the bees alive,” he says.

And yet, even though they are dispensing what amounts to bee “junk food,” they give 50 fluid ounces per hive, every other day. Artificial feeding used to help bees weather brief spells of dearth or supplement winter honey reserves to ensure plentiful food stocks through the spring. Nowadays though, sugar syrup makes up the bulk of bees’ winter food bank. The bees process the syrup in a similarly painstaking way to how they process nectar, enriching each drop with enzymes in their gut and evaporating excess moisture, before storing the substance in the comb. The food lasts through the winter, fueling the bees’ efforts to warm the nest through low temperatures, and supports the hive in the spring when it builds up the population.

A bottle holds an early summer honey harvest with a mix of black locust and spring plum and apple blossoms alongside. (Larisa Jasarevic)

The sugar syrup is colored by rosehip tea, which beekeepers brew to enrich the food substitute with vitamin C. Still, compared to honey, one of the most complex substances found in nature, sugar syrup is not just bland. It is literally “punishing” to the bees, as Sefik puts it.

Honey is a concoction of honeybees’ enzymes and plant-based substances derived either from floral nectar or from “honeydew,” which is a sweet liquid discarded by aphids and scale insects gorging on plant sap. Honey in the hive additionally contains traces of pollen and propolis; the latter, often called “bee glue,” is produced from tree sap and endowed with antibacterial and antiviral properties. Honey is mostly composed of different kinds of sugars. But its extraordinary variability and therapeutic qualities are attributed to complex and perishable constituents, among them phenols, enzymes, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, probiotics and prebiotics: all in all, some 180 substances. Honey is the source of energy for the bees’ bodies and society, much like carbohydrates fuel everyday human feats. Since honey is a complex substance, not just “empty carbs,” it provides easily absorbed nutrition of the highest quality.

Pollen in the hive is plant-based protein transformed by bees’ enzymes fermenting in the cells that hold “power food” rich in vitamins, lipids and minerals vital for nourishment of all the hive’s inhabitants. Pollen consumption stimulates key changes in a bee’s physiology — so that the same bee develops different abilities over the course of its life. Feeding on pollen, bees of a few days old become fit for nursing. That is, they produce another essential food for the hive — a “milk” — that grows larvae in the brood and sustains the queen bee through egg laying. Pollen is also indispensable for development of wax-building glands. Overall, pollen is strongly related to bees’ longevity and immunity.

Lack of nectar in nature has become a problem over recent years.

“Luckily, there is still pollen to be found around here,” Sefik says. “Without it, the hives would perish,”

“So, just the nectar is missing?” I ask him to clarify.

“Look, the climate has changed. We are now beekeeping under altered agro-meteorological conditions. The bees simply cannot find food in nature. Another 10 days of drought are now in the forecast. How can they ever bring in the winter supplies?”

The sun has risen. The waking landscape is awash with a tint of rose gold. The green apiary emerges in the camera’s frame, in its teeming, blooming glory starkly at odds with Sefik’s description of famine.

Unseasonal blooming of hazelnut catkins. (Larisa Jasarevic)

In a voice barely covering an old frustration, Sefik speaks to the apparent contradiction: “People say, ‘Look, there are flowers,’ but they don’t understand that flowers do not necessarily yield nectar!” He goes on to explain that plants suffering extreme, prolonged heat “draw back all their goodness to the roots, just to survive.” Producing nectar or keeping branches and stalks green at the time of such a crisis is abandoned as an excessive effort.

The last hive receives food assistance, and we load up the empty syrup bottles into sacks, then wheel them in a squeaky wheelbarrow to the beekeepers’ van. The bottles will be refilled with syrup tonight to feed some 50 hives at the couple’s other apiary, by the restored family home in an old village skirted by chestnut forests.

The couple devotes the morning to other tasks, refilling water fountains for the apiary’s bees and the resident insects, as well as cutting grass around the hives. Senada steps out of the forest with a Caesar’s mushroom in her hand. Swan-necked, with a flaming cap, the rare fungus is a gorgeous sight as well as a delicacy that will add an exquisite flavor to our brunch. On the farthest edges of the apiary grounds, Senada and Sefik collect medicinal herbs for their apothecary — mullein, among others. Out in the tall grasses, the couple keeps an eye on foraging bees.

“I am happy when I see the bees collecting pollen. There need not be any nectar for as long as there is pollen,” Sefik says.

Sefik, here, is commenting on the fact that pollen’s role in the development of bees’ physiology and society is irreplaceable. Still, his willingness to renounce hope for honey is a graver statement of concern than it may seem. Local beekeeping is focused on honey, which is prized for its nutritional and therapeutic properties among the local Bosniaks (Bosnians who are largely of Muslim heritage). Sefik and Senada’s herbal recipes are consumed or blended with honey, and local herbalist tradition more generally is unimaginable without it.

“Ten years ago, I used to say that genuine honey would be stored in very small jars. That time has come,” Sefik says, unsmiling.

Sefik has been keeping bees since the mid-’90s, but as an herbalist he has been involved with plants much longer. A skilled herbalist is used to tracking plants’ lives through the seasons, noting when they bud or when the leaves drop, to name some key events in plant development. Plant lives are manifestly synced with local atmospheres. This is why phenology, the study of cyclical biological events, is becoming not only the most prominent scientific record of the ground-level effects of global warming but also the nearest, believable sign to keen lay observers that seasons are out of sync.

Sefik started noting changes in local ecologies in the first decade of the new millennium. His observations, however, developed as he began to share, vicariously, honeybees’ own attractions to flowers’ nectar and scent, both of which speak of delicate relationships between bees, plants and weather. Beyond the obvious signs of changes — like the timing of growth and withering — plant responses within the seasons are getting stranger by the year.

“The linden blossomed, but did not flow,” Sefik says, reviewing the past year for us. “Black locusts did not blossom at all,” he adds, dismayed.

Having been involved with small-scale local conservation projects, Sefik is also fluent in the contemporary language of biodiversity conservation and the guiding ideals of sustainability. His vision of the near future, however, is more solemn than the current writings on sustainable development would allow.

“We are now headed to a point from which we shall not know our way out,” Sefik says.

Global campaigns for protecting bees and wild pollinators aspire to attain the exact sort of conditions in which Sefik lives. And yet, those conditions have not delivered what the campaigns suggest they will. His apiaries are situated far from pesticides in habitats bountiful in flowering species. His honeybees are not oppressed by industrial pollination schedules. The hives are managed without the use of synthetic miticides or veterinary medicine, which have been found to compromise honeybees’ longevity and health. These bees overwinter well and annual losses of bee colonies are minimal.

A case study of beekeeping in Bosnia and Herzegovina is instructive precisely because the modern pressures upon the bees associated with intensely developed and farmed landscapes — loss of habitat, monocultures and pesticides — are largely absent. An estimated 53% of the country is covered by forest, while much of the arable land is left fallow due to steep rates of human migration out of the country and agricultural policies that make farming economically nonviable. Whether the beekeepers are avidly planting or traveling along cross-country honey trails, their bees, for the most part, are foraging in nearly ideal environments.

And yet — the palpable effects of climate change are turning local beekeeping into a struggle “to keep the bees alive.”

The struggles of the local, small-scale beekeepers suggest that conserving wild habitats, fostering biodiversity and regulating the use of pesticides, all of which are worthwhile and much-needed initiatives, are inadequate strategies to keep the bees alive and humming in the face of advancing climate change. As is true in a wide variety of texts and has been stated bluntly by the renowned entomologist E.O. Wilson, among others: “If nothing is done about climate change, you can forget about biodiversity.” The local predicament suggests a global trend that will decisively dispense with the false dilemma of what sort of pollinators are endangered and therefore worthy of saving; the weather is making plants inhospitable to the insects, whether they are wild or managed.

Staring into a dark future, Sefik nonetheless does not despair. Likewise, mourning prospective loss is not in his character. He is a man of boundless energy, a visionary who keeps up a botanical collection with hundreds of native, rare and exotic species with the same feverish excitement he grows beets and potatoes; he maintains flower and vegetable gardens and serenades plants with a local radio station. He is focused on doing what he can.

At the sight of bees with bright orange and red pollen bundles at their hind legs, combing through goldenrods, Sefik lets out a boyish cheer: “Go on, girlfriends!” Then, remembering that the camera is on, he explains himself: “They aren’t just bees to me — they are my girlfriends.”

Senada, a wise woman with a dark, intense gaze, is not the type to wear her heart on her sleeve, but we suspect that bees are dear to her. In the folk apiculture of the region, women have had a special bonding relationship with honeybees, addressing them in swarm-catching spells as fellow mothers, sisters and daughters.

For Sefik, honeybees are even more than girlfriends; they are the kinds of friends that keep him connected to the divine.

“See, everything around us is a God’s gift,” he says, “and so we, too, need to give something every day, to be happy.” The happiness that Sefik speaks of here is not a passing emotional state but a way of dwelling, a blissful way of being, whether in one’s garden or in the Garden of the hereafter, which the Quran promises for the faithful. A good life is about giving, and giving provides meaning because the universe itself is conceived as subsisting on divine generosity.

“Now, off to the next task,” Sefik says, beaming, taking us to pick ripe chokeberries.

“We could try keeping honeybees,” I suggested to my parents in June 2014. They gave me a look. “Honeybees would be good for our fruit trees, vegetable and flower gardens,” I tried reasoning.

My idea was politely ignored, as it went without saying that they would need to care for the bees while I was away, teaching in North America from late fall through spring. Besides, the timing could hardly have been worse.

The author sits in contemplation next to the skep. (Larisa Jasarevic)

Heavy showers had been raging over our village since a catastrophic storm had hit northeastern Bosnia earlier in May. Although the floods had receded and the humanitarian disaster response in the country’s riverine lowlands had ended, the rain kept coming, relentlessly. We dug canals to reroute torrents from our cottage house and kept a watch over the steep slopes of our plot. But the slope’s many leaning tree trunks betrayed a slow underground landslide. I had recently arrived in Bosnia, which is both my home country and the site of my field research, to begin an ethnographic project on local beekeeping. But the weather that summer mostly prevented me from visiting the apiaries.

Since retiring from their urban lifestyles, my parents have been passionately committed to this land in a mountaintop village. Shaped like a conical skep, turned upside down, gaping for a swarm to land from a branch, this 1-acre plot with a ravine and a small forest is all that remains after my father, with a degree in economics fresh in his hand, sold off his inheritance in the late 1960s — all the lands, meadows and forests, spread over nearly 100 acres — to bid the village good riddance. He bought a Vespa scooter and rode in style through the socialist Yugoslav “golden age.” To the modern people of my parents’ time, wheels were hot and the land was a drag.

The 1980s mood was more sober for urban Yugoslav Muslims of Bosnia, as the financial crisis and environmental catastrophes soured the tall promises of modern, cosmopolitan lifestyles. On the weekends, my parents played at homesteading: planting, grafting, gardening, foraging and hiking in the nearby woods. Those years established autumnal rites of preserving foods. Ever since, our cabinets have been stocked with jars of deeply colored plum and apple jams and pickled vegetables that look like fantastic terrariums next to the garlands of peppers and onions. But aside from lifelong companion cats and a dog, animals were avoided as too much of a commitment.

The 1990s war, however, which made staple foods hard to come by, made a strong argument for chickens and a goat, which we named Brenka. The eggs and the dairy, along with the land’s produce and fruits, sustained us through wartime.

After the war, the goats and chickens were passed off to the neighbors as my family returned to an urban lifestyle. Chickens returned to our land a decade and a half later, when our parents retired from a city that was bursting at the seams from postwar development, its air miasmic with emissions from an aging coal-burning power plant. With my sister and me overseas earning degrees, a band of chatty chickens kept them company until one dreadful day, stray dogs or perhaps a fox broke into the coop leaving behind a trail of blood and feathers and the lovely, rosy-colored rooster ravaged. My parents cried in silence in the lonely garden, I learned in an email.

If my father agreed on bees, I knew that my mother would yield too, even if grumpily. We joked with my mother that she would have gone with him to the proverbial end of the world, with chickens and bees in tow, if he so wished.

Late one summer night in 2015, we brought in our first hives.

Our apiary sits on the western slope of the land, at a spot where a thick canopy of tall and gnarled native fruit trees weaves a lacework of sunshine from morning to noon. Honeybees rise before the sun bathes their hive entrances, which we arranged to face the Kaaba, after the local Muslim custom. While all species of animals in the Islamic tradition are considered Muslims, no other animal dwelling is turned toward the sacred Qibla direction.

The Quran describes bees as divinely inspired, while the local lore treats the beloved insect with regard, as God’s closest friend: blessed, persistent, with divine attention and guidance. Hence, their hives are oriented like mosques and cherished like Sufi lodges, as sites abuzz with the invocation of God’s beautiful names.

We each take turns watching bees, from a sun-warmed, flat boulder by the henna-red hives. I have a book that teaches a novice how to decipher the hive’s inner affairs by the bee traffic at the entrance.

When it comes to the bees, however, the world and the hives are intimately coupled. Think of the bee’s inner solar compass, their ability to navigate by the sun’s position and so map the location of food on their round-trip routes from the nectar to nest. Within the dark hives the genius insect adjusts to the downward pull of gravity. So, bees live by continually tuning to the star of our solar system and the center of the Earth.

While these marvelous abilities humble humans, it is the immediate bonds between bees and plants that indicate the tight and delicate interdependence that sustains the biosphere.

Back in the summer of 2015, my family and I timed the hives’ arrival to the bloom of linden trees, which, at an altitude of 2,200 feet above sea level, typically open up around June 20. Our hives are staffed with a keen force of field foragers, primed to bring in nectar and pollen for the growing population, build fresh wax and stock food supplies ahead of winter.

With bees in mind, we watched the trees closer than ever. The weather, however, turned unseasonably cold. In the fickle, uninviting sunshine, blossoms took time to unfold.

Linden flow is infamously capricious. To well up with nectar, the graceful yellow florets require warm nights, plenty of soil moisture, dew-washed mornings and moderate daily temperatures. And yet for all this, the optimal conditions are still no guarantee that nectar will flow. Even without nectar, linden perfumes the air with an opulent scent of a ripening summer, attracting insects that will continue to come despite the trees’ inability to fulfill their appetites.

Not just the honeybees, but all species of wild bees, beetles, bumblebees, flies and butterflies anticipate linden. This is especially true for fireflies, as the trees are the sites of their matchmaking. The insect romance lights up linden crowns through midsummer’s nightfall.

By the time July came that year, the linden blossoms were soggy, unscented or entirely closed. A few fireflies flickered through the damp dusks. On dry, moderately warm days, the bees’ buzzing would breathe life into linden branches. By mid-July, some luminous lovers hooked up, at last. But our honeybees were left hungry.

A famine in the hive is easy to spot. Like humans, honeybees conserve food for future use. Ideally, combs are well stocked and finely managed so that honey and fermented pollen are available when they are most needed. A healthy hive has snow-white wax sealing the cells that store honey. Bees open up these treasuries reluctantly, only when there is no source of fresh nectar in nature. To the sides of the bee brood and nursery are colorful stocks of fermented pollen, tightly packed in the cells and aging in the rich hues of a plentiful harvest. It is an open supply of power food. In a dearth, though, hauntingly, you find the combs hollow.

Hungry honeybees are extremely irritable and defensive, and a beekeeper cracking open a bee box is highly unwelcome. When bees are desperately famished, however, they are indifferent to intrusion. They burrow their heads deep into the empty cells, scraping the bottom for the spectral traces of honey. Drones are the first to be cut off from the communal food supplies.

Wide-eyed, drones hang about the entrances, exhausted. Their strong wings, normally exercised in the chance of a hot, mating pursuit, hang low, folded. Inside, the beemother ceases to lay eggs. The open brood, highly dependent on nursing bees to provide food, is left unattended. When they grow up malnourished, bees are scarred for life; their abilities to forage and their longevity are diminished. The bees who lived through dearth remember it, studies have indicated, to the point that they show heightened appreciation for nectar. We could think of it as gratitude: The bees that have experienced famine are not just evaluating how sweet the nectar is — and therefore whether it is worth collecting — but also cherishing the fact that nectar is found at all even as they are more forgiving of its quality.

If the famine continues, the bees will cannibalize the brood. A beekeeper is responsible for catching early signs of such a dire emergency and feeding the bees so they don’t starve.

The first time my parents and I fed the bees, we imagined the event as a passing crisis: the kind of temporary deprivation that beekeepers have long weathered. The beekeepers I studied with, likewise, long held hopes that the honey flow would go back to normal. By 2019, however, astute observers began doubting openly that the trend of waning nectar was reversible.

“Shouldn’t we all be worried?” Mehmed asks, his handsome face shaded by the beekeeper’s veiled hat. He sounds exasperated. We’ve finished examining a few hives, but in the heat of the conversation that ensues, Mehmed forgets to take off the beekeeper’s yellow blouse. He has been bothered by the way local media casts low honey yields as a beekeepers’ concern and a problem of market supply. Low honey yields over the years are neither the bees’ nor the beekeepers’ fault, and moreover, Mehmed says, they signal serious trouble for all people and creatures. Nectar itself seems to be vanishing from nature.

It’s July 2021, and my sister and I are filming Mehmed at the apiary by his home, surrounded by several acres of his familial land in a village in central Bosnia. He inherited the land from his father, himself a beekeeper, who had planted it with hundreds of fruit and flowering trees.

Mehmed seems even more devoted to planting for the bees’ sake. He has brought in various species of native as well as exotic honey-yielding trees, planted raspberries, cast the seeds of wild, honey-yielding herbs across the meadows and has spread seedlings of linden and black locust trees in the nearby forests.

Almost every single local species of interest to the honeybees can be found in the area, Mehmed explains. His bees are strong and healthy, and it should be the case that if the right conditions are met, there will be plenty of nectar and pollen for the bees to secure their own supplies and to yield surpluses for him to harvest.

But lately, “something’s amiss,” he says.

The timing and the quality of the seasons have been palpably changing over the years, but it is the ways that the plants are responding that baffle him. Trusted reference guides to the region’s melliferous (honey-producing) plants give a comprehensive overview of the optimal atmospheric conditions for nectar secretion, including the temperature, moisture, wind speed and direction, their concurrence so delicate that honey flow seems nearly a miracle. When the weather is unseasonable or extreme, it is easy to imagine what impeded the honey flow: Winds or heat can dry out nectar, rains can wash it off along with the pollen, and frost visibly damages the flowers. All of this is considered normal; beekeeping is nothing if not contingent on weather, which is another word for chance.

In recent years, however, nothing is evidently wrong, but honey is not flowing. Take today, for instance, Mehmed tells us. It is warm enough; it has rained recently, so there is plenty of moisture in the soil and the air. The meadow is abloom, the flowers look fresh and perky, and yet, “if we opened up a hive, I bet we wouldn’t find a drop of fresh nectar. That’s that.” He shakes his head, repeating: “It is incomprehensible.”

Pink euodia is in full bloom, but the bees are ignoring it entirely. At this time of the year, bees used to storm euodia’s velvety flower clusters. Earlier in the summer, Mehmed remembers watching chestnut trees, their showy blossoms “well worthy of attention,” he tells us, his expressive hands animating the description. “But there’s not a single bee on them! You think to yourself, ‘It’s impossible that there is not a drop of nectar, not a speck of pollen!’ You look closely and see there’s nothing. What is going on? That’s the greatest puzzle.”

Given the paucity of relevant scientific studies, as well as the sheer pace and range of changes underway globally, observations made by lay observers within specific landscapes are especially valuable. Studies of climate change effects on bees, pollinators and their partner plants are scarce, and the number of species observed is limited. Long-term field studies of plant phenologies and plant-pollinator seasonal matchmaking are time-consuming and costly. Scientific reports on the effects of changing climate on plant physiology are even fewer.

I have been following practitioners through ecologically complex milieus, which are subject to seasons and weather; in this, I am unlike a biologist observing the species’ interaction within a niche in the field or conducting experiments where several variables are carefully controlled within a lab, a greenhouse or a field site — as important as that work is. My guides were veteran beekeepers, with anywhere from 10 to 50 years of practical field experience, deeply familiar with the areas they have been tending. Their observations are plucked from particular footholds in the churning biosphere where, climate ecologists are well aware, the only thing that can be known in advance about climate change is that the responses are going to be as varied as there are living organisms and their vital relations.

Mehmed is doing his best to find nectar for his bees. In addition to planting melliferous flora, he travels with half of his apiary along the country’s honey routes. In a small trailer hooked up to his old Jeep, he takes two batches of bees at a time, 30 hives each. Within several hundred miles he reaches the country’s riverine north, where black locust and false indigo blossom in late spring through early summer. In midsummer, he retreats to alpine altitudes of central Bosnia where motley meadows bloom through the end of August. The final trip, in the fall, takes him to the highland plains in the west, spread with a blanket of pink summer heather.

Like planting, honey hunting on wheels is now a faltering strategy. At times, Mehmed has to rush his bees home to provide them with emergency feeding.

Mehmed falls silent. His gaze wanders off, above the hives, into the distance. I interrupt his contemplation by asking, “So what shall we do about honey?”

“About honey?” Mehmed repeats, hesitantly. “Oh, that’s easy. Honey’s no longer,” he adds, attempting a joke, then lets out a nervous laughter. Silence follows. The camera shows him swallowing a lump in his throat.

He will revisit my question in a short while. “What is up to me, I’ll keep doing,” he says. “My bees will not lack anything I can provide them with.”

Honeybees can winter well on sugar; the local beekeepers know it from experience and from the published scientific studies. But locally, common sense holds that the longer you feed the sugar to the bees, the more detrimental such a diet is to their health, immunity and longevity and, by extension, their ability to forage. As the local saying puts it: “There will be no honey without honey in the hives.”

Mehmed is a son of a beekeeper, but he turned to honeybees, he often says, thanks to his university lessons in Islamic studies. While, as a young man, he was training to become an imam, Mehmed pondered Quranic lines: “And Your Lord revealed to the honeybee.” Then it struck him: Every bee he encountered at his home apiary was a member of the prophetic species. In the presence of bees he could watch the revelation, not as a scripture, not as an abstract concept of God’s speech, but as an ongoing act of keeping up the world. Revelation, Sufis say, comes from God’s desire to be known. Divine desire flows with the spoken word, but it also calls to the bee with the flowing nectar. Waning nectar, therefore, is not just a puzzling sign of ecologies emerging through the new climate. It also makes Mehmed wonder what the world is becoming, now that honeybees, a prophetic species, seem on the edge. Nonetheless, he stays focused on practical tasks.

To cope with recurring scarcity, Mehmed has perfected a recipe for homemade pollen patties. He blends sugar, surplus pollen he stores away when pollen incomes are rich, and herbal extracts, among other things. This way at least, he ensures a richer supplement than the commercially available feed. Carefully choosing and mixing the ingredients makes him feel less sad about artificially feeding honeybees. It takes time, though, and it is not cheap.

“Perhaps the bees will repay me next year, or the year after,” he says, laughing.
“They don’t have to, though. They don’t have to give me back anything,” he says. “I cannot and do not want to live without them.”

At our family apiary, feeding the bees through all seasons has become routine. Some beekeepers I speak to have gotten used to it. Many others (me included), however, remain deeply disturbed — not only because this small-scale apiculture oriented toward honey is clearly unsustainable without nectar but also because the waning of honey foreshadows deep disaster.

What is a world in which honeybees survive only with the aid of white sugar, the global monocrop whose mass-farming is environmentally devastating? Honey defines honeybees; it is the species that lives by making it. Honey also defines our world as a place that flows with it: a blooming, fragrant, sweet planet that welcomes insect visits, whets and meets their appetites. What is a honeybee in an unhoneyed world? What world is an unhoneyed world?

The Quran describes honey as a fruit of divine revelation. God inspired the honeybee, the Quran says, to forage and make honey from nectar, but nectar flow presumes that many things are already coming together — rain and sun in their time, and plant nectaries — responding to the bidding of the One.

But bees do not know of despair — the sort that makes one give up. We have been carefully watching over the bees for years, and all we can report about the insects’ behaviors through the disastrous weather and one privation after another, is they are persistent, keen, striving. Unfailingly, they are doing their best.

Sometimes, through the camera lenses, lying quietly, my sister Azra and I observe the tremendous effort it takes to gather nectar, one miniscule drop at a time. In linden branches, for instance, we find the bees before dawn; the trees are energized with their humming even after sunset. But the temperatures can be so high that nectar evaporates even as the perfume keeps pulling them, toward the Kaaba of their yearnings. You follow them back to the hives full of bees, all busy, strong in numbers — and famished. We then feed them sugar or pollen substitutes, lest they starve. At times, I’m overwhelmed by compassion at the sight of them feeding on artificial food.

As a bee lover, you are in a strange position: You cannot pet them, you cannot gaze into their eyes, you cannot even get a passing recognition of your loyalty, your gifts, your mere presence. Worse still, you can come across as a nuisance and so earn stings. Beekeepers know that love stings.

In the presence of this buzzing liveliness, of these gentle beauties, our human ways of expressing and receiving affection are utterly frustrated, which is a good thing. When we are in love and the usual means of give and take are not an option, other things may happen. In the face of the bees’ indifference to us, our love for them is only fanned. It wells up, showing what a tremendous force it is — how it can move us and change us, and, ultimately, how it exceeds us.

“What is going on?” is a good question, especially when left open. For many local beekeepers, “climate change” is an obvious response, yet it is a response that only marks the beginning of an inquiry. As Sefik puts it: “We say, ‘climate change,’ and the climate is, surely, changing.” He implicates, matter-of-factly, modern industries and lifestyles that contribute to the global rise in greenhouse gases. Besides the altering atmosphere and beyond the technologies that are fueling the adverse changes, local apiarists are raising deeper questions. Why is it that we, the humans, are devastating our world? What’s the matter with us?

“We have distanced ourselves from nature,” Sefik thinks. For this thoughtful beekeeper, a distance from nature separates the human not only from plants and bees, the skies and soils, but also, by default, from the divine. For Sefik, nature is God’s gift. Taken more broadly, nature in the Quranic sense is the stunning plentitude that manifests infinitely inventive divine presence, attributes and acts that are connecting everything. The human, prone to and responsible for making mess on Earth, is the only species that could seek distance from the divine. The broken connection unravels both the biosphere and the inner sphere of the human, which depends on the bond with God as much as bees do, to live fully, between the skies and the earth, between the buoyant draw of radiance and the drag of gravity. To take note and make sense of this unraveling, Sefik, like many Bosniaks, leans on the Islamic teachings about the “final times,” the epoch that begins with the revelation of the Quran, known as the last scripture.

The plight of bees too often invokes apocalypse in the global popular imagination. Just as often, stories in the media revoke the apocalyptic expectations as a case of panicked exaggeration or as a crisis that has been overcome. Indeed, “apocalypse” in the modern imagination owes its enduring appeal to the fact that no sooner does it summon the image of an ultimate catastrophe than it soothes us with relief, since apocalypse is precisely the doom that never happens. Apocalypse, the catastrophe that modern imagination finds all too plausible, suffers from our impoverished sense of “the End.”

Many local Bosniaks take the End seriously, as a solemn divine promise and God’s top secret. One day, God knows when or how, the tradition says, this world will end. From a human perspective, such an event seems far off and unlikely, while from God’s perspective, as conveyed in the Quran, the End is just on the cusp of happening.

One local Sufi elder, Sead, thinks aloud: “We imagine a single event — the End — but for all we know, it could be a process whereby worlds are vanishing one by one.” The End is likely to be unlike anything we anticipate because there is no end to God’s imagination. God, by definition, is what exceeds human capacity to grasp, overcome, outwit or predict. On the other hand, the tradition says, God has prescribed mercifulness for himself and part of that generosity is openness to surprises and petitions: “Call Me and ask Me, and I shall, surely, respond.”

It would be easy to shrug off local insights as simply instances of devotional thinking and, therefore, relevant merely to the pious and their scholars. A strand of ruminations offered to me by another local Sufi, however, helps me appreciate what an invocation of God offers more generally to our dawning and evasive sense of the global climate catastrophe.

“This world is in the constant process of re-creation,” Zejd writes, “and the human is stuck, in between, shuffling feet in the dark, unable to see its beauty. Because of the ongoing changes, the Garden is passing by in front of one’s eyes.” I imagine him smiling as he writes these cryptic, somber lines, the sunny man that he is.

Zejd is referring to the Islamic concept of “khalq jadid,” the undoing and remaking of the whole of reality that takes place every instant, while all along we are seeing the world as the same, given, once and for all. The human is stuck, in between the clutter of solid things and their unobvious but perennial coming together and coming apart. When what is here, at hand, is taken as all there is and taken for granted, the vision is dulled. “Feet shuffle in the dark,” missing the beauty of the proverbial present.

Nectar flow is a shortcut description of the precious, precarious and complex process during which a plant soaks up solar rays and alchemizes the light into chemical energy. Bead by bead, nectar trickles to invite the bee to rush to it, ravenous, on the wings of inspiration. The process is so wondrous that Zejd glosses it as the “Garden,” referring to the stunning place God promises as an eternal reward. That place abounds in flowers and fruits, in rushing rivers and shading trees, but its greatest marvel is the plain sight of divine desire summoning it all into being, time and again. The dwellers, tradition says, will have all they wish because they are friends with God’s command: “Be!” That friendship can begin only on Earth. Any moment now.

The world going to wrack and ruin, likewise, is not just an event of annihilation and loss, the sort of tragedy over which to throw up one’s hands and call it quits. Ruination is also a process of ever-ongoing generation. This is not about finding hope in the ruins but about praying — and beekeeping is one sort of hands-on devotion — because divine mercy is boundless and unpredictable and at any moment, wide open: to put in a plea, to voice remorse, to mend the broken and, indeed, to read the omens, to meet the end. Up or down, heavens or gravity, you can’t fail, you can’t fall, except to find the One in every direction, awaiting.

And this morning, in late January, brings the quiet of snow. The world outside is bundled and pensive. I have wrapped the bee skep in a woolen sweater. My mother knitted me the same one, in the hue of ripening sour cherry. I will build a fire in the wood stove and take a day off, to take it all in. Then, I may head out to the forest.

This article was published in the Spring 2023 issue of New Lines’ print edition.

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