Beekeeping revitalization project takes off in Azerbaijan

HONEYA 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.

In the 1960s, when Azerbaijan was part of the Soviet Union, the state organized beekeepers in the Caucasus Mountains into large-scale collective farms. But after independence, 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 2,500 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.

But Azerbaijan’s national honey production was faltering for an unprecedented reason: domesticated honeybees were simply producing less than during the Soviet era.

Historically, Azeri beekeepers populated their apiaries with native Caucasian honeybees, which are well-known a strong and industrious honey producer. But after a deadly parasite devastated state-managed apiaries in the early 1980s, colonies were restored with a different subspecies of bees that came from the country’s southern region.

Although the new bees had a superior reproductive ability, they were weak honey producers compared to the Caucasian bee. Over time, the two subspecies hybridized, leaving Azeri beekeepers with a mixed-race bee that produced less honey per hive than before.

To improve local bee subspecies and conserve genetic diversity, FAO and the Ministry of Agriculture 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.

“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.”

The project will monitor and select queens from the hundred best performing colonies in which worker bees demonstrate high productivity and express highly-desired Caucasian honeybee characteristics. The Azeri government will distribute the naturally mated queens that are reared by the strongest colonies to beekeepers across the region.

The project is certainly not without its challenges. “Today, pure wild Caucasian honeybees remain in only a few remote mountainous areas,” added Krell, “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. Since it may take upward of six years to realize the full benefit of such breeding programmes, the government has committed to maintain the programme jump-started by FAO.

As Azerbaijan works to breed a better bee and conserve local biodiversity, FAO will train beekeepers to manage their colonies more effectively and select queens for disease resistance, productivity, and racial preference. Targeted reforms will also empower beekeepers’ associations to provide essential resources and services, such as proper honey packaging and easier access to lucrative markets.

Azerbaijan requested FAO assistance through the Turkish Partnership Programme Trust Fund, which has dedicated US$ 200,000 to the project and made 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.

The project 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.