A Sperm Bank for Better Bees

One way to combat colony collapse disorder? Genetically diversify the bee population.
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Shutterstock/Tischenko Irina

Honey bees are having a hard time of it. They're facing pesticides that can gradually weaken their bodies. They're dealing with parasitic mites that can impede young bees' development. They're existing within human monocultures that limit their nutritional diversity. All those things combined can lead to colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon in which worker bees abruptly disappear, dooming the entire hive -- and threatening agricultural stability in the process.

Researchers at Washington State University think they've found a possible solution to those problems. It involves bees from both the United States and Europe. It involves liquid nitrogen. And it involves a sperm bank. One that is, probably, really, really tiny.

Technically, the thing will be known as a "bee genome repository" -- a sperm bank that will make use of liquid nitrogen to freeze semen gathered from different colonies of honey bees. 

"We're trying to diversify the U.S. honey bee gene pool," explains Washington State's Susan Cobey. There are 28 recognized subspecies of honey bee, spread across Europe, Africa, and Asia. And the best chance bees have to fight the threats they're facing is to interbreed, producing offspring that might stand a better chance of fighting parasites and infections. 

But in 1922, the U.S., in an effort to halt the spread of a previous bee-killer, restricted the importation of live honey bees into the country. Which means that the colonies based in the U.S. and those based elsewhere have been -- both by law and by accident -- genetically removed from each other.

So Cobey and her team are planning to do in a lab what can't currently be done in the field. Genetic cross-breeding methods, they hope, will produce more diverse, resilient honey bee subspecies -- and the existence of those beneficiaries of hybrid vigor could in turn help to thwart the nation's current colony collapse crisis.

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NSFW, if you're a bee: researcher Susan Cobey explains how to extract semen from drones at various stages of life (Washington State University)

So, then. How does one go about ... collecting the bee semen? According to Sue Cobey: "In general terms, if you apply a tiny amount of pressure to a mature drone's abdomen, it will push out the semen, which can be collected in a syringe equipped with a capillary tube."

Live semen will survive at room temperature for about 10-14 days, allowing Cobey to collect it and transport it back to her laboratory, where it can be frozen or injected into a selected queen bee's oviduct, to fertilize it.

The semen will be collected from the strongest and best stock in Europe, then injected into the strongest and best queen bee stock from the United States, thereby helping to strengthen and diversify U.S. bee colonies.

The question of how to store honey bee genetic material for years, as is already the practice with other animals of agricultural importance, has been solved with the help of Sheppard's graduate student Brandon Hopkins. Hopkins discovered that liquid nitrogen maintains the semen viability for decades, helping preserve imperiled subspecies in a honey bee genetic repository.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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