Wild fires raged through Southern Portugal in the summer of 2018 with a devastating effect on agriculture and the landscape. We talked to Joao, a local beekeeper whose hives and bees were burned, about the fires, the impact and the future.
Joao, the traditional beekeeper
Joao Dimas and his family are one of the largest producers of raw honey in the Serra de Monchique region of southern Portugal. This beautiful landscape, a national forest, is popular with hikers, cyclists and tourists. They come in pursuit of the local chicken dish - Piri Piri – that this mountainous region is known for, and the amazing views. It is home to Portuguese families, many of them elderly, who continue the traditions of tending their small holdings, growing vegetables, lemon and orange trees and raising livestock.
Another large part of this rural way of life is beekeeping and the production of raw honey. It is an ideal environment for bees and honey and there are around 1,500 beekeepers in the region. In August this year, wildfires raged through the mountain range tearing through the eucalyptus, cork oaks and pine trees. 320 hives belonging to Joao’s family were burned, killing his bees. Both sides of the family have been beekeepers for generations, originally as hobbyists producing honey for themselves, then in the past 15 years growing into a business managing 1,000 hives positioned at different locations near Silves, Saboia, Ourique and Alferce, where the family live.
So what does a tragedy like this mean to the family and how do they recover from the emotional and financial trauma?
The start of the Monchique wildfires
The first fire started on the afternoon of Friday 3rd August 2018 and very quickly took hold, spreading through the hills and valleys as the wind kept changing direction. The fire reached the town of Monchique and some of the highest points of the Algarve, Picota and Foia. Eventually it reached the mediaeval town of Silves and the border of the coastal city of Portimao. By the Sunday, the community was in crisis doing their best to protect their land with many of the Portuguese and expatriates forced to evacuate their homes without knowing what they would return to. The fire surrounded the village of Alferce where Joao, his wife, daughter and parents live, spreading 6000 hectares in 2 hours leaving Joao with two choices, save his bees or help protect his family and the people of his village. He stayed. By the time the fires were 'dominated' and in 'resolution' a week later, 27,000 hectares of land and forestation had been destroyed. There were no human fatalities but there were injuries, houses lost, land obliterated and livestock killed and with no one knowing the true extent of the loss of wildlife. For Joao, he lost 320 hives and the colonies of bees attached to them (that's 60,000 bees per colony per hive).
Before the fire
In the months leading up to the fires, Joao’s bees, the Apis mellifera (European honeybee) happily foraged on orange blossom, heather, lavender and arbutus, the strawberry tree or Medronho famous in the region which is limited to flowering only in the winter, making it rare with a distinct taste profile and considered highly medicinal. In a year, on average, Joao could produce a honey yield of around 14,000 kilos. He usually moves his bees in July from the Monchique area to forage on girassol (sunflowers) near Beja in the Alentejo but he trapped his hand transporting large containers of honey and couldn't do the lifting so this year the bees stayed where they were.
The aftermathThere are around 1,500 beekeepers in the area and it’s thought that around 50% were affected by the fires. It’s a hard knock for a cottage industry. Joao, nearly eight weeks after the events, gets emotional when he describes returning to the site of his hives to see them all burnt and the bees dead. Beekeeping is his passion so he feels the loss more than just the financial cost, which is considerable. He remembers all the time and effort he’s put into caring and managing the bees and the honey production process, often working 10 to 12 hour days. He toiled with just the help of his mother and father to maintain the health of the bees and protecting the provenance of the honey. All the more tragic, his bees wouldn't have been in that location if he hadn’t been injured. This is not the first fire in the region, this area with the highly combustible eucalyptus poses a risk every summer when the temperatures soar. Bees are very sensitive and know when smoke is descending. In the fire of 2003, Joao’s bees encased themselves for eleven days inside the hives creating their own fire break and protecting the raw honey. The fire of 2018 tore through them in no time so vicious was the firestorm; they didn’t stand a chance.
Can the bees recover?
To date, the fire has cost Joao around 50,000 Euros in losses including the bees, the hives and the honey yield. When projecting future losses Joao reaches for his phone and makes a calculation and figures he could stand to lose another 10-12,000 Euros over the next twelve months. There is a chance that the remaining hives can offset some of his losses, but if weather conditions don’t go his way it could take three to four years to recuperate. For Joao it’s a waiting game, praying for rain in the autumn to bring the flowers on in the spring and hoping there won’t be strong winds preventing the bees from flying off. The landscape is still charcoal black, though ferns are starting to come through and green shoots are sprouting from some of the charred trees. Even still, the long-term effects on plants and pollination are bleak. While there is financial compensation available either through the Portuguese state government or the European Union, it is yet to be decided whether it is considered a 'calamity' as per the Portuguese state definition of events or a 'catastrophe' as per the EU’s which shall determine the amount. Either way, it will not cover the full extent of the financial loss.
The future for the beekeepers and community
Joao, along with many of the community, believes there needs to be more done to reduce the risk of fire. Recommendations include not replanting the water-thirsty eucalyptus and each landowner being consistent in clearing their land. Many of Joao’s friends left the area long ago for the towns and cities finding rural living too hard and since the fires, there are reports of more people going because they have lost everything or because they aren't prepared to invest their time and money to lose everything five or ten years down the line. For Joao, he appreciates his wife, Lucinda, who drives 70km every day to work to help support them. For Joao, beekeeping is a labour of love and every year he learns something new from the bees and from working in nature. This year the future is uncertain for Joao and his family, but he is young, he is strong and he loves beekeeping so this is where he says he needs to be and the Serra de Monchique is where he will stay...Written by Suzanne Radford
Suzanne hosted the hugely popular Dubai Today on Dubai Eye 103.8 for seven years and now spends her time between Europe and the Middle East working as a freelance writer, producer, broadcaster and media trainer creating content on food, wellness and travel.
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Many thanks to Bruno Costa for allowing us to use his images of the hives.