Although the mating ritual of the queen bee has been finely tuned by Mother Nature, it may not be long before scientists are providing assistance.
Entomologists in Washington are starting the world's first bee sperm bank. Their goal is to collect semen from different honey bee species abroad, freeze it in liquid nitrogen, and bring it back to the United States to help fight Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a phenomenon in which adult bees mysteriously disappear from their hive.
CCD has recently been on the rise, threatening the health of colonies both across the country and around the globe. Bad news for bees but bad news for us too. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that bee pollination increases crop value by more than $15 billion each year, and one bite in three we take directly or indirectly benefits from that pollination.
"Poor nutrition, pesticides, and parasites all play a role [in CCD]," said Susan Cobey, one of the founders of the bee sperm bank project and a research associate at Washington State University. By increasing the genetic diversity of bees, beekeepers can selectively breed for traits to assist to better prepare them against CCD.
One of the species of bee she collected, the Caucasian honey bee, lives in Georgia (as in, former Soviet republic). In addition to being tolerant of the cold weather in the area, it also known for creating a substance called propolis. "It's kind of sticky and gummy," said Cobey, "but it also has medicinal benefits for the bees." If queen bees were inseminated with sperm from the Caucasian bee, it could produce bees that could better protect the hive from disease.
And if you're wondering what it's like to actually get semen from a bee, it's simpler than you might think.
"The drone's only function is to mate," she says. "You just need to apply a little pressure to the abdomen." Afterwards, the semen is extracted with a specialized syringe and frozen with liquid nitrogen. Once frozen, the semen can be viable for several decades.
So far, Cobey and her colleague Steve Sheppard, a professor of entomology at Washington State, have collected semen from three different species of honeybee: the Caucasian honey bee, the Italian bee and the Carniolan bee in the Alps.
"This is the very beginning," she says, "but it could be huge. There's definitely a lot of global interest."