A team of scientists from UC Davis and Washington State University will be heading for Italy tomorrow (June 19) to gather germplasm (sperm) of Old World/Italian honey bee stock. They'll bring it back to the United States to inseminate bee queens.
Bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey, who has a joint appointment at UC Davis and WSU, will be in Italy with colleagues Walter "Steve" Sheppard, professor and chair of the WSU Department of Entomology, and Ph.D. student Brandon Hopkins of WSU. They're scheduled to return June 27.
Increasing the overall genetic diversity of honey bees may lead to healthier and hardier bees that can better fight off parasites, pathogens and pests, says Cobey, director of the Honey Bee Stock Improvement Program. Just as stock improvement has served the poultry, dairy and swine industries well, the beekeeping industry needs access “to stocks of origin or standardized evaluation and stock improvement programs.”
So, which honey bee did the European colonists introduce to America in 1622? It wasn't the Italian (blond) subspecies, now the most prevalent here. It was the dark subspecies (Apis mellifera mellifera), that made its way to the Jamestown colony (present-day Virginia) from England.
The Italian bees were not introduced into our country until 1859, records show.
"The American beekeeping pubic was enamored with the newly available yellow and relatively gentle bees," authors Cobey, Sheppard and David Tarpy wrote in a chapter of the newly published book, Honey Bee Colony Health: Challenges and Sustainable Solutions. "As a result, Italian-type honey bees form the basis for most present-day commercial beekeeping stocks in the U.S."
However, a genetic bottleneck resulted from the U.S. Honey Bee Act of 1922, which restricted further importation of Old World honey bees to prevent the introduction of the tracheal mite, Acarapis woodi.
The importation of germplasm from the Old World stock of the Italian subspecies could very well result in a better bee.
That's the plan. That's the hope. The trio wants to make it happen.
The UC Davis/WSU team will fan out to bee labs and to commercial beekeepers' apiaries and then deliver the germplasm to the WSU lab in Pullman, Wash., where they'll inseminate queen bees.
Cobey talked about the Stock Improvement Program at her May 2nd seminar presented to the UC Davis Department of Entomology. Based at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility since 2007, she was trained by Laidlaw (1907-2003) himself. He's known as "the father of honey bee genetics."
If you access this web page, then click on the link at the top of the page below the headline, you can listen to Cobey's seminar.
Staff research associate/beekeeper Elizabeth Frost of the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility, on Bee Biology Road, University of California, Davis, earlier this year planted a pollinator patch in front of the facility--and what an eyecatcher it is.
She selected California golden poppies, lupine and foxgloves, among other choices. When spring emerged, the Laidlaw facility never looked so brilliant! Especially in front of the Laidlaw ceramic sign created by Donna Billick of Davis.
Frost posted a "Pollinator Habitat" sign in front that reads: "This area has been planted with a range of flowering native plants to provide high quality habitat for native bees and other pollinators. To learn how you can create good habitat for pollinators, please visit www.xerces.org.
Frost, a UC Davis graduate who joined the bee lab in 2008 and worked with bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey, recently accepted a position on the Honey Bee Tech-Transfer Team, part of the Bee Informed Partnership. So, starting Sept. 1 Frost will be based at the Cooperative Extension office in Butte County.
What is the Bee Informed Partnership? To quote from the website, "It's an extension project that endeavors to decrease the number of managed honey bee colonies that die over the winter."
"Since the winter of 2006 - 2007, overwintering colonies in the US have died in large numbers. Affected beekeepers span the entire spectrum of the industry: migratory beekeepers to stationary beekeepers; and commercial beekeepers, part-time beekeepers, to backyard beekeepers. Migratory and stationary beekeepers alike have, on average, lost 30% or more of their overwintering colonies over the last several years. These losses are unsustainable. If they continue, they threaten not only the livelihoods of beekeepers who manage bees, but the livelihood of farmers who require bees to pollinate their crops."
Check out the Bee Informed team! And read their comments on why they like working with bees!
Meanwhile, back at the ranch...er, the Laidlaw facility...the pollinators are populating the poppies. On any given day, you can see honey bees, drone flies, hover flies, dragonflies and butterflies.
Plant it and they will come.
Ever seen honey bees engaging in washboarding?
It's a behavior so named because they look as if they're scrubbing clothes on a washboard or scrubbing their home.
It occurs near the entrance of the hive and only with worker bees. They go back and forth, back and forth, a kind of rocking movement. No one knows why they do it. It's one of those unexplained behaviors they've probably been doing for millions of years.
Bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey of the University of California, Davis and Washington State University, has witnessed washboarding scores of times. Last week the unusual behavior occurred on two of her hives at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at UC Davis. She hypothesizes that these bees are in the "unemployment line." It's a time when foraging isn't so good, so these bees are "sweeping the porch" for something to do, she speculates.
Emeritus professor Norman Gary of UC Davis Department of Entomology writes about it in his chapter, Activities and Behavior of Honey Bees, in the Dadant publication The Hive and the Honey Bee.
"They stand on the second and third pairs of legs and face the entrance. Their heads are bent down and the front legs are also bent," wrote Gary, who has kept bees for more than six decades. "They make 'rocking' or 'washboard' movements, thrusting their bodies forward and backward. At the same time they scrape the surface of the hive with their mandibles with a rapid shearing movement, sliding over the surface as if cleaning it."
They pick up some material and then clean their mandibles.
Gary thinks that "these rocking movements probably serve as a cleaning process by which the bees scrape and polish the surface of the hive."
Like most people, professor/biologist/bee researcher James Nieh of UC San Diego has never seen this behavior. Nieh, who recently presented at seminar at UC Davis, later commented "It is an interesting behavior that would be particularly fascinating to observe in natural colonies in trees. It does seem to involve some cleaning behavior, although it is possible that bees are depositing some olfactory compound while they are rubbing the surface with their mandibles. We are currently conducting research in my lab on the effects of bee mandibular gland secretions on foraging orientation behavior. A new set of experiments will involve examining the effect of mandibular gland secretions on bee behaviors at the nest. I will definitely consider looking at how this potential pheromone affects washboarding."
We managed to capture the behavior with our Iphone and posted it on YouTube.
It's interesting that of the some 25 research hives at the Laidlaw facility, occupants of two of Cobey's hives exhibited washboarding last week.
So, what are washboarding bees doing? Cleaning their home where pathogenic organisms might congregate, per a theory by Katie Bohrer and Jeffrey Pettis of the USDA-ARS Bee Research Lab?
Or are they just creating "busy work"--"sweeping the porch" for something to do?
It would be interesting to find out!
Varroa mites, those pesky little parasites that suck the blood out of honey bees and spread multiple viruses, are now found throughout the world, except in Australia.
Scientists blame these parasites as one of the causes of colony collapse disorder (CCD), characterized by adult bees abandoning the hive and leaving behind the queen, brood and food stores. They attribute CCD to a multitude of factors, including pests, pesticides, parasites, diseases, viruses, malnutrition and stress. Thus, varroa mites are a key factor in the declining honey bee population.
Today's honey bees are ill-equipped to rid their hives of a varroa mite infestation. Indeed, beekeepers consider the varroa mite (scientific name Varroa destructor) as Public Enemy No. 1.
And that's one of the reasons why we like bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey's efforts to increase the genetic diversity in our domestic honey bee gene pool.
Cobey, who has a dual appointment at the University of California, Davis and Washington State University, is directing a stock improvement program which aims to do just that.
"Increasing the overall genetic diversity of honey bees will lead to healthier and hardier bees that can better fight off parasites, pathogens and pests," she says.
"We have collected and imported honey bee semen (germplasm) from their original European homeland to inseminate select domestic queens produced by the California bee breeders," Cobey told us. These California breeders supply queen bees and package bees nationwide. Honey bees, as Cobey points out, "provide the essential pollination for our crops, especially in California, "the breadbasket" of our country and our world.
Cobey and her team have also re-introduced the subspecies, Apis mellifera caucasica, a dark race of bee known for its collection and use of propolis, self-medicating plant resins.
What does a mite look like? Check out the mite-infested drone below. A boy bee's only duty is to gather in the drone congregation area and mate with the queen during her maiden flight, but that won't happen with this one. No thanks to the parasitic mites, he has a weakened immune system, crippling his ability to fly.
What will happen to him? His sisters will kick him out of the hive and he will die.
Our yard is filled with such bee friendly plants as salvia, lavender, catmint and rock purslane.
Lately, however, the honey bees have taken a liking to the sugar-water mixture from our hummingbird feeder. Manufacturers' bee guards are meant to deter them but frankly, we rather like attracting both the hummers and the buzzers.
"The bees are hungry," said bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey of the University of California, Davis and Washington State University.
We like watching the honey bees gather at the "red fountain" as the sun sets. They buzz excitedly around the feeder, sip what they think is a nectar of the gods, and head back to their hive. Soon more of their sisters arrive to partake.
So, will the honey bees make red honey from the sugar-water mixture in the hummingbird feeder? No. The honeycomb will be tinted red, but it's not honey, said Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology. It's syrup. Sugar syrup.