Bee Sperm Banks
June 10, 2013

Sperm Banks For Bees Help Preserve Biodiversity And Create New Breeds

Watch the video "Honey Bee Genome Repository"

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Beekeepers around the United States have been experiencing an unusually high level of colony die-off and a group of“¯Washington State University (WSU) researchers has just announced a plan to preserve the survival and biodiversity of honey bee colonies by creating a sperm bank for the tiny insects.

Using liquid nitrogen to preserve their samples, the WSU scientists said they will begin to collect bee semen from colonies across the US and Europe. They also say they plan to use these samples to produce more diverse, resilient“¯honey bee subspecies.

According to Steve Sheppard, professor of entomology at WSU, bees face threats from invasive mites, pesticides and the agricultural practice of monoculture that offers little of the nutritional variety that bees need. Experts say that a combination of these factors typically plays a major role in a colony´s collapse.

In 1922, UK entomologists identified tracheal mites as the likely cause of widespread bee deaths on England´s Isle of Wight, causing the US to restrict the importation of live honey bees. Today, entomologists say the import ban has resulted in a limited honey bee gene pool.

"Honey bees, Apis mellifera, have 28 recognized subspecies — in Europe, Africa, and Asia, the general vicinity of where honey bees are thought to have originated,” said Sheppard.

Many entomologists have said these subspecies could be used to breed bees that are resistant to deadly mites or the effects of a limited diet.

In 2008, the USDA permitted WSU researchers to import honey bee semen for breeding purposes after the samples had passed a strict screening test for viruses.

Because beekeepers in different US climate zones have different demands of their bees, Sheppard and his colleagues identified three different subspecies for import. Southern beekeepers often want fast-breeding bees to provide pollination for early-blooming crops, while northern beekeepers want slow-breeding bees since young bees are susceptible to sudden cold snaps that often happen in the spring.

For warm-weather beekeepers, the WSU team collected semen from Italian bees, which are bred for that country´s more temperate climate. Sheppard and colleagues collected semen from Carniolan bees of the eastern Alps and Caucasian bees from the nation of Georgia for northern beekeepers.

According to WSU researcher Susan Cobey, applying a“¯small amount of pressure to a mature drone's abdomen will“¯release the semen, which can then be collected in a syringe. The semen will remain viable at room temperature for up to 14 days,“¯giving the team plenty of time to either freeze the sample or inseminate a queen.

While the WSU researchers are putting years of planning and work into their effort to boost bee biodiversity, some scientists say bees´ contribution to pollination and, therefore, to agriculture in general has been overstated.

According to the Keith S. Delaplane, a professor of entomology at the University of Georgia, the phrase “honey bees are responsible for every third bite of food we eat” is an example of “hyperbole” regarding the role of honey bees in agricultural pollination.

“I suspect that even in 1976 this estimate was generous and applicable only to the most affluent economies where hay-powered beef and dairy products, oilseeds, and fruits make up a significant fraction of the diet,” he said.

A recent analysis by the UN´s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)“¯found that about 5 to 8 percent of global food production is“¯attributable to animal pollination.