There are bees living far above the Arctic Circle! Who knew? If that’s not strange enough, they’re living and thriving on a nearly-deserted archipelago that the former Soviet Union used for decades to test nuclear weapons. Is there a connection? Scientists have recently determined these bees are a separate species from all other bees. Can studying them save the rest of the world’s bees from decline due to disease, pesticides and climate change?
The archipelago home of these frigid bees is Novaya Zemlya, which is two islands (Severny Island and Yuzhny Island) separate by the Matochkin Strait in the Arctic Ocean above northern Russia. The islands once belonged to the indigenous Nenetses until 1950, when the last 300 or so of them were moved to the mainland so the Soviet Union could test nuclear weapons there. While used for both air dropped and underground testing, Novaya Zemlya is best known for the air detonation on October 30, 1961, of Tsar Bomba, the most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated. The testing ended in 1990 and, believe it or not, the area now has a population of nearly 2,500 people.
Through all of that testing, there were bees.
Specimens of the bee population were brought back by explorers in the early 1900s and melittologists (people who study bees in general; those specializing in honey bees are apiologists) named them Bombus glacialis and believed they were a subspecies of Bombus polaris - one of only two known arctic bees (the other is Bombus hyperboreus). That belief changed recently when researcher Ivan Bolotov used modern genetic testing and determined that B. glacialis is a separate species. That alone is a big discovery but, in his paper, published in Polar Biology, Bolotov reveals just how unique B. glacialis really is.
During the Last Glacial Maximum 25,000 years ago, the Arctic was completely covered with ice, rendering it uninhabitable. And yet, tests show the bees were there, possibly through the entire glacial period. After surviving that, getting nuked was a buzz in the park.
Bolotov researches evolutionary hotspots -- he calls them “Lost Worlds” – where isolated pockets of unknown or little-known species live and thrive. Thick jungles and isolated islands are his hunting grounds and he believes the discovery that B. glacialis has managed to survive on its island through the last glacier and (hopefully) the last above-ground nuclear tests makes it the first Arctic lost world. More importantly, it means the islands could be a refuge for bees (and other species) seeking to escape global warming.
Is that really good news?