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Science Insider

The Carpathian Mountain Bee

- July 1, 2022 - Alison McAfee - (excerpt)

Carpathian queens continue to arrive from Ukraine, becoming the littlest refugees

On May 19, 2022, some unlikely refugees touched down in Canada from the war-torn country of Ukraine. They are not families seeking shelter from the ongoing Russian conflict, nor hospital patients seeking life-saving care. They are Carpathian queen honey bees, produced by Ukrainian beekeepers who are pressing forward with their business, despite the turmoil of their nation.

The Carpathian honey bee is thought to be a variant, or “ecotype,” of Carniolan honey bees native to the Carpathian Mountain Range, which forms an arc like a question mark across Poland, Slovakia, Western Ukraine, and Romania. Very little wilderness remains in Europe, and this mountain range makes up a large fraction of it. Also known as the mountain honey bee (or Romanian honey bee, where the mountains extend south into Romania), Carpathian bees are known for their “exceptionally mild behavior.”1

One U.K. bee supplier describes Carpathians as “Cinderella bees,” after their calm, composed activities. And a British Columbian beekeeper, who received several Carpathian queens in 2021, said that bees from those colonies were “less aggressive than any other bees” in their yard. But, as you might expect for a bee originating from a rugged mountain range, they are also valued for their very un-Cinderella-like winter hardiness and motivation to forage in poor conditions.

According to Apis Donau, a Romanian queen production company, Carpathian bees “are more likely to forage on cold, wet days than other types of bees and rank among the best for overwintering.” These traits could make the Carpathian bee particularly suited to the climate in Canada and the northern U.S. But like most queen sources, it is difficult to ascertain how well genetics are controlled, and a formal evaluation of Carpathian performance in North America has not yet been conducted.

Anecdotally, some beekeepers in Canada say the Carpathians are “extremely fast to brood up early, like nothing we have ever seen,” while others say that “the build-up seemed slow,” and “nuc producers wouldn’t be very impressed with the small colonies.” What’s more, not everyone agrees that Carpathians are distinct from Carniolans, which are already one of the most popular subspecies in beekeeping. Still, the prospect of a new, hardy mountain bee is intriguing.


The longest flight

Due to the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, Niagra Beeway, a company based in Ontario which was instrumental in establishing queen import permits from Ukraine to Canada, has cancelled orders for Carpathian queens in 2022, citing risks to Ukrainian transport workers as the cause. “We cannot stimulate life threatening activity for money,” says George Scott, president of Niagra Beeway. “Two drivers were killed transporting medical supplies from an Edmonton based project that we are close to.”

But Todd Kalisz, CEO of Dancing Bee, feels differently. “My belief is that we would be helping defeat Ukraine by not supporting them economically,” Kalisz says. “Not buying would be, in a way, a sanction against Ukraine.” Dancing Bee Equipment did not cancel their orders, and received their first shipment of queens from Ukraine in May. If the violence in Ukraine subsides, Niagra Beeway still plans to import 8,000 Carpathian package bees, but until then, Dancing Bee is the biggest importer.

The price point for Carpathian queens is unbelievably low — originally $45 CAD for a Carpathian queen, dropping recently to $38.85 — compared to other queens on the market ($55 for Italian Buckfast queens, or $65 for California-propagated Saskatraz queens), meaning that, with a little encouragement, many people would probably be happy to donate some fraction of the money they would save to a Ukrainian relief fund.

Dancing Bee is apparently thinking the same thing, as they are now offering “symbolic queens” from Ukraine — in other words, a conduit by which customers can make a donation equivalent in value to a Carpathian queen, which Dancing Bee promises to wire directly to their Ukrainian producers.

“We are donating this directly to our suppliers in Ukraine to help them get by a horrible season,” Kalisz says. No actual queens are exchanged, allowing beekeepers here in North America to support the Ukrainian producers without also encouraging risky trips to get cargo to the airport.


Beekeeping in Ukraine

Ukraine is a beekeeping nation, with an astounding 1.5% of the population — 600,000 to 700,000 individuals — involved in beekeeping, and the country usually ranks among the top five biggest honey exporters by weight. Ukraine produces around 60,000-70,000 tonnes of honey (~132-154 million pounds),2 which is about the same volume as the U.S., despite having less than a seventh of the population.

To support all these beekeepers, Ukraine also has a strong queen production industry. In 2020, Ukraine was added to a growing list of approved queen exporters to Canada, which also includes Australia, Chile, Denmark, Italy, Malta, New Zealand, and the United States. In 2021, nearly 4,000 queen bees were imported to Canada from Ukraine, making up about 1.5% of the total queen imports that year. This year, I am the lucky recipient of five.

My justification for purchasing Carpathian queens is to see if drones adapted to different climates have different temperature tolerance limits, in terms of their survival and fertility. To do this, I’ve ordered queens from Ukraine, California, and Australia, and will evaluate the drones they produce here in Canada. This is called a “common garden experiment,” in which individuals with different genetics are assessed in the same environment. But ultimately, I am just intrigued by this mystical bee.


What does the research say?

Very little formal research has been conducted on Carpathians. One paper from 1968, conducted by researchers in the then-U.S.S.R., states that Carpathian queens have higher fertility, in terms of egg-laying rates, compared to “Far East bees” from the Primorsk region.1 Those researchers attest to the Carpathians’ gentle demeanor. “We have to mention their exceptionally mild behavior,” they write, “which allows us to work with them all over the season without bee hat and smoker.”

In addition to some short reports on morphological characteristics of Carpathian bees, which have slightly longer tongues and bigger bodies, other researchers also conducted a colony survival experiment3 in Moldova, a country sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania. In the project, researchers