When the wildfires crashed down the mountains above Marmaris, the beekeeper İbrahim Şahin was returning from a funeral to his home in the village of Osmaniye. At first, he was unconcerned—fires happen frequently in this part of southwestern Turkey, and rarely become cataclysmic. Then Şahin received a phone call from the head of his village. The fires were already upon Osmaniye. Everyone needed to evacuate.
The fires continued to spread. Pine cones exploded as if the trees were lobbing hand grenades. Small birds caught fire and flew off in a panic, spreading flames with their burning wings before they immolated. Firefighters and helicopters were tied up in Manavgat, nearly 250 miles away, where fires had broken out shortly before. The hills above Marmaris crackled.
By the time the fires finally died out, more than 14,000 acres of pine forest in Muğla province were a blackened wound. The catastrophe had come.
Pine honey is unusual. It tastes resinous and zingy, and unlike honey produced by bees feeding on flowers, pine honey relies on three distinct species: the red pine tree, the honeybee, and the marchalina bug (Marchalina hellenica). The bugs feed on mature red pine trees, secreting a sticky, saplike substance, sometimes called “honeydew,” and a cottony white residue; the bees feed on the honeydew and use it to make their honey. Without the red pine, without the marchalina, there is no pine honey.
Almost all of the world’s pine honey comes from Turkey, and almost all of Turkey’s pine honey comes from Muğla province, in the country’s southwest. There are hundreds of villages in Muğla, and according to Şahin, the majority of them make honey and even depend on it as a main source of income. Here, rows of blocky hives line the roads, and honey-selling kiosks stand beside tiny tea gardens.
Among Turkey’s profusion of regional honeys—thyme honey, carob honey, chestnut honey, hallucinogenic “mad honey”—pine honey is especially popular and sought-after, in Turkey and overseas. In Turkey, where honey is central to every sprawling breakfast and where family beekeeping traditions can stretch back four or more generations, the loss of the pine trees and the strange honey they help produce isn’t just an economic blow—it is a cultural one as well.
Southwest Turkey’s beekeepers knew big fires were coming. Years of climate-change-fueled heat waves and drought had decimated the bee population around Marmaris, and honey production was down. The forests had become so dry that a single cigarette butt or spark could ignite a conflagration. At a regional workshop in April 2021, many beekeepers acknowledged the inevitability of disaster, and discussed how best to protect their communities and struggling businesses. But when the fires arrived, no one was prepared for their scale.
On July 29, 2021, the day the fires began in Muğla, the tourist city of Marmaris hummed with its usual summer activity. British, Scottish, and Russian tourists, strolling the streets with ice-cream cones in hand, displayed their tomato-peel sunburns alongside Turkish holidaymakers. Marmaris is a favorite destination for Europeans on package holidays, and during the warm months tourists fill its cacophonous clubs and spill out onto its sheltered, sandy beaches.
Throughout the day, life in Marmaris continued normally; both visitors and residents assumed that the spreading flames would soon be controlled. A striking photograph that currently hangs in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry office in Marmaris depicts beachgoers lounging by the sea, seemingly unbothered, while an orange flame licks the green hills behind them. As evening fell, however, the fire was still growing. Whipped onward by the wind, the flames reached the towns of Köyceğiz, İçmeler, and Osmaniye. While the center of Marmaris remained untouched, the hills above became a ring of fire.
In the village of Zorlar, a little over two and half hours by car from Osmaniye, the beekeeper Beyza Yavuz kept a wary eye on the fire reports. The inferno crept toward her village on August 1, belching out thick smoke that hung in the summer air. Three separate, smaller fires broke out in Yavuz’s village, one perilously close to her hives. But her neighbors helped suppress the flames, preventing her hives from burning.
As a young woman, Yavuz stands out among Turkish beekeepers, who tend to be older and male. Six years ago, when she was working as an English teacher in the seaside city of Fethiye, she took a beekeeping course. When she first saw a swarm of bees buzzing in the thick Mediterranean sunlight, she fell in love. “I’d never seen a bee before that,” she says. She was fascinated by the traditional basket hives of southern Turkey, which are woven by hand from willow, reeds, or other materials. Soon, she had her own hives and her own beekeeping and honey-making business, and she was teaching courses to visitors and curious locals. Like many of the beekeepers in this region, she moves her hives from place to place depending on the season, usually trucking them to the highlands during the warmer months.
Pine trees are accustomed to wildfire, and pine cones are hardy enough to protect their seeds from fire. In fact, the red pines of Turkey’s southwest coast release some of their seeds only in the heat of a fire, an adaptation that enables new trees to germinate after a fire moves through.
The 2021 fires, though, were far larger and more intense than any in the region’s living memory. They burned for 10 days in Muğla, charring an estimated 6 percent of the region’s pine forests. Fire ecologists predict that it will take at least 30 years for new pine stands to mature to the point that they can once again contribute to honey production. If the regenerating forest is disturbed by logging or other interventions, they say, recovery will take even longer.
Around the world, heat and honey are becoming dangerously intertwined. The island of Evia, Greece, which produces about 40 percent of Greece’s pine honey, also burned during the summer of 2021. Though pine honey is a regional product, the destruction of its ecosystem is a warning to other honey-producing regions, many of which are also experiencing more droughts and fires. California’s worsening wildfire seasons have hastened its bee declines. The village of Inzerki, in Morocco, known as the largest traditional collective apiary in the world, witnessed a mass die-off of its bees this year due to a sustained drought. Fires in western Australia at the end of 2020 destroyed local bee-feeding flora, and honeybees and beekeepers there may need a decade or more to recover from the damage. Fires and heat waves in the Similipal Biosphere Reserve in India in early 2021 threatened the livelihoods of local Indigenous beekeepers, adding tension to an already fraught economic situation.
An apocryphal saying, often attributed to Albert Einstein, claims that if bees were to disappear from the Earth, humans would go extinct within four years. While that’s not quite true, bees are an integral part of our ecosystems, and the destruction of bees and their habitats can affect the pollination of plants that produce almonds, coffee, and more. As heat waves and fires sweep through North America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia, sweetness and sustenance are too often reduced to ash.
Şamil Tuncay Beştoy is an obsessive. In 2006, when he moved to a village in Muğla, he noticed that nearly everyone around him kept bees. He started beekeeping himself, and what began as a hobby bloomed into an all-consuming devotion. His interest in carpentry led him to build his own hives. He traveled to the Camili Biosphere Reserve, on the Turkish-Georgian border, to learn about that region’s unique honey-making culture, and he met with academics to learn more about bees. He won a bee-protection project grant from the United Nations Development Programme and started ÇARIK, the Environment and Bee Protection Association, which is now the hub of a large network of Muğla beekeepers. His life is beekeeping.
“When the fires happened, it was very chaotic,” says Beştoy, who helped provide food, equipment, and other necessities to beekeepers during and after the fires.
Equally obsessed with the region’s pine-honey ecosystem is Mustafa Avcı, a professor of forestry at Isparta University. Avcı watched the fires through binoculars from his house in Köyceğiz, about two and a half miles from the edge of the blaze. Now Avcı and Beştoy have teamed up to research the effects of fire and heat on the forest and its honey.
The marchalina is a delicate little bug, and recent rising temperatures and spikes of heat have hit the region’s marchalina even harder than its honeybees. On a hot summer day in July 2022, almost exactly a year after the fires, Avcı and Beştoy set out to continue their hunt for surviving marchalina. In the car, the steady, stoic academic and his enthusiastic partner were a bee-besotted Laurel and Hardy, their patter taking on the comfortable rhythm of a lived-in friendship. As they drove the dusty tree-lined roads, Beştoy frequently yelled for Avcı to hit the brakes, springing from the car to scurry up hills in search of the precious bugs. Beştoy seemed to regard every tree in the area as a personal friend.
“Stop!” Beştoy shouted at one point. “I am hopeful about this tree!” Avcı pulled over and Beştoy leapt out, weaving between a stand of pines just outside a burned area.
“Normally, the trees should be white from marchalina,” Beştoy said, referring to the cottony residue that the bug produces. Instead, the bark of the pine trees was only lightly streaked with old and new residue, and it wasn’t clear whether the saplike “honeydew” that the bees consume was present at all.
“We should have seen the droplets, but we haven’t,” Avcı said. “If we’d seen the droplets, we could conclude marchalina was active. But we didn’t see any—only the cotton.”
At one stop, Beştoy peered through binoculars and finally spotted a few bugs on the underside of some branches, hiding from the sun. For now, at least, the forest’s marchalina are hanging on.
The temperature reached 101 degrees Fahrenheit in Marmaris. Beştoy and Avcı passed a roadside sign: “Welcome to the world capital of pine honey.”
Last year, as the fire roared toward Osmaniye, İbrahim Şahin’s car broke down. He abandoned it and continued toward his village on foot. He eventually made it to safety, but his car was consumed by flames. One of the village’s former leaders lost his house in the blaze, while other residents lost farm animals and beehives.
Since the fires, Şahin has been selling off his hives. This year, he managed to make a small batch of pine honey by bringing his hives to Datça, a skinny twist of a peninsula about 50 miles away from Osmaniye whose pine trees were not significantly affected by the 2021 fires. He hopes to return to Datça, but he only has 40 hives left, not enough to turn a significant profit. Though he is a third-generation beekeeper, he doesn’t think he’ll be able to pass on the tradition to his son. For a man who used to live on honey, beekeeping has become a side gig.
Yavuz, too, has been forced to sell off some of her hives as honey becomes less dependable, and she has begun to sell propolis and beeswax products such as beauty creams and candles. As she wanders her property in Zorlar, walking across reddish dirt that smells of dust and manure and sunshine, she carries a slingshot and a pouch full of seed balls, doing her own small part to regenerate the local flora. “Until I die, I will continue to throw seed balls,” she says. But she worries that honey-producing habitat is threatened not only by fire but also by development: New villas are under construction on the edge of town.
The trauma of the 2021 fires persists, and even though the national forestry ministry has announced new helicopter acquisitions, Muğla residents worry that firefighters aren’t prepared for the next disaster. In some cases, controlled burns can prevent wildfires from spiraling out of control and causing extensive damage, but controlled burns remain forbidden in Turkey, even as the risk of catastrophic fires grows. This year, when Şahin brought his hives to Bördübet, at the root of the Datça Peninsula, a fire broke out there, and while his hives survived, the experience left him shaken. “I feel so much pity,” Şahin says—for the forest, for the bees, for his neighbors. “It’s discouraging.”
After the fires, environmental scientists all but unanimously recommended that the charred trees be left alone. But the Turkish government quickly began to cut down and uproot them, salvaging the marketable timber. When heavy rains arrived in December, water poured down the treeless hillsides, creating massive flooding around Marmaris and turning the sea brown with mud. Any seeds that had germinated since the fires were likely washed away. “The fire has direct and indirect consequences. The trees are gone, and it’s open to erosion,” Avcı says.
This spring, with beekeeping no longer providing a living, Şahin began logging for private companies incentivized by the government. Loggers working in the burned area are paid by the cubic meter of forest cut, and though they are not supposed to cut any trees that still have a chance of survival, the money is difficult to resist. Today, the roads leading out of Marmaris are lined with neatly stacked logs.
Şahin is all too aware that his job, by slowing the regeneration of the forest, poses yet another threat to his future as a beekeeper, but he’s resigned to the situation. The pines, he says, aren’t likely to come back. “What can I do? They’re gone! I’m sad, but what can I do?”
Reporting for this story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.
This story is part of the Atlantic Planet series supported by the HHMI Department of Science Education.