When it comes to relations between the United States and Georgia, outsiders usually focus on what the US has done for its tiny South Caucasus ally. But, now, it looks like Georgia might have a valuable item for the US – a super bee that could provide some much-needed variety to dwindling American bee colonies.
In 2012, commercial beekeepers in the United States lost between 40 to 50 percent of their hives, the worst year for bee-colony collapse since 2005, according to a March article in The New York Times. A lower bee count reduces the supply of fruit, vegetables, nuts, and beans dependent on pollination, which, consequently, increases prices, the article noted.
While there is no evidence that Caucasus bees are more resilient either to the mites or the pesticides that could be causing the deaths of American bees, scientists like Washington State University entomologist Walter S. Sheppard have started taking bee semen from Georgia to create more variety in American bee populations.
The gray Caucasus mountain honeybee, one of the world’s three types of honeybees, has a legendary ability to produce large amounts of honey despite cold weather and bad conditions. Georgia is the “central homeland” for the species, although the bees also can be found in eastern Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
“The Caucasus honeybee has a long, strong history of importance to beekeeping worldwide,” said Sheppard, who has traveled to Georgia three times from Pullman, Washington to purchase bee semen for the artificial insemination of bees. “The Caucasus honeybee is good at eating less and producing more.”
Information was not immediately available about the quantity of Caucasus bee exports from Georgia. The bees were first sent to the United States for commercial production in the late 19th century, along with Carniolan bees from the Austrian Alps and Italian bees. (North America itself has no native honeybees.)
But American beekeepers’ access to the Caucasus bees was cut short by a 1922 law that blocked the import of live honey bees from any country the US Secretary of Agriculture had not deemed clear of diseases or parasites harmful to bees, among other conditions.
That meant that, for decades, while American beekeepers selectively bred other types of bees for honey production, Georgia’s Caucasus bee, also known as apis mellifera caucasica, was studied and cultivated primarily by Soviet entomologists. The scientists were amazed by its ability to out-produce other bee types, even in non-native habitats, and by its long tongue, or proboscis.
A Soviet-era report found that honey production by Georgia’s Caucasus bees exceeded that of the Russian Krasnopoliansk bee by 30 to 40 percent, rendering a sweet total of 25 to 30 kilograms of honey per season.
Its proboscis played a role there. At an average length of 7.1 millimeters, over half a millimeter longer than that of other honeybees, the Caucasus bee’s proboscis can reach
nectar that its competitors cannot.
Ever mindful of production quotas, Soviet officials were so concerned about preserving the purity of this Stakhanovite species that they outlawed any transport of Caucasus bee colonies without special permission.
Those rules, however, fell by the wayside in the chaotic years following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Until recently, Georgian entomologists feared that the years of unrestricted movement and breeding might have wiped out the four Georgian varieties (Abkhazian, Cartaline, Gurian and Megrelian) of the Caucasus bee.
“After the Soviet Union collapsed, the state did not have time for bees and beekeepers continued as best they could," commented entomologist Marina Barvenashvili. Some Georgian beekeepers mixed species in an effort to increase productivity, but the result meant the potential loss of some of the bee’s traits, she added.
In 2012, Barvenashvli, together with four colleagues, won a 19,000-lari ($11,508) grant from the Agriculture University of Georgia to travel to the western region of Samegrelo, where the scientists hoped the region’s high mountains might have preserved the Megrelian bees, the most distinct of Georgia’s Caucasus bees.
While foreign scientists are more interested in the bees’ productivity and ability to withstand the cold, the Georgian entomologists were keen to determine if the species’ legendary gray coloring and long tongue had survived.
After months of research and testing in three different villages in Samegrelo, they determined that they had. Now, the group is hoping for an additional grant to let them try selective breeding of Caucasus bees.
Yet local concern about the bees lives on. While “the mountains are protecting them," said research project manager Maia Peikrishvili, “people definitely need to pay attention” to making sure that Georgia’s Caucasus bee, with its unusually robust production levels, remains a pure species.
With no easy rebound in sight for the US bee populations the Caucasus bee is meant to help, American food consumers most likely can only agree.
Molly Corso is a freelance journalist who also works as editor of Investor.ge, a monthly publication by the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia.