An Island of Honeybees in the African Desert

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A unique population of honeybees isolated for perhaps the last 10,000 years has been found living at an oasis in the northern Sahara Desert.

The bees are of the same species, Apis mellifera, that are crucial to America's food supply, responsible for one in every three bites of food on our plates. But when researchers examined colonies around the oasis of Kufra in Libya, they found them to be genetically distinct from any other known population.

The genetic differences indicate the bees have been marooned at Kufra since between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago, when shifting climate patterns turned a verdant ancient savanna into today's parched desert. Only the area's natural supply of groundwater keeps life hanging on.

Even more telling, the bees of Kufra showed no signs of the Varroa destructor parasite, an often deadly infestation that is easily spread among honeybees throughout most of the world.

An article at BBC Earth News sums up the conclusion nicely:

Bees living at Kufra are also free from the Varroa destructor parasitic mite, which is decimating colonies around the world and has been implicated in a global decline of honeybee populations. "The oasis can only be free of the Varroa mite if perfect isolation is ensured, even in times of modern transport," the researchers write.

Taher Shaibi of the Al-Fatah University in Tripoli, Libya led the study, which is published in the journal Conservation Genetics

The BBC article hints that Varroa is behind the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder that's been affecting commercial bee colonies in North America and Europe since 2006. While no one pathogen has been isolated as the smoking gun behind the affliction, the parasite hasn't helped matters.

Discovery of an isolated, pathogen-free bee population raises the interesting possibility — and this is pure speculation — that the bees of Kufra may contain some genetic traits that would be useful to export to the wider world of honeybees.

It's likely that Kufra bees have simply never come in contact with the diseases common among commercial bee populations, and that's why they remain a healthy, distinct population.

But who knows? They could have some built in resistance to disease that researchers are unaware of. A careful breeding program between Kufra and commercial bees might yield surprising results.

Image: Cygnus921 on Flickr

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