Dr Ryad Alsous has a passion for bees. A former professor of agriculture at Damascus University, Alsous came to the UK five years ago as a refugee, fleeing a conflict in Syria that shows little sign of abating.
A renowned beekeeper, Alsous realised there was a way to reignite his love for bees near his new home in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, while also helping those who, like him, had fled war and found themselves in an unfamiliar land. It would also act as a conduit for bringing the local community together, creating bonds through nature. The Buzz Project was born.
“We wanted to help people and the environment,” says Dr Alsous, from the Trust’s land beside the Huddersfield Narrow Canal where he keeps ten hives.
Having teamed up with the local council and Sanctuary Kirklees, which helps refugees settle and integrate in West Yorkshire, Alsous spent six months working on a proposal for The Buzz Project. However, he was struggling to find land for his hives until he had a meeting with the Mayor of Huddersfield.
“I explained to him about the importance of The Buzz Project and how we wanted to help people and the environment” says Alsous. “The mayor said ‘I’ll sort something by tomorrow morning’. The same day he spoke with the Canal & River Trust and said, ‘Fingers crossed, they’ll help’.”
They did. The Trust’s land sits around 50 metres from the historic Standedge Tunnel and visitor centre. Forming part of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, the tunnel is the longest, highest and deepest in Britain. Surrounded by woodland and close to Marsden Moor, Alsous says it’s the perfect place for beekeeping. “When I compare the production to the hives I keep in my own back garden, I find the canal location very productive.”
Using its land to help promote flower growth and in turn support pollinators has become an increasingly important part of the Trust’s work, says Peter Birch, its National Environment Policy Officer. “Clearly, our towpaths are about allowing people to get onto the waterway and for access between the path and the water. But there’s also scope to do stuff that doesn’t detract from that primary purpose. We need to do that at the moment, because of the evidence of the decline of pollinators across the country as a whole.”
Birch points towards projects across the country where the Trust is changing its mowing regime for the small strips of grass between towpath and water. In Birmingham, the ‘Go Wild in The City’ project, supported by HSBC, has seen the planting of ox-eye daisies to help bees thrive in an urban area. Paul Wilkinson, who runs the project, has been working with volunteers to plant small islands of vegetation that don’t affect access but do plenty to support pollinators.
At Caen Hill Locks on the Kennet & Avon Canal, for instance, the Trust has planted wildflowers in an area near a car park, while local volunteers in Knottingly, West Yorkshire, carefully manage verges to allow greater plant growth than would usually be possible on many stretches of the network.
Back at Standedge, local volunteers have become heavily invested in the Buzz Project, helping it to grow. “It’s been inspirational to witness the dedication and friendship of people from a wide variety of places and backgrounds coming together on a project with nature at its heart”, says volunteer and retired teacher David Parkin.
“When we started with this project, it was with two or three refugees. Now we have fourteen and three more to come. A lot of refugees and asylum seekers want to come and start their new lives through us,” says Alsous. It’s not just people from Syria. Alsous has welcomed refugees from Yemen, Sudan and Kurdistan.
Aside from the obvious social benefits, Alsous says the honey that the bees have produced has been a massive success. It’s been a huge hit at a local summer bazaar, with dozens of jars sold. “I’ve just found out from my colleagues that we nearly sold out,” he says. “A lot of people want to help and support this project. A lot of people have been waiting for it.”
Summer might be coming to an end, but Alsous has big plans for his bees. “They are working on the heather and wildflowers at the moment,” he says. “We’ll have another good quantity. There’s plenty more to come.”
The Buzz Project has enjoyed national recognition over the past 12 months, appearing in newspaper supplements and on the BBC’s Countryfile programme. The Trust, along with Dr Alsous, have created something that will live long in the memory, helping people as well as pollinators.