A dynamic subtropical climate, abundant and diverse flora, and highly-valued native honeybees are just a few of the natural advantages that have made beekeeping a centuries-old tradition in Azerbaijan’s Caucasus Mountains.
Yet despite these auspicious conditions, Azerbaijan’s beekeeping sector is performing below expectations and far from its full potential. Production levels are relatively low while market prices for honey remain stubbornly high. Even as consumer demand for beekeeping products rises at home and abroad, traders are still struggling to sell Azerbaijan’s meagre domestic output.
To address the underlying economic and biological problems that are stifling honey production, a newly-launched FAO project will help Azerbaijan improve the productivity of local honey bees and train beekeepers to manage their colonies more effectively. Revitalizing the beekeeping sector will go beyond making apiaries more efficient—it should improve economic and social welfare in rural areas, giving people a renewed opportunity to earn a decent and secure livelihood through an age-old local trade.
From Soviet kolkhozy to Azeri apiaries
In the 1960s, when Azerbaijan was part of the Soviet Union, the state organized beekeepers in the Caucasus Mountains into large-scale collective farms called kolkhozy and state-owned farms known as sovkhozy.
The government’s technical and financial support at every step of the supply chain resulted in a production of almost 1400 tonnes of honey in 1981. The state-run operation collected honey in large jars, wrapped products in simple uniform packaging, and delivered goods directly to processors and markets.
But with Azeri independence came economic and agricultural reforms that shook the beekeeping sector at its core. As in other post-Soviet countries, Azerbaijan experienced negative growth, lower incomes, high unemployment, and reduced civil services. The state-managed apiaries were dissolved and the beehives distributed to small private family farms, many of which had no experience in beekeeping. State assistance to beekeepers effectively disappeared, splintering the supply chain that carried bee products to market.
Since 1991, beekeepers have made great strides in recovering numbers of colonies and production. Although in 2014, almost 2500 tonnes of honey were produced parts of the production and market chains leave significant room for improvement to make beekeeping as beneficial to rural income and livelihoods as in other countries.
Economic questions invite genetic answers
After independence, Azerbaijan’s beekeeping sector began to stabilize. The number of private apiaries began to grow steadily, as did the number of hives on each farm. But national honey production continued to falter for an unprecedented reason: domesticated honeybees were simply producing less than during the Soviet era.
Historically, Azeri beekeepers populated their apiaries with wild Caucasian honeybees. Native to the Caucasus Mountains in northern Azerbaijan, the Apis mellifera caucasia is known to beekeepers the world over as a strong and industrious honey producer. But as Azeri beekeepers tell the story, domesticated bee colonies were nearly wiped out after the deadly Varroa parasite invaded state-managed kolkhozy and sovkhozy between 1982 and 1984.
To restore the devastated apiaries, genetically distinct subspecies of honeybees were brought from Azerbaijan’s southern mountains in 1985. Although the new bees—Apis mellifera meda—had a superior reproductive ability, they were weak honey producers compared to the Caucasian bee native to the north.
Every summer, beekeepers moved their restored bee colonies to higher altitudes in search of cooler temperatures and more sources of nectar. The new bees intermingled with wild Caucasian bees in the mountains, leading the two subspecies to hybridize. Azeri beekeepers ended up with a mixed-race bee that produced less honey per hive than the original northern subspecies.
Experts pursue the royal treatment
“One of the keys to Azerbaijan’s beekeeping puzzle lies with queen bees,” said Rainer Krell, an FAO apiculture expert and lead technical officer on the project. “By selecting strong, vigorous, and carefully identified Caucasian queen bees, colonies will breed the most industrious offspring worker bees and allow beekeepers to eventually re-establish an even more productive indigenous bee.”
But so far, Azeri beekeepers have not used queen bees strategically to breed stronger bee colonies and boost honey production. On a 2011 assessment mission, FAO and Ankara University collected worker bee samples from colonies across northern Azerbaijan and found that mixed-race bees continue to dominate most apiaries.
To improve local bee subspecies and conserve genetic diversity, the Ministry of Agriculture and FAO launched an ambitious project in early 2015 to bring the Caucasian honeybee back to apiaries in northern Azerbaijan and make beekeeping an even more attractive and productive business.
The project will begin by selecting the hundred best colonies in which bees demonstrate high productivity and express highly-desired Caucasian honeybee characteristics. Over a period of at least two years, researchers and beekeepers will monitor the queens from these colonies and evaluate the worker bees they produce. Once the program is in place, the Azeri government will distribute the naturally mated queens that are reared by the best performing colonies to beekeepers across the region.
The project is certainly not without its challenges, added Krell. “Today, pure wild Caucasian honeybees remain in only a few remote mountainous areas, and isolated areas for pedigree breeding will not be easy to find.”
But by the end of the two-year project, Krell expects that at least twenty bee colonies with improved honey production performance will be ready. Although these colonies will not necessarily host pure Caucasian honeybees yet, the queens they produce will support Azerbaijan’s breeding program over the long-term. Since it may take upward of six years to realize the full benefit of such breeding programs, the government has committed to maintain the programme jump-started by FAO.
Stronger bees need stronger beekeepers
As Azerbaijan works to breed a better bee, FAO will also train beekeepers to manage their colonies more effectively. Before all else, Azeris must be convinced of the benefits of using stronger queen bees for breeding and re-queening. As beekeepers learn queen rejuvenation techniques, they will also be trained to rear and select queens for disease resistance, productivity, and racial preference.
In turn, these beekeepers will serve as trainers and guides in their own communities. As they adopt locally adapted and vigorous queens, beekeepers will help conserve local biodiversity, improve colony productivity, control disease, and ensure that bee lifecycles are synchronized with local climate and food source cycles.
FAO support will also help the country’s beekeeping sector organize itself into a more efficient enterprise. As it stands, beekeepers’ associations are generally poorly structured and offer no technical support to their members. Reforms aim to improve cooperation and coordination among Azeri beekeepers and provide essential resources and services, such as proper honey packaging and easier access to lucrative markets.
A new chance to prosper
To prop up the beekeeping sector, Azerbaijan’s government had exempted beekeepers from taxation. But even as consumer demand rose for everything from honey to wax to bee venom, local beekeepers still stumbled.
Azerbaijan requested FAO assistance through the Turkish Partnership Programme Trust Fund, which has dedicated $ 200,000 to the project and is making Turkish apiculture specialists available to train Azeri beekeepers. Turkey’s support also stands to improve Azerbaijan’s commercial ties with Turkish honey processors and beekeeping equipment manufacturers.
By increasing Azerbaijan’s honey production, FAO experts expect that more honey will be available at lower prices in city markets. Back in the Caucasus Mountains, beekeepers will see increased rural employment and income—both important steps toward reducing rural poverty. Taking measures to involve women and youth in production and beekeeper associations will eventually give thousands of rural families a new chance to prosper.
But at this early stage, FAO and Azerbaijan are just beginning the search for strong local queens — colony by colony, hive by hive, bee by bee.