Issue 3, 2013. June-July

   

THE SECRET LIFE OF GEORGIAN BEES

Once prized, Georgia's unique species of bees have been largely forgotten since the end of the Soviet Union. The crisis with honey bee populations in the United States and Europe, however, could unexpectedly offer Georgian bees a chance to survive.

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has decimated honey bee populations, forced scientists and societies to reconsider pesticides , been blamed for another crisis in Russian and Georgian relations - and, Georgian scientists hope, will save the Apis mellifera caucasika-Georgia.

Georgian bees - or Apis mellifera caucasika - were studied, prized, and protected during the Soviet Union. A unique bee species, Georgian bees are known for their gray color, long proboscis (the tubular nose-like structure bees collect nectar with), good nature, and phenomenal work ethic.

They might also be in danger of losing their traits due to lax breeding standards and an absence of scientific study for the past two decades.

Maia Peikrishvili


But a new interest in Georgian bees, in part due to the devastation of CCD in North America, could be their salvation.

Unlike Georgia and many other countries, the United States does not have any native honey bee populations. For decades, the honey bees in the United States have been bred based on imports of bees from European countries.

Georgian bees, however, are sparking new interest due to CCD: American entomologists are slowly starting to import genetic material from Georgian bees in the hopes it could add diversity to the dwindling bee populations in the United States.

Georgian scientists like Maia Peikrishvili and Marina Barvenashvili, however, caution that after years of neglect, Georgian bee populations require intensive study to ascertain that the purity of the species - including its unique traits - has been preserved.

There are four families of Georgian bees, including the Mengrelian and Abkhazian families, and, under the Soviet Union, their purity was considered so important that the entire country was deemed a natural reserve and no bee populations could be moved from one region to another without special attention.

Those controls, however, were abandoned in the chaotic years following independence.

"Unfortunately, the political and economic crisis in the country has mean that control over the [bee] populations has practically stopped," noted Barvenashvili in a report on the scientists' project to restore genetic study and protection for Georgian bees.

Peikrishvili and Barvenashvili won a grant from the Agriculture University last year to conduct the first scientific study of Georgian bee purity since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the spring and fall of 2012, under Peikrishvili's direction, five scientists traveled to Samegrelo, in western Georgia, to make an initial assessment of the bee population living there. The team decided to start with the Megrelian family of Georgian bees due to its strong characteristics. Megrelian bees became the most famous Georgian bee in the world, after it received three major gold medals (1961 Germany; 1965 Romania; 1971 Moscow).

The purpose of the study was to ascertain the extent of purity that still exists in the Megrelian bee populations, i.e. had bees still maintained their gray color, long proboscis (7.1-7.2 mm - longer than any other in the world), gentle demeanor?

Peikrishvili and her team visited two municipalities in Samegrelo where the mountains and natural habitat might have protected bees from mixed breeding.

They studied 34 bee colonies - 4576 worker bees - and determined that the bees still match six main markers for the family, which includes the length of the proboscis, the length and width of the wings, etc are of the "normal range established for Megrelian population," the team said. There were, however, signs of yellow on the bees - an indication that some mix breeding has occurred. But, in order to prove the extent of the damage to the breed, the team has to study the genetic makeup of the bees.

Eventually, they would like to establish the current genetic makeup of the bees, but for that they require more funding.

"The result of our work would allow us to create a reproductive core which would be useful for specialists in the country, as well as abroad because it would allow us to artificially inseminate Megrelian bees," Peikrishvili and her team wrote.

"Currently, however, our work has been stopped and we are looking for sponsors."

For more information about the project, the current research on Georgian bees and their potential for other bee populations, please contact Peikrishvili, and Barvenashvili.