Honeybee numbers are in free-fall, but could a solution at last be near? And could it really be a bee sperm bank?
It might at first sound an unusual approach, but scientists at Washington State University say that, without being able to halt the causes of Colony Collapse Disorder, where worker bees abandon hives and doom the hive’s next generation, this might be one way of helping bees overcome the challenges they face.
There are approximately 28 recognized subspecies of honeybee originating from Europe, Africa and Asia. With that comes an enormous genetic stock and subsequent characteristics that could produce bees capable of shrugging off America’s colony collapse problem.
We can’t just import bees, however. A ban on foreign bee imports has been in place in the United States since 1922, when tracheal mites were thought to have been the cause of bee deaths on England’s Isle of Wight and, to protective the native population, transfer of colonies was outlawed.
This restriction remains today, and arguably for good reason. As a result, though, genetic stocks have until now been limited within U.S. borders, meaning that interbreeding the bees has for all practical purposes stopped.
However, scientists at Washington State University’s Department of Etymology, chief among them professor Steve Sheppard, sort and received special permission from the U.S. government to travel to key breeding grounds that produce bees with particularly desirable traits and collect sperm samples — obviously, it is easier to screen sperm for viruses and so this exception could be made. But what special traits?
Commercial beekeepers in southern U.S. states have long wanted bees that reproduce quickly so as to maximize the chances of pollinating early-blooming crops. Italian honey bees carry this trait and so their sperm was sort.
In contrast, beekeepers in colder areas need bees that do not reproduce when faced with Spring’s first sudden warm spell, because a subsequent dip in temperature could then kill the vulnerable offspring. Carniolan bees of the eastern Alps and Caucasian bees from the mountains of Georgia display the desired behavior.
With this, it becomes easy to see the advantages in carefully selecting bee sperm samples for specific traits and cross breeding with the US’ native species to give domestic bees a better chance of survival. The collection process is relatively simple too.
A small amount of pressure applied to their abdomen causes the bees to ejaculate and the semen is then collected. It can survive at room temperature for several days and thus can be transported without any extraordinary measures having to be used. Back in the lab, the samples are rigorously tested for infection and vetted for the best stocks. Said prime samples are either then used immediately or frozen in liquid nitrogen.
This sperm can then be distributed to honey bee breeders and implanted into American queen bees. The impregnated queen will then produce workers from this superior genetic stock and hopefully pass on the traits that will make them more hardy than their native cousins.
Implantation has been tried before, but never on this scale and, until a breakthrough in storage by use of liquid nitrogen, bee sperm stocks have never before been preserved to create a genetic library.
It is hoped that by embarking on this program, the United States’ bee populations can begin to recover and their vital role in agriculture can be restored to its full power, but it will take time to see if this method will yield the results that are needed. Unfortunately, it is not scaremongering to say that time is running short.
The total number of managed honeybee colonies has dropped significantly from 5 million in the 1940s to just 2.5 million today and, as noted by NBC, a report issued last October by the USDA concluded that honeybee colony numbers are now too low “to be confident in our ability to meet the pollination demands of U.S. agriculture crops.”
There is ample evidence that insecticides and pesticides, in particular neonicotinoids and fluvalinate and coumaphos, are at the very least contributing to Colony Collapse Disorder, but so far the USDA has resisted calls to list pesticides as a cause.
Other contributing factors are believed to be, among others, mite infestations, such as the Varroa mite, and the use of antibiotics.
Image credit: Thinkstock.