Dutch expedition of 8,000 km along the front line in Ukraine to meet beekeepers

From Mykolaiv, Dnipro and Zaporizhzhya to Kharkiv. These Ukrainian cities appear regularly in war news in EU media. But they can be published soon in the labels of Ukrainian honey. Here we present the story of  Wouter Hasekamp from Bijenbaas  and Jeroen Ketting of Lifeline Ukraine and their project Bees feed families.

Bees Feed Families
Beekeeper's family from Mykolaiv, South of Ukraine Photo: Wouter Hasekamp

What started as a Humanitarian Relief project – to assist IDP’s (Internally Displaced People), or in this case Internally Displaced Beekeepers, has turned into a project that might change part of Ukraine’s honey sector, and has positive impact in the fields of

  • Short term relief for victims of the war: micro-loans, provision of equipment and generators, sales of honey.
  • Long term sustainability: development of organic beekeeping practices and certification and development of sustainable engineered processing plants, independent of the Ukrainian power and water grid.
  • Development opportunities for semi-professional beekeepers.
  • Economic development of SME’s in this sector: creation of beekeeping cooperatives with market-intelligence and negotiation power.

Besides these positive local effects there are opportunities for

  • Dutch entrepreneurs like Bijenbaas BV to source, brand and market an excellent product in the EU, for
  • other Dutch enterprises to offer services and products (both to cooperatives and processors) in the field of engineering, technology and sustainability,
  • and together with the Dutch government play an active role in supporting reconstruction of Ukraine and Dutch-Ukrainian cooperation.
Bees Feed Families
Bees feed fmilies

How everything started

In October 2022 Wouter Hasekamp from Bijenbaas travelled from Utrecht to Ukraine for a first tour of the country with Jeroen Ketting of Lifeline Ukraine, a relief organisation from the Netherlands that has been sending truckloads with anything from mattresses and medical supplies to skimmed milk and generators. One of Jeroen’s observations during previous visits was that it is as important to help Ukrainian entrepreneurs back on their feet as it is to provide immediate relief.

As a consultant-turned-large-scale-beekeeper it made sense for Wouter to focus on the apiary business. Next to his brand Bijenbaas, which sells the honey from his twelve-hundred beehives in the Netherlands, he had just established a new brand: BFF (Bees feed families). The idea was to support small beekeepers in countries like Kosovo, Moldova, Macedonia and Ukraine, with both knowledge, investment and access to the European market. Lifeline’s initiative was a perfect fit.

Driving more than 8,000 kilometres and meeting a number of beekeepers and other players in the industry, they were not only able to help some of them (the story of how they met Dmytro and Natascha, exported their honey and sold it in Christmas baskets in the Netherlands has been published before), but also Wouter gained a pretty good understanding of the industry, its challenges and opportunities.

Bees Feed Families
Visiting Mykolaiv region. Photo: Wouter Hasekamp

Honey in Ukraine

The honey sector has a number of players:

  • Beekeepers
  • Beebreeders
  • Suppliers of equipment
  • Collectors
  • Laboratories
  • Processors
  • Exporters

Some initial observations:

  • Although there are many beekeepers in Ukraine, Wouter has focussed on the semi-professional ones, which means people with apiaries in the range of fifty and three-hundred-and-fifty hives. For the smaller ones it is purely a hobby, whereas the larger ones don’t need any help. Most of these medium sized apiaries are not registered, and work traditionally but have a fairly good yield of honey, due to the favourable circumstances in terms of vegetation.
  • There are almost no beekeepers that work organically, or are organically certified. There is no local market for organic honey, and exporters are not interested.
  • The beekeepers receive a pittance for their honey, from the collectors, who deliver the honey to the processors.
  • The processors homogenise the honey they receive to batches of twenty-two tons, which are prepared for export
  • The exported honey is a low value product on the world honey market and is used as a component in mixed EU/non EU honey or as an ingredient.

Opportunities for improvement:

If the goal is to help SME-beekeepers make a living income from their activities – and that is what many of the ones Wouter spoke to want – there are several opportunities to accomplish this:

  • First, they would have to work professionally and invest in knowledge and proper equipment for treatment of deceases and parasites such as varroa mites.
  • Secondly,  they would have to be aware of what farmers in their areas are using in terms of crop protection, and when.
  • Thirdly, there is quality. Beekeepers don’t know the quality of their own product, because they do not have access to analysis, either through do-it-yourself testing, or through laboratories. Also they could invest in organic knowledge and certification.
  • And fourthly, they would need to work together to be able to leverage economies of scale (equipment, purchasing, lobbying) and deal adequately with the collectors and processors, which seem to take advantage of them at the moment.

It seems all honey is mixed to facilitate export procedures: one batch of honey means one analysis report to satisfy EU veterinarian requirements, and one set of export documents. What it also does is reduce the quality of the honey and destroy marketing opportunities, because their is no provenance anymore. No specific areas of origination, no specific mono-floral taste, and a story of the beekeeper and his passion for his product. What price would a French exporter fetch for a truckload of wine, if he had first mixed the different Bordeaux, Bourgognes, and Rhone chateaus into an indistinguishable mix?

Bees Feed Families
Beekeeping in Mykolaiv region. Photo: Wouter Hasekamp

On his trip Wouter also came across many cases of both under- and over-investment. For instance, he met a beekeeper in the Pavlohrad region, a former rocket scientist, who in the Soviet era was working on solid fuel missiles. Now, he is a beekeeper who put his  engineering skills to use and developed a mechanised harvesting line. For his three hundred beehives though, this line would only be operational a few days per year. Nice stuff. Bad investment, especially considering he was not able to sell his honey for a decent price.

Bees Feed Families2
Grad rockets boxes. Photo: Wouter Hasekamp

The same beekeeper was saving empty boxes or Grad rockets to use the wood for beehives. Bad stuff. Good investment.

Similarly he met a processor in the Dnipro area that had build a state-of-the-art processing facility capable of handling up to two hundred tons of honey per month, that had been standing idle for the last few years, due to lack of market access in Europe.

Investment and export opportunities

If an additional goal is to generate business opportunities for Dutch agro-entrepreneurs: of course there is the honey. Bijenbaas has established an Ukrainian entity (Fair Farm Foods) to be able to invest in export from Ukraine. The team will, in selected regions, help beekeepers make the changes to create value in the fields mentioned above. This requires

  • Education and certification. Currently, there is a USAid project to finance a percentage of the cost of certification for the first two years.
  • Establishing cooperatives, for instance, as facilitated in the grain and dairy sector by companies such as DSKS, but surely there are Dutch consultancies with similar expertise who could play a role in the beekeeping industry.
  • Establishing test and analysis facilities. This would involve building certified labs.
  • investment in equipment to establish sustainable processing facilities - for instance with bio-fuelled heating systems, solar powered electricity supply and water purification systems to be independant of the damaged Ukrainian grid, as well as to take a big step towards being nett positive in terms of sustainability.

All these are areas where Dutch industries have a proven track record.