It's August, 2007 and bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey, manager of the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility, University of California, Davis, is opening a hive in the apiary.
"Girls, where's your mother?” she asks again, pulling out another frame.
She quickly locates the queen bee, "the mother of them all." And "all" is not right in the bee world.
Susan "Sue" Cobey wants to "build a better bee."
Cobey, now a bee breeder-geneticist at Washington State University, seeks to maximize the good traits and minimize the bad traits. By controlling the genetics of honey bees (Apis mellifera), she says, researchers can breed stronger, more survivable bees--bees able to withstand such pests as varroa mites and such maladies as colony collapse disorder. “Controlled mating is the basic foundation of all stock improvement programs.”
Cobey who joined Washington State University's Department of Entomology in 2010, works with department chair and bee scientist Walter "Steve" Sheppard, who researches population genetics and evolution of honey bees, insect introductions and mechanisms of genetic differentiation; and bee scientist Brandon Hopkins, an expert on cryopreservation of bee semen.
"Building a better bee” involves collecting bee semen (germplasm) in European countries, including Italy, Slovenia, Germany, and the Republic of Kazakhstan. Those countries, she points out, rear bees with favorable genetic traits, such as resistance to varroa mites, the No. 1 enemy of beekeepers in the United States.
The dwindling gene pool diversity in the United States is troublesome, Cobey says. Although European colonists brought honey bees to the Jamestown colony in 1622, live honey bee imports have been banned in the United States since 1922.
So Cobey has been traveling to Europe since 2006--every year but 2016--to collect bee semen. “It took me 22 years to get that first permit," says Cobey. "It was opening the Canadian border to Europe that turned it--politics, not biology-based. We started asking (to collect bee semen in Europe) in the early 1980s with Harry Laidlaw's backing."
"My first trip to Europe was in 2006 from Ohio State University for carnica (Apis mellifera carnica, a darker subspecies) bee stock," recalled Cobey, who studied and trained with Harry Laidlaw, the father of honey bee genetics. Cobey joined the UC Davis Department of Entomology in 2007 and a year later, she began collecting bee semen in Europe with Steve Sheppard. The WSU bee breeding program involves crossbreeding honey bees to bolster their genetic traits. WSU is the only lab in the country with permits to import bee semen, and the only laboratory with the ability to freeze it. The WSU team uses liquid nitrogen to preserve the bee semen.
The European trip was memorable and productive. "Slovenia is a beautiful country with a long tradition of beekeeping," Cobey said.
"In Semič, Slovenia, we collected bee semen, met with the local beekeepers and gave presentations about our program,” Cobey said. “Afterwards we celebrated with a feast of roasted pig, hosted by Stane Plut."
"What a trip that was (to Italy and Slovenia)!" said Park-Burris. "Slovenia only allows the beekeepers to keep Carniolan bees. Sue was in heaven and it was fun to see how excited she got about her bees. Likewise I was really happy to see the Italy stock in Bologna again. The beekeepers there were so excited that we wanted more of their stock. Their hospitality was overwhelming."
Park-Burris marveled that the Slovenians keep almost all of their hives in "houses" and "then they paint pictures on them that tell a story. It was very interesting. One Slovenian told me that they treat their bees like pets and that was so true!"
Cobey is an international authority on the instrumental insemination of queen bees. She's taught the specialized technique for more than three decades, instructing students how to extract semen from a drone, and inseminate an anesthetized virgin queen. Magnified images on a computer screen help illustrate the procedure.
Cobey began training students in instrumental insemination in 1984. "This has taken me all over the world--currently I have invitations/inquiries to six countries," said Cobey, who has set up a lab at her home on Whidbey Island to teach workshops. Husband Timothy Lawrence, also a veteran beekeeper, is an associate professor and the county director (Island County) of Washington State University Extension.
"I receive three to five requests for classes per day here; I'm sorting these to the most needed/most serious," Cobey said. "The interest is much more serious. But note--still many struggle with this, as there are many aspects, including the specialized beekeeping that goes with it."
Cobey recently taught UC Davis staff research associates and beekeepers Bernardo Niño and Charley Nye of the Elina Lastro Niño lab in a three-day class in her lab. "I'm just doing small classes so I can give more individual attention, and concentrate on the details. So I have just three or four people per class. I hope UC Davis starts some classes as the interest is overwhelming." A UC Davis goal is to offer classes in 2018 or 2019, according to Niño.
Some of Cobey's students go on to teach others the technique. UC Davis graduate Elizabeth Frost learned from Susan Cobey while working as her staff research associate at the Laidlaw facility. "She is now teaching instrumental insemination in Australia," Cobey said.
Cobey traces her interest in bees back to the 1970s. After enrolling in a student exchange program in entomology in 1975 at Oregon State University, Corvallis, she received her bachelor's degree in entomology in 1976 from the University of Delaware, Newark. From 1978 to 1980, she worked at UC Davis, where she was influenced by Harry Laidlaw (1907-2003).
Laidlaw perfected artificial bee insemination technology. “He discovered the valve fold in the queen bee which hinders injection of semen into the lateral oviducts,” Cobey said. “He developed instrumentation to bypass the valve fold enabling the success of bee insemination.”
Utilizing the training, Cobey established the Vaca Valley Apiaries in Vacaville in 1982, developing the highly regarded New World Carniolan Breeding Program. The Carniolans, originally from the Austrian Alps and the Balkans, are darker than the popular Italian honey bees, the most common subspecies in the United States. The Carniolans are known for their gentle behavior, and may be more suited to cooler weather.
In 1990 Cobey pulled up roots—and hives—and settled in Ohio, serving as staff apiarist at the Rothenbuhler Honey Bee Research Laboratory at Ohio State University until accepting the staff research associate position and manager of the UC Davis facility in 2007.
Now she's focused on the WSU bee breeding program, which produces breeder queen bees, which are then provided to commercial queen bee producers, who in turn can produce thousands of queen bees for the nation's beekeepers. The goal is to preserve and improve the stock of honeybees and to prevent subspecies from extinction.
Hopkins says that genetic diversity offers improved bee fitness and productivity. A genetically diverse colony handles diseases better. The biggest need in the U.S. honey bee population is anything that would increase resistance to parasitic Varroa mites, Hopkins says. (See WSU post.)
Cobey is featured in a National Public Radio piece, "No Offense, American Bees, But Your Sperm Isn't Cutting It."
"Honey bees aren't native to America," Cobey told reporter Ryan Bell. "We brought them here. But the U.S. closed its borders to live honey bee imports in 1922, and our honey bee population has been interbreeding ever since."
"Girls, where's your mother?"
It was a bee. One little bee.
What are the odds of a honey bee landing on the window of a UC Davis vehicle parked outside the California Bee Breeders' Association meeting on a cool January day--Wednesday, Jan. 20--at the Ord Bend Community Center, Glenn County?
Inside, it was a gathering of bee breeders talking about industry issues. Outside, it was a gathering of clouds, as the sun struggled to cast shadows where it could. The clouds would darken tomorrow, but it would not rain today.
There were no pollinators in sight.
Except for this one little bee, which landed on the windshield. Was it looking for those scarce floral resources? Or soaking in the warmth of the sun? Or waiting to be photographed?
Surely it will be involved in the almond pollination season which begins around Feb. 14.
"There are now 890,000 bearing acres of almonds!" bee breeder Jackie Park-Burris of Jackie Park-Burris Queens, Palo Cedro, and a past chairman of the California Sate Apiary Board, told us last week. "They're needing approximately 1,780,000 hives! That is probably close to 85 percent of the commercial hives in the U.S. It is definitely 100 percent of the quality commercial hives in the United States."
"Beekeepers are very thankful for the job," she added. "The pollen from the almonds is one of the healthiest pollens my bees get all year, they love it!The largest pollinating event in the world happens in California during the almond bloom. It is a $5.8 billion crop for growers and the economy of California."
And it all starts with the bees. One. Little. Bee.
One is a noted commercial queen bee breeder in California.
One is the head of the beekeeping section, Ministry of Agriculture, Botswana government.
And two are beekeepers in Bolivia.
Washington, California, Botswana and Bolivia...
They all have at least two things in common: (1) they are women who work with bees and (2) they form part of the UC Davis "Women Feeding the World: Farmers, Mothers and CEOs" online photo gallery.
Meet bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey of Washington State University, formerly of the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility, UC Davis.
Meet commercial bee queen breeder Jackie Park-Burris of Palo Cedro, a past president of the California State Apiary Board and the California State Beekeepers' Association.
Meet Queen Turner, former Humphrey Fellow at UC Davis and the head of the beekeeping section, Ministry of Agriculture, Botswana government.
And meet the two beekeepers in Bolivia through the eyes of former Peace Corps volunteer Britta L. Hansen, now a staff member with Horticulture Collaborative Research Support Program (Horticulture CRSP), one of the sponsors of the project.
How did this all come to "bee"?
Brenda Dawson, communicators coordinator for the Horticulture CRSP, says a number of campus and community organizations came together to sponsor the event and its gallery, including several units from the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences: the Blum Center, Horticulture Collaborative Research Support Program, International Programs Office, and Program in International and Community Nutrition. Additional sponsors include the World Food Center, Office of Campus Community Relations, Women's Resources and Research Center, and the off-campus organization Freedom from Hunger.
Of the approximately 80 photos submitted by faculty, staff, students, alumni and community members, 12 were selected for display on the first floor of the Coffee House, UC Davis Memorial Union. One depicts Cobey holding a frame of bees at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility, UC Davis. Dawson said the display, which can be viewed until the end of the winter quarter, is part of this year's Campus Community Book Project focusing on "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide," authored by the husband-wife team of Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.
"The photos depict women in a variety of roles related to food—including bean farmers, beekeepers and breastfeeding mothers—in California and around the world."
A thumbnail sketch:
Susan Cobey. Bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey, former manager of the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at UC Davis, is internationally renowned for her expertise on queen bee-rearing and for her classes on instrumental queen bee insemination. Honey bees are her passion. She studied with Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. at UC Davis. Cobey is now a bee breeder-geneticist at Washington State University but stays involved with California queen bee breeders, the Almond Board of California, and the California State Beekeepers' Association. One third of the American diet is pollinated by bees. Without bees, we'd be reduced to eating grains like wheat (wind-pollinated).
Jackie Park-Burris. Jackie Park-Burris, owner of Jackie-Park Burris Queens, Palo Cedro, wears many hats besides her bee veil. She is a commercial queen bee breeder, a second-generation beekeeper, a past president of the five-member California State Apiary Board, a past president of the California State Beekeepers' Association (CSBA), a past president of the California Bee Breeders' Association, and a past president of the Shasta Beekeepers. She purchased the queen-rearing portion of her parents' business when her father, Jack Park, passed away. In 1997, she was selected the CSBA Young Beekeeper of the Year, and in 2009, the CSBA Beekeeper of the Year. She and her cousins Steve Park and Glenda Wooten are the only second-generation beekeepers to have received the CSBA Beekeeper of the Year. CSBA presented it to her father in 1979 and her uncle, Homer Park, in 1971. Both are also past presidents of CBBA and CSBA. There are now six Park family descendants on CSBA's perpetual trophy, Beekeeper of the Year.
Queen Turner. Queen Turner is head of the beekeeping section, Ministry of Agriculture, Botswana government. As a Humphrey fellow, Queen Turner completed a 10-month stay in the United States, which included studies at UC Davis. She attended many classes and seminars last year and presented a lecture on "Beekeeping in Botswana" to the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology. One of her activities was inspecting the beekeeping operation on the rooftop of the San Francisco Chronicle. After completing her Humphrey fellowship, she returned to Botswana last June. The word for bee in her native language, Setswana, is "notshi."
Bolivian Beekeepers. Former Peace Corps volunteer Britta L. Hansen, now with the UC Davis Horticulture CRSP, worked with a group of female beekeepers in Bolivia and captured this photo of two beekeepers in 2008. "We received funding to help the women purchase Langstroth style hives that were made in Bolivia," Hansen related. "Sara was the secretary of the group, and she and I drove into the regional capital to pick up the hives and transport them back to our community of Paredones."
Be sure to check out the online photo gallery and the display at the Memorial Union of "Women Feeding the World." Great project!