Système d’Information sur la Diversité des Animaux Domestiques (DAD-IS)

The honeybees of Xinyuan - the discovery of a new subspecies

03/01/2020

In Xinyuan County, in the west of China, honey is part of longstanding local traditions, valued in daily life, culture, and religious activities. The sweet honey has long been considered an essential element of a happy and rich life, as describe in the epic poem of Manas. However, the external world neglected the Xinyuan honeybees, the producers of the honey, for a long time.

Xinyuan County is located in the eastern part of the Tian Shan Mountains, with a cold climate due to a combination of high altitude and latitude. Until recently, the scientific world did not know that there are wild honeybees in Xinyuan. However, the discovery of a subspecies of honeybee in the western Tian Shan Mountains in Kazakhstan, have led to the notion that indigenous honeybees might also exist in Xinyuan, the eastern Tian Shan Mountains.

A research team from the Institute of Apicultural Research, Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, set their focus on this region. After years of exploration, they finally found wild honeybees with the help of local residents. Surprisingly, Xinyuan honeybees are morphometrically different from other populations, including the subspecies from the eastern Tian Shan Mountains.  In-depth analyses using genomics approach found that Xinyuan honeybees are a new subspecies, Apis mellifera sinisxinyuan.

The description of A. m. sinisxinyuan further extends the eastern boundary of the natural distribution of Apis mellifera into western China. A. m. sinisxinyuan features cold resistance, high honey production, and fast spring build up, making it an interesting candidate for genetic breeding. Meanwhile, concerns were raised for the protection of this population. It is found only in very limited areas, with physical barriers constraining the further expansion/migration. In addition, the cold-tolerant population may face additional stress due to global warming, as its demography history showed declines during warm periods. Increased human activities may also pose a threat to the genetic integrity and diversity of this recently discovered subspecies.

Immediate actions have been taken to protect A. m. sinisxinyuan. A local apiary has been set up for in vivo conservation, and cryopreservation is being conducted. Further, the National Animal Genetic Resources Committee of China has approved A. m. sinisxinyuan as a national genetic resource, providing a solid ground for continued actions of protection.

Dr. Chao Chen, Dr. Wei Shi, edited by Roswitha Baumung

Picture: Dr. Wei Shi, Mr. Yong Jin

Related documents: https://academic.oup.com/mbe/article/33/5/1337/2579991