What can a beekeeper learn from a dairy farmer?

Ginger Davidson  www.GeezBeezHoney.com

As most of you know, I’m enamored with learning about drones - male honey bees, not the small flying machines. I truly believe that you can’t have a great queen without some awesome drones. With all the attention given to queens, drones are often taken for granted and forgotten. However, since the promiscuous queen mates with 15 and sometimes as many as 20 different drones, they really should not be overlooked.

Fairly recently, I’ve jumped into the ever fascinating world of instrumentally inseminating honey bee queens. Having participated in artificial insemination projects with my sheep, I’ve been taken aback by how far behind honey bees are in this area especially when compared to other livestock. Dairy cattle, for example, have seen tremendous gains in milk production by using artificial insemination and are often able to extend great genetics from one bull to many cows. Because of this, it is very rare to find a modern day production milk system where the farmer uses natural cover. Instead, semen from a bull is collected, evaluated, stored, frozen and shipped all around the world to use for insemination. Often times, the bull can be dead and still father calves. It’s all pretty amazing.

So let’s get back to the bees and the associated problem at hand. Due to the Honey Bee Act of 1922, the importation of honeybees and honeybee germplasm from other countries was stopped in order to minimize tracheal mite infiltration into our US honeybee population. However, in doing so, it has also resulted in a smaller genetic resource pool.

To combat the decreasing genetic possibilities, special permission was granted to Sue Cobey and a group of researchers to obtain drone semen from old world countries like Slovenia, Germany, Italy, and the Republic of Georgia. The introduction of new genetics using only semen can take 5 or 6 mating cycles – nothing happens overnight in the world of honeybee biology. The problem is that freshly collected drone semen quickly loses viability when stored at room temperature – although it amazingly lasts much, much longer than its mammalian counterparts. Therefore, without a better preservation technique, it was going to take several trips to gather germplasm to convert a US bee to one that contains 90%+ ‘old world’ stock by using drone semen only. Although previously attempted, a technique to collect, evaluate, store, and freeze drone semen like our dairy farmer friends use didn't provide for a high enough worker progeny ratio so it was seldom used.

This is where Brandon Hopkins, a reproductive biologist, enters the picture. While working with Dr. Steven Sheppard on his Ph.D. at Washington State University, he recently developed better methods and techniques of freezing and storing honeybee semen. These advancements are allowing researchers to collect germplasm from the 'old world stock' and use it many years later. Now, the honeybee industry can work toward a more efficient stock improvement plan which also includes a repository.

So, when the opportunity arose to attend a knowledge sharing session with Dr. Steve Sheppard and Brandon Hopkins to learn about cryopreservation of honey bee germplasm, you better believe I jumped on it. I would like to thank the Mountain State Queen Producers for the welcome invitation. We learned some new techniques and strategies that will hopefully allow for advancements in queens in Indiana as well as the Heartland Honey Bee Co-op.


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