Washington State University Research May One Day Help Produce "Heirloom" Honey Bees

Innovative Development Freezes Bee Sperm To Find Genes That Could Improve Genetic Diversity

About 100 years from now, a middle-aged beekeeper will walk over to her backyard hives to introduce a queen that derives fifty percent of her genetic makeup from a drone that was alive in 2017. For a species whose summer worker bees have a life span of four to six weeks and whose queen may typically live one year, it may seem impossible to mate that new queen to a drone active a century ago, but innovative research developed at Washington State University (WSU) in Pullman, WA has made it a reality already.

Washington State University bee study.The key is a unique method, developed by WSU professor Dr. Brandon Hopkins, that uses liquid nitrogen to freeze bee sperm, but that is getting ahead of the story.

“In 2004, there was growing concern there would not be enough honey bees to pollinate the almond crop in California,” according to Dr. Walter “Steve” Sheppard, chairman of WSU's Department of Entomology and one of the country’s foremost honey bee experts.

The almond pollination issue ultimately led to WSU receiving permission from the United States Department of Agriculture to import honey bee semen for breeding purposes – the first time a university was able to do such work since the importation of new bees to the United States was restricted in 1922, following the discovery of the tracheal mite in Europe.

Most commercial beekeepers had been using yellow Italian honey bees, which are best adapted for warm Mediterranean climates. In 2008, the WSU team began bringing in semen from several original European subspecies of bees, Carniolans and Caucasians, for example, both of which are better adapted to cold climates.

The challenge was that live bee semen can survive at room temperature for only 10 to 14 days.

“The project arose out of my master’s project that looked at using cryopreservation with honey bees,” Dr. Hopkins said. “As part of my dissertation for my doctorate, I developed a method for using cryopreservation in the honey bee industry."

Creating genetic diversity in bees.After eight years of collecting and importing bee sperm from across Europe, the WSU research team received a grant from Healthy Hives 2020 in 2016 that will enable them to study the mating habits of Carniolan and Caucasian bees in California during early spring. The WSU project was one of seven research efforts that received funding two years ago.

“This spring we will be studying the mating abilities of different strains during inclement weather,” said Dr. Sheppard. “As a result of our research, we hope to be able to make recommendations on what strains can be more successfully mated in cold weather. Sometimes honey bee queen producers have difficulty mating their queens in cold weather, and this may help them improve their management practices.”

Healthy Hives 2020 is a $1 million collaborative research initiative looking for practical ways to improve honey bee colony health by the end of 2020. The initiative is managed by Project Apis m., Paso Robles, CA, and funded by a grant from the North American Bayer Bee Care Program located in Research Triangle Park, NC.

“The Washington State research is an excellent example of the mission for Healthy Hives 2020,” said Project Apis m. Executive Director Danielle Downey. “Improving honey bee stocks and increasing the diversity available in the U.S. will have a dramatic impact on overall honey bee health for years to come.”

One of the long-term goals for the WSU research team is to include a cryogenic germplasm repository, or bee sperm bank, as a part of a planned honey bee and pollinator research center at the school. Efforts are underway to raise more than $10 million for the facility.

Healthy Hives 2020 closed out submissions for its second round of research grants late last year. The initiative is focused on four priority research areas:

  • Conducting an economic assessment of the “true” cost of commercial beekeeping operations to help beekeepers maximize efficiency and production;
  • Creating a set of “best management practices” for commercial beekeeping based on definitive colony health performance data;
  • Evaluating the use of “smart hive” technology to monitor honey bee colony health during commercial migratory operations; and,
  • Assessing United States honey bee genetics for traits that are relevant to colony resistance to pests and disease as well as pollination efficiency and honey production.

For more information about the WSU bee program and the new honey bee research facility, please visit bees.wsu.edu.

For more information on Project Apis m., please visit http://projectapism.org/.

To learn more about Healthy Hives 2020, contact Danielle Downey at danielle@projectapism.org.

For more information on the North American Bayer Bee Care Center, please visit beehealth.bayer.us.