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Honey bee sperm bank created to save the crucial pollinators

In the latest bid to save the threatened honey bee, Washington State University entomologists are building a sperm bank that they will draw on to produce a stronger bee resistant to the types of ailments that are playing a part in the honey industry's collapse.

The researchers are importing honey bee semen from Italy, Georgia, part of the former Soviet Union, and Europe's eastern Alps and freezing it in liquid nitrogen at the school. They said that the bees from those areas are strong and offer scientists the best hope of creating a new and diverse strain of bees.

Honey bees face several challenges, said Steve Sheppard, professor of entomology at WSU. He said that mites can sap a brood's strength and pesticides can build up in the brood comb and gradually weaken the bees. Both are believed to be partially responsible for the epidemic called Colony Collapse Disorder plaguing the industry and threatening U.S. crop pollination.

The college said that honey bee diversity is limited due by a decades-old rule that banned many bee imports. It has received approval from the Agriculture Department to import the sperm.

"Commercial beekeepers in southern states often want bees that reproduce quickly to provide maximum pollination of early-blooming crops like almonds. WSU plant breeders have been collecting semen from Italian honey bees for this trait. Beekeepers in colder climates want bees that are more reluctant to reproduce at the first warm spell in spring, as a cold snap could kill the vulnerable brood," the school said in a release.

"To find appropriate genetic stock, Sheppard and colleagues have been collecting semen from Carniolan bees of the eastern Alps and Caucasian bees from the mountains of Georgia (formerly part of the Soviet Union). The semen is imported by special permit and tested for viruses. Queen bees inseminated with approved semen can then be released to queen bee producers," added the college.

Despite the tiny size of the bees, collecting honey bee semen is easy, said Susan Cobey, a WSU research associate. She said that when a tiny amount of pressure is applied to a mature drone's abdomen, it will ejaculate the semen, which can be collected in a syringe. It can then be frozen and later injected into a queen bee.