By MATTHEW WEAVER
Researchers at Washington State University have developed a new technique to preserve bee semen in hopes of building a bank of germplasm and develop hardier bee populations.
The university plans to develop a frozen semen bank from U.S. and European honeybee colonies.
WSU research associate Sue Cobey said the goal is to diversify the U.S. gene pool. Importation of live bees into the U.S. was banned in 1922, she said, but researchers have permits to bring in germplasm or semen from Europe and cross it with the best U.S. breeding stock.
Germplasm preservation is routine for livestock, horses, chickens and plants, Cobey said, but a recent WSU discovery allows preservation of bee semen in liquid nitrogen.
"We're trying to select bees that can withstand the pathogens and parasites, things like that," she said.
WSU researchers have been collecting bee semen in liquid nitrogen for several years, collecting from bees in Slovenia, the Republic of Georgia and Italy and crossing with domestic stocks. According to WSU, applying a tiny amount of pressure to a mature drone bee's abdomen will ejaculate the semen, which can be collected in a syringe equipped with a capillary tube.
USDA hopes to establish germplasm repositories, Cobey said. The university is also working with U.S. queen bee producers, offering to preserve select breeding stock for future generations. The new technique keeps the viability of the bee sperm, she said
Colony collapse disorder is a huge concern for beekeepers and agriculture reliant on bees for pollination. The bank will preserve productive stocks and help researchers develop "more vigorous" stock, Cobey said.
Commercial beekeepers require productive bees, Cobey said, noting a single trait like mite resistance can be expensive and cause a loss of vigor. Other key traits include hygienic bees that can detect parasitic mites like Varroa mites, the primary pest affecting bees.
The California almond crop blooms in the winter, requiring bees from throughout the country to satisfy demand. Cobey said some of the subspecies being brought in are winter hardy bees that can be built up quickly.
The global movement of Africanized bees remains a concern, Cobey said. The migratory, more aggressive bees can edge out weaker bees and take over. The new, stronger breeding stock could result in bees that are less likely to be targeted by Africanized bees.