A Sperm Bank For Honeybees: Scientists Say Selective Breeding May Help Fight the Honeybee Crisis
Scientists at Washington State University are putting new meaning to the phrase "the birds and the bees."
Wikimedia Commons The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates bee pollination increases crop value by more than $15 billion each year.
They're on a mission to help fight the rise of a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder, which has put the world's honeybee population in grave danger. Without the bees, grocery stores would lose an estimated 52 percent of the normal produce mix. Whole Foods created a cool graphic to show what that might look like -- spoiler alert: it's pretty depressing.
In an attempt to prevent that dismal future, entomologist Steve Sheppard and his crew at Washington State have figured out a way to extract and store bee semen. The key is liquid nitrogen, which allows the scientists to store bee sperm for years, if not decades. Graduate student Brandon Hopkins, who came up with the liquid nitrogen idea, says they're now capable of creating a whole generation of queen bees.
But how exactly do you "extract" bee semen?
"You just need to apply a little pressure to the abdomen," according to what Susan Cobey, one of the founders of the bee sperm bank project and a research associate at Washington State University, told the AP. Then the semen can be extracted with a syringe.
And the scientists aren't just extracting love juice from any bees. They're strategically targeting subspecies to create colonies of bees more resistant to disease and other detrimental circumstances.
For example, the scientists have determined Italian bees are a great subspecies because they reproduce quickly and provide maximum pollination for early blooming crops. That means they're ideal to support California's multi-billion dollar almond crop. On the other hand, the Caucasian honey bee from the country of Georgia produces a sticky, gummy substance called propolis that's beneficial to bee health. Breeding with this species could bees that would better protect their hives from disease.
Of course, it's just the beginning of the bee sperm bank project, -- which, for the record, scientists call a "germplasm repository" -- but at least there's some hope for our honeybee friends.