You won't find anyone more passionate about building a better bee than bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey, who holds dual appointments at the University of California, Davis and Washington State University.
For one thing, her spring workshops on queen bee rearing and instrumental insemination at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at UC Davis are already filled and there's a waiting list. Those on the waiting list--or at least some of them--are expected to register for her Washington state summer classes.
Those should fill up fast, too.
Cobey and her work are mentioned today in a Washington Post article, "In search of a better bee."
A key enemy of honey bees is the varroa mite, a parasitic critter that feeds on bee brood. Sometimes you'll even see it clinging to a foraging adult.
Cobey seeks to improve her stock. This includes building a better hygienic bee that can remove the varroa mites from the cells and the brood.
It's not an easy task.
"As vital as the hygienic bee is, the breeder must preserve desirable traits--a reluctance to sting or swarm, for example, as well as genetic diversity in a hedge against future diseases or pests," wrote Washington Post reporter Adrian Higgins.
"That's why gains are so slow," Cobey told her in the news story. "I would say we are just in the infancy of bee breeding."
Higgins wrote that Cobey is one of only a handful in the country skilled at artificially inseminating "virgin queens from known drone stock."
Why artificial insemination? When a virgin queen bee mates with drones in the drone congregation area (she mates in flight with a 12 to 20 drones or more), the breeding stock can't be controlled.
With queen bee insemination, it can be.
That's one of the reasons why Cobey's workshops draw students from throughout the world, and why they fill up fast.
Let it bee.
But the California State Beekeepers’ Association (CSBA) certainly won't.
Today they're enjoying tours and a president's reception. Then Tuesday through Thursday, it's all business. Or bees-ness.
Johnson who joined the UC Davis Department of Entomology last summer, will be introduced at the 9 a.m. session on Tuesday. He will speak at 11:15 a.m. on Wednesday: His topic “Plans for UC Davis Bee Research Program.” Johnson specializes in behavior, evolution, and genetics of honey bees, and apiculture. (See lab research)
A former UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management (ESPM) at UC Berkeley, Johnson earlier served as a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at UC San Diego and the University of Bristol, UK.
He holds a doctorate (2004) from Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. in behavioral biology (thesis: “Organization of Work in the Honey Bee”).
Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen, a member of the UC Davis Department of Entomology faculty since 1976, will speak on “The State of California Beekeeping” at 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday. He also will discuss on “Swarm Prevention” at 8:45 a.m. on Wednesday.The veteran bee guy serves as a liaison between the academic world of apiculture and the real world of beekeeping and crop pollination.
Bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey, who shares a dual appointment with the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at UC Davis and Washington State University (WSU), will discuss “How to Raise Queens” at 8 a.m. on Wednesday.
Cobey’s research focuses on identifying, selecting and enhancing honey bee stocks that show increasing levels of resistance to pests and diseases. Cobey developed the New World Carniolan stock, a dark, winter hardy race of honey bees, in the early 1980s by back-crossing stocks collected from throughout the United States and Canada to create a more pure strain. Stock imported from the German Carnica Association has recently been added to enhance this breeding program.
Cobey and entomology professor Steve Sheppard of WSU are importing honey bee germplasm to increase genetic diversity in the U.S. honey bee gene pool. In addition, with stock imported from the Republic of Georgia, they hope to re-establish the subspecies Apis mellifera caucasica, another dark race of bee that is not currently recognizable in the U.S.
The CSBA is headed by president Frank Pendell, Stonyford; vice president Bryan Ashurst, Westmorland; secretary-treasurer Carlen Jupe, Salida; and past president Roger Everett of Porterville.
The CSBA purpose is to "educate the public about the beneficial aspects of honey bees, advance research beneficial to beekeeping practices, provide a forum for cooperation among beekeepers, and to support the economic and political viability of the beekeeping industry.”
And that it does. It will be a busy week.
It's a matter of A, B, C.
"A" is for Argentina. "B" is for bees. And "C" is for Cobey.
Bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey of the University of California, Davis and Washington State University will deliver the keynote address at the beekeeping technology symposium on Production of Live Material at the 42nd annual Apimondia International Beekeeping Congress, set Sept. 21-25 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
In addition, Cobey and fellow bee researcher Walter “Steve” Sheppard, professor and chair of the Department of Entomology at Washington State University, Pullman, will present a poster, “Collaborative Stock Enhancement Project to Increase Genetic Diversity of U.S. Honey Bee Populations.”
The poster session is on Sept. 22; her talk on Sept. 23.
Cobey’s research focuses on identifying, selecting and enhancing honey bee stocks that show increasing levels of resistance to pests and diseases. Cobey developed the New World Carniolan stock, a dark, winter hardy race of honey bees, in the early 1980s by back-crossing stocks collected from throughout the United States and Canada to create a more pure strain. Stock imported from the German Carnica Association has recently been added to enhance this breeding program. In collaborations with Steve Sheppard, they are importing honey bee germplasm to increase genetic diversity in the U.S. honey bee gene pool. In addition, stock from the Republic of Georgia has been imported to re-establish the subspecies Apis mellifera caucasica, another dark race of bee that is not currently recognizable in the U.S.
A critical aspect of this program is the technology transfer of beekeeping skills. Cobey teaches queen bee rearing and queen bee inseminations classes every spring at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility.
Cobey, who has taught the specialized classes since the early 1980s, draws researchers and beekeepers from throughout the world, including Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Costa Rico, England, Egypt, France, Spain India, Indonesia, Israel, Jamaica, Korea, Kuwait, Mexico, New Zealand, Nigeria, Peru, Puerto Rico, Saudi Arabia, Uruguay and Venezuela, Columbia.
By invitation, she’s also taught several classes in the host countries of Argentina, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica Egypt, Jamaica, Mexico, Turkey and South Africa.
It's spring now in Argentina. Time for the spring build-up for the bees. Then in early October, Cobey will head to Santiago, Chile to teach bee breeding techniques and instrumental insemination of queen bees.
Spreading the technology. Saving the bees. Enhancing genetic diversity. That's what it's all about.
Often you'll hear kindergarten students asking one another: "What's your favorite color?"
Beekeepers do that, too--in a joking sort of way. Some like to rear the blond Italians; some prefer the darker Carniolans, developed from the area of the Carniolan Alps in southeastern Europe; and others opt for the even darker bees, the Caucasians, originating from the Caucasus Mountains of eastern Europe.
It's the desirable traits, not the color, though, that really matters.
"More than 20 breeds of bees have been identified, and many of these have been tested by beekeepers for their ability to live in manmade hives, as well as their adaptability to the moderate climates of the world," writes Bee Culture editor Kim Flottum in his excellent book, The Backyard Beekeeper: An Absolute Beginner's Guide to Keeping Bees in Your Yard and Garden.
"Many species," Flottum continues in his book, "have been abandoned by beekeepers because they possess undesirable traits, such as excessive swarming, poor food-storage traits, or extreme nest protection."
Bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey, who has a dual appointment with the University of California, Davis and Washington State University, is partial to her New World Carniolans, a bee line she established.
Overall, the Carniolans are known as a good colder-weather bee. The Italians, though, are the most common bee in the United States. Sometimes you'll see an Italian bee so blond it's lemony.
Jackie Park-Burris of Palo Cedro, chair of the California State Apiary Board, rears Italians, which leads to good natured-ribbing between her and Cobey about "the best bee."
If you're interested in genetic diversity, mark your calendar for May 2, 2012. Cobey will speak on “Importation of Honey Bee Germplasm to Increase Genetic Diversity in Domestic Breeding Stocks" at her seminar from 12:10 to 1 p.m. in 122 Briggs Hall, UC Davis. It's part of a series of seminars that the UC Davis Department of Entomology is sponsoring. Plans are to webcast this; so stay tuned.
Meanwhile, take a look at foraging honey bees in your neighborhood. Like the patchwork coat in the Dolly Parton song, "Coat of Many Colors," you'll see many colors.
Many, many colors. And some belong to young bees with a fuzzy thorax and fresh wings, and some to old bees with a bare thorax and tattered wings.
What's your favorite bee? Native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor of entomology who maintains an office at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at UC Davis, says that "beauty is only skin (integument) deep."
"I prefer the ones with a good disposition regardless of their external appearance even on a 'bad hair day,'" Thorp says.
As for me, to paraphrase American humorist Will Rogers (1879-1935), "I've never met a bee I didn't like."
I haven't met any of those highly aggressive, super-defensive Africanized bees, though.
Award-winning journalist Hannah Nordhaus tells the story of migratory beekeeper John Miller of Gackle, N.D., who trucks his bees throughout much of the country to pollinate farmers' crops, including almonds in California.
She frames her story with interesting tidbits about bees, bee health, honey, research and beekeepers.
Nordhaus writes exceptionally well. Although not a beekeeper, she followed Miller around to his bee yards, beekeeping conferences and to his home in Gackle (which is about 100 miles from Bismarck).
Bees, she says, "are creatures of routine, sticklers for order. Their short lives revolve around tending and cleaning and feeding the queen and the young. Bees are single-minded. They do not ditch their queen just because they feel like it. They do not get restless and leave their young. They do not go on flights of fancy. They do not enroll in semesters abroad on a whim or grow dreadlocks or get tattoos or go on extended vacations. They do their jobs."
That's her marvelous lead-in for colony collapse disorder (CCD), the mysterious phenomenon characterized by adult bees abandoning the hive.
Nordhaus describes Miller as a guy who loves bees, spreadsheets, humor and his friends. He's descended from Nephi Ephraim Miller, a Mormon farmer known as "the father of migratory beekeeping" and the first beekeeper to produce "the nation's first million-pound crop of honey."
Miller maintains one of the biggest beekeeping operations in the country--although not quite as big as South Dakota's Richard Adee, who has 80,000 hives, Nordhaus says.
Born in 1954, Miller has a "Jimmy Stewart-like voice and an eternally bemused expression," Nordhaus writes. He doesn't cuss. He uses "cowboy words" (especially when he gets stung).
Other bee guys mentioned in her book include California queen producers Pat Heitkam of Orland and Bob and Bill Koehnen of C. H. Koehnen & Sons of Glenn. (Note: Students who enroll in bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey's annual instrumental insemination class at UC Davis visit these queen bee-breeding operations.)
Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. (1907-2003), also mentioned in The Beekeeper's Lament, was Cobey's mentor. The Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on Bee Biology Road at UC Davis bears his name.
Laidlaw is considered "the father of modern queen-rearing," Nordhaus points out. (Note: he's also considered "the father of bee genetics.")
"He (Laidlaw) was the pope to anybody that raises queens," Heitkam told her. "To have shaken his hand is an honor."
Nordhaus writes as if she's chatting with John Miller in his living room and we're listening in and don't want the conversation to end. We want to hear more about the bee folks, how they feel about their bees, and what they're doing to ward off pests, pesticides, diseases and the like.
Anyone who has ever opened a hive can identify with Nordhaus' comment: "Ask any beekeeper: bees are addictive--their purposefulness, their solidarity, their endless complexity. Miller loves nothing better than the sight of a teeming frame of bees, of sealed-up honeycombs and brood heady to hatch."
"Ah," he told Nordhaus, "that's prosperity right there."
Bee folks are like that.
She got it right.