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?"
She's the newly hired honey bee development officer, an Extension-like position, in the state of New South Wales.
Frost left the States last Sunday, Jan. 10. The government position involves working with the commercial beekeeping industry in New South Wales in "course development and training, policy making, and other projects, including the importation of honey bee semen to Australia, and oxytetracycline prescriptions for European Foulbrood treatment, etc." she related.
We first met Liz in 2008 when she joined the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Facility as the staff research associate for bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey, then manager of the facility. Among her many duties, Frost maintained the apiaries and lab facilities, and aided in experiments and instruction in queen rearing and instrumental insemination.
We watched her lead tours with Cobey, now a geneticist-bee breeder at Washington State University; harvest honey; learn to drive the stick-shift bee truck; plant a pollinator garden in front of the Laidlaw facility; engage in a (private) bee bearding activity directed by Cobey; and even install pigeon-control devices on the eaves of the facility.
Frost also hosted the annual "Pi Day" every March 14 for faculty, staff and students at the Laidlaw facility. We all brought pies to celebrate the mathematical constant π (pi).
The Laidlaw facility buzzed with the enthusiasm, commitment and dedication of the Cobey/Frost team.
Frost, who holds a bachelor of arts degree in English and Italian from UC Davis with a minor in entomology, left the Laidlaw facility to join the Bee Informed Partnership, based in College Park, Md. (read her posts), and then headed off to Australia to become a honey bee development officer with the New South Wales government. From California to Australia...and now it's back to Australia...
As a honey bee development officer, she created educational tools for beekeepers in the form of an online Honey Bee Pest and Disease Course, a Queen Bee Breeding book in hard copy and online publication (iBook and EPUB), a bimonthly column (The Frost Report) in the New South Wales Apiarist Association magazine (Honey Bee News), face-to-face courses in queen breeding, and online fact sheets.
About the pest/disease course: "If a beekeeper with one or thousands of colonies wants to learn more about honey bee pests and diseases this course is a valuable, interactive tool with tutorials including videos to supplement the text, and short quizzes," she explained. "In Australia this is a nationally accredited course which awards participants units of competency upon successful completion of assessment tasks."
Her fact sheet on Hygienic Behavior Testing includes step- by-step instructions with illustrations. "Hygienic behavior is a honey bee trait which confers resistance to chalkbrood and American foulbrood (AFB), two serious brood diseases in Australia. AFB is especially serious in Australia considering it is illegal to treat AFB infected hives with oxytetracyline (OTC) as it only masks the symptoms and can contaminate honey. This fact sheet and others produced by New South Wales Dept. of Primary Industry Apiary Technical Officers are located on this site.
She also taught a course on queen bee breeding in Australia with co-worker Doug Somerville. The late Gretchen Wheen, a pioneer in instrumental insemination in Australia, played key roles in establishing two bee breeding programs in Western Australia and the Eastern States (Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria) and the Eastern Creek Quarantine Station which enabled safe, legal importation of new honey bee stock. (The course is listed on this site.)
"These products are educational tools for beekeepers worldwide, but are specifically geared toward the Australian beekeeping industry in regard to the subjects of relevant endemic and exotic pests and diseases and seasonal management and floral resources," Frost related. (She also appeared in this news media-produced video: "Frost Spreads the Beekeeping Gospel.")
When her VISA expired, Frost returned to the states and engaged in a number of projects, including a recent presentation to the California State Beekeepers' Association conference. She toyed with other apiculture opportunities in the States, but when the Australian opportunity surfaced, she made a beeline to return.
Liz Frost is excited to be back.
"Beekeeping in the Australian context is fascinating, not only because Varroa is absent in this country," she said. "The wealth of potential floral resources is astounding, giving beekeepers the opportunity to chase honey 12 months of the year. Around 70 to 80 percent of honey produced commercially is derived from eucalyptus and native forests. These stats shouldn't deceive the reader into thinking honey is easily had, however. The most successful honey producers in Australia know their country intimately. Part arborist, part meteorologist, and all beekeeper, they monitor buds on trees years in advance of a flowering event.
"Also to be considered is the fact that, while some native melliferous flora such as Yellow Box and Ironbark are profuse nectar producers in the right conditions, they can be seriously deficient as a pollen resource. This situation makes beekeeper management decisions before and after working such a honey crop vital to prevent colonies from working themselves to death in the absence of incoming and nutritious pollen."
"Pollination and Protecting Pollinators" is a 51-minute documentary by Washington State University (WSU) Cooperative Extension that explores how valuable honey bees are, why they're crucial, and what we need to do to protect them.
County Director Timothy Lawrence of Island County, WSU Extension, served as the co-executive producer of the documentary, as well as the writer and the primary narrator.
The Whidbey News-Times, in its May 23, 2010 edition, described Lawrence as an expert on honey bee health:
"Tim Lawrence has the credentials of an old-school extension services director, with a master's degree in rural sociology, a doctorate in environmental sciences and 20 years of experience working with extension programs in three states."
Some background: Tim and his wife, noted WSU bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey, were formerly based at the University of California, Davis, where Cobey served as the manager of the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility. Together they operated a commercial queen production business, Vaca Valley Apiaries, in Vacaville, Solano County.
But back to the documentary.
You'll learn about pollen, nectar and how pollen is transferred. You'll learn why honey bees are considered the best of all the pollinators but why honey bees are not the "best pollinators for some crops" and why.
You'll learn about almond pollination, along with many of the other crops that require bee pollination, including apples, cherries, plums, blueberries and cranberries. No bees? No almonds. No bees? No cranberries.
You'll learn who developed the Langstroth Hive and why it's important. Hint: the Rev. Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth (1810-1895) discovered "bee space." You'll learn what "bee space" is.
You'll learn what Moses Quinby of New York did. Hint: Quinby (1810-1875) is considered the first commercial beekeeper in the United States. You'll learn how many hives he maintained in the Mohawk Valley region of New York.
You'll learn why Lawrence says "we won't starve if bees disappear."
And finally, you'll learn what you can do to help the bees.
"Do your part and we can all do this together," Lawrence says. Good advice. And timely advice as we begin the new year.
You can watch the video at https://vimeo.com/146957716.
This is the bible of the beekeeping world, and rightfully so. It was first published in 1853--which, by the way, happens to be the same year that the European honey bee arrived in California.
Apiarist, minister, and teacher L. L. Langstroth (1810-1895), “The Father of American Beekeeping,” wrote the first edition, then called Langstroth on the Hive and the Honey Bee.
The Hive and the Honey Bee, last updated in 1992, is a massive effort. Published by Dadant, the 1057-page book is the work of dozens of national and international icons in beekeeping science and the beekeeping industry. The book traces the global history of beekeeping to modern day apiculture and spotlights the progress, problems and achievements along the way. European colonists brought the honey bee to America (Jamestown colony) in 1622.
Gary wrote a chapter on “Activities and Behavior of Honey Bees"; Mussen, “Injury to Honey Bees by Poisoning"; and Cobey, “Instrumental Insemination of Honey Bee Queens.”
“It has taken us until the 21st Century to realize just how important these hardworking insects are and their significance in the integrity of the environment is, at least, beginning to be fully understood,” wrote Richard Jones, director emeritus of the International Bee Research Association, Cardiff, United Kingdom, in the first chapter. “There are many threats to honey bees and the possibility of their demise has sharpened interest in them and in turn led to further investigating, scientific research and the dissemination of more material on their management and well-being.”
Gary opened his chapter with “The activities and behaviors of honey bees haven't changed significantly in thousands of years! What has changed is our understanding of how and why bees behave as they do.”
Mussen began his chapter with “Honey bees have been exposed to naturally occurring intoxicants and poisons for tens of millions of years. Their exposure was limited mostly to toxicants that were components of nectar and pollen or naturally occurring gases such as methane from anaerobic breakdown of organic wastes.”
“While flying as many as four miles from the hive in their quest for water, nectars, pollens and propolis, a fifty-square mile potential area of coverage, forages are likely to encounter many different chemicals and organisms,” Mussen wrote.
In her chapter on instrumental insemination, Cobey wrote: “The ability to control honey bee mating is essential for stock improvement and a valuable research tool. Instrumental insemination provides complete control of the random honey be mating behavior.”
Cobey noted that queens “mate in flight with an average of 10 to 20 drones in congregating areas consisting of 10,000 to 30,000 drones from diverse genetic sources.”
Former manager of the Harry H.Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility, Cobey served UC Davis from 2007 to 2012 when she joined the WSU Department of Entomology. With a strong background in practical bee breeding for the commercial industry, she developed a collaborative honey bee stock improvement and maintenance program, partnering with the California queen producers. She coordinated a project to develop techniques for the international transport of honey beegermplasm. Under a permit from the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), germplasm collected from Old World European honey bees was successfully imported and incorporated into domestic breeding stocks to enhance U.S. honey bees. Cobey developed information and outreach programs to assist beekeepers in honey bee breeding methods, providing instructional material and workshops in queen rearing and instrumental insemination, presented locally and internationally.
Norm Gary, Eric Mussen, Susan Cobey--three UC Davis scientists who made a difference in the beekeeping world and are sharing their expertise.
The "bee bible" belongs on the bookshelf of every bee scientist, beekeeper, and bee enthusiast.
(Editor's Note: The price for the new edition is $54.50 plus shipping, and the books can be ordered now from the Dadant web site: www.dadant.com or purchased at any of the Dadant branches. The toll-free order line for the Hamilton, Ill., home office is 1-888-922-1293.)
We first met Sheridan Miller, 11, of Mill Valley when she visited the Harry H.Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility, University of California, Davis, to give $733 to bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey, now of Washington State University.
Young Sheridan, concerned about the plight of the bees, began raising money for bee research at age 10. This included selling jars of honey, baked goods featuring honey, beeswax candles, olive oil, soap and a self-penned booklet about the plight of honey bees.
At the time, Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and UC Davis professor of entomology, was the interim chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology (later to become the Department of Entomology and Nematology).
“It's very thoughtful and generous of a little girl to think of the plight of the honey bees and to raise funds for research,” Kimsey said. “We are overwhelmed.”
Said Cooperative Extension Apiculturist Eric Mussen, a member of the UC Davis Department of Entomology since 1976 and now retired: “I really appreciate the fact that so many members of the general public have become concerned about the plight of honey bees. I am particularly impressed by individuals such as Sheridan who have devoted so much time and effort in really trying to improve the health and longevity of the honey bees.”
Then in October 2009 at the opening of the department's Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, a half-acre bee friendly garden that supports the Laidlaw bees and serves as an educational resource, the officials honored Sheridan and her family. Sheridan's name is engraved on donor plaque in the garden.
Fast forward to today. Sheridan is now a high school senior and yes, she's still raising funds for Cobey's bee research. She has raised more than $5000. See WSU article.
In the WSU article, Sheridan's father, Craig, a Bay Area lawyer, is quoted as saying: “Sue has been generous with her time and her gratitude toward Sheridan, She has instilled confidence in Sheridan and an incredible sense of pride. I guess an organization could simply send a thank-you note for a donation. Sue, on the other hand, sent friendship, knowledge, encouragement–and even bees!”
Sheridan Miller's enthusiasm for bees now extends to her becoming a beekeeper. Beekeeper Brian Fishback of Wilton, a former volunteer at the Laidlaw facility and a past president of the Sacramento Area Beekeepers' Association, has worked with Sheridan for the past four years. He set up her hives and is teaching her how to care for and manage bees.
And, Cobey and Fishback continue to answer Sheridan's questions. Meanwhile, Fishback also shares his bee expertise with students in area classrooms.
Cobey and her fellow WSU researchers are working to build a better bee. Their research includes importing germplasm (honey bee semen) from Europe and crossing it with domestic breeding stocks to create healthier stock.
Sheridan hasn't decided on what college to attend or her major, but Cobey and Fishback hope that maybe it has something to do with bees.
"Sheridan is amazing," said Cobey, who traveled to Mill Valley a couple of years ago to participate in one of Sheridan's bee research fundraisers and "to talk bees."
If you're interested in helping Sherican help the bees, access the Go Fund Me account.
Sheridan is the human equivalent of a worker bee.