Feeling secure, and knowing that our family is safe and protected, is something that many of us take for granted – and it’s one of the eight key factors identified by Quintet Private Bank as being essential for a Richer Life. But what happens when this is threatened? We speak to Dr Ryad Alsous about making a new life for himself and his continued work with bees, which has a positive impact on people, nature and the planet.
Dr Ryad Alsous is a world-renowned expert in bees. So it was only natural that when he fled war-torn Syria eight years ago and arrived in England, he wanted to carry on his work with one of our most important pollinators. Tapping into his past experience – alongside lecturing at the Agricultural Institute at the University of Damascus, the professor alternated between being head of the food industries department and head of beekeeping, in charge of 500 hives producing 10 tonnes of honey each year – he came up with the idea for The Buzz Project, which launched in 2017 and combines his passion for bees with helping local refugees and job seekers. ‘I love running this project because it has so many benefits, both for refugees, many who have come from high level careers and so have lots to contribute, and for the British Black bees which I encourage people to keep over other non-native strains,’ he says of the programme, which aims to offer the volunteers a sense of purpose and help them to integrate, through learning new skills.
These honeybees are mostly ignored in the UK yet have been found to be hardier and more suited to the climate than the Italian and Carniolan subspecies favoured by around 80 percent of beekeepers. ‘The British Black bees withstand the weather better; they can cope with the long winter and low temperatures in summer and they also resist diseases such as varroa,’ he explains. ‘Bees are essential for a healthy environment and I have done a lot of research, comparing the British Black bees to four other strains, including Syrian bees, and they came out top producing far larger quantities of honey.’ Delve deeper into just how much bees matter and the statistics are revealing. Not only are they crucial to the economy – according to Friends of the Earth, it would cost UK farmers £1.8 billion a year to pollinate crops without them – they are also responsible for pollinating plants, including more than three quarters of the country’s wildflowers, and play a vital part in every aspect of the ecosystem. As Ryad puts it, ‘bees provide lots of services. Without them there would be no plants, no animals and no food.’
Today, The Buzz Project has ten hives by the Huddersfield Narrow Canal in Yorkshire. ‘We made a decision not to increase the number of hives,’ he continues. ‘We support every volunteer by giving them a colony, and tools and equipment, such as recycled wood, to build their own hive. Bees produce swarms every year so sometimes we have up to 20 colonies but we give them away. Last year, for instance, we gave one to someone who had lost their hive due to a flood.’ The social aspect of the scheme is integral too. ‘The idea is to keep the volunteers busy, so we invite them to talks and social events such as picnics with their families, as well as improve their knowledge and encourage them to join beekeeping associations in their own cities,’ he says.
Of course, running The Buzz Project is a far cry from Ryad’s former life in Syria where he first became interested in bees after signing up for a course in beekeeping at university. After a stint working as a landscape gardener in Saudi Arabia to save money, he returned to Syria and juggled his own food science PhD with lecturing in bee keeping at the University of Damascus. Together with his colleagues, he established a beekeeping association in 1989 (when they started there were 5,000 beekeepers in the country; by the time he left the number had increased to 25,000), then set up the bee department in 2001, specialising in research on the chemical compounds of honey produced by Syrian bees.
‘I was the last of my family to leave the country,’ he recalls. ‘The situation became very dangerous because of the civil war. Important people started to be killed and as a lecturer with a good name and a reputation for bee research, I was targeted and received death threats.’ As the family had relatives who had been living in Huddersfield for the last 40 years (they were originally drawn to the market town because of its history in producing textiles), it seemed like a safe place to settle. ‘They were able to care for us and help us gain citizenship. We found lots of help and encouragement from the community and rebuilt our lives. Now my family and I feel like this has been our home since we were born.’ Finding this richness through the connections and security within a community is far more valuable than wealth.
Part of that support came in the form of acts of kindness on social media. Having initially posted about himself on Facebook as a way of generating beekeeping work, he found that often he was overqualified. ‘I had many replies where people said they were looking for labourers, not someone with my skills,’ he says. However, he had two strokes of luck: first, someone offered to drive him to the Huddersfield Beekeeping Association where he met local beekeepers and began volunteering; then a lady offered to donate him one of her hives – and a colony of British Black bees.
His next step was enlisting the help of a friend to write a proposal for The Buzz Project which caught the attention of Sanctuary Kirklees, part of the City of Sanctuary movement that creates a network of groups to help people integrate into local communities. Ryad and Sanctuary Kirklees decided to work together (and were awarded a grant from the West Yorkshire Police Commissioner's Safer Communities Fund) but it wasn’t until a chance meeting with Huddersfield’s mayor that the programme really took off. ‘I gave him a copy of my proposal and he called me the next morning to say that the Canal & River Trust would rent me a plot of land. When I met them and explained what the project was about, they realised how important it is for the environment and refused to take any rent,’ continues Ryad.
Over the last four years, the programme has had around 40 volunteers, many of whom are now self-employed beekeepers with their own hives. At the beginning beekeeping was the main the focus but over time the programme has expanded to other related industries: as well as harvesting honey, the volunteers are also taught how to make candles, essential oils and organic cosmetics. Plus, school children visit the site to learn about the importance of bees and plant flowers that are rich in nectar. ‘I own bees because I love them very much. I worked very hard in improving the numbers of Syrian bees and helping them to survive,’ he concludes. ‘Now I am doing the same to promote British Black bees.’
Find out more about The Buzz Project: https://www.facebook.com/BuzzinginKirklees/