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?"
Looking back at 2016, monarch butterflies reigned supreme--or at least they did in this Bug Squad blog!
Finding--and photographing--a tagged monarch butterfly (email@example.com A6083) in our pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif. on Labor Day, Sept. 5, highlighted the year. The migratory butterfly, a male, was part of a research project led by Washington State University entomologist David James, who maintains a network of Pacific Northwest citizen scientists who rear, tag and release monarchs (Danaus plexippus).
Turns out that Steve Johnson of Ashland, Ore., a member of the Southern Oregon Monarchs Advocates (SOMA), reared A6083. Johnson tagged and released the monarch in Ashland on Aug. 28, which means "that it flew 285 miles in 7 days or about 40.7 miles per day" to reach Vacaville on Sept. 5, James related.
Amazing! Amazing and serendipitous for several reasons: (1) I'd written a piece about James' research in October 2014, alerting readers to watch for tagged monarchs (and never expecting to see or photograph a WSU-tagged butterfly in our own backyard) (2) WSU is my alma mater, and (3) our family rears monarchs as a small-scale conservation project to help the declining monarch population.
Our pollinator garden caters to bees and butterflies. For the monarchs, we provide four species of milkweed, ranging from narrow-leaf to broadleaf, and grow such nectar-producing plants as Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) to butterfly bush (Buddleia), and Lantana.
This year our monarch-rearing season proved quite lengthy; it crept into winter. Monarchs continued to lay their eggs throughout November, with chrysalids forming in December. Today the reared-and-released tally is 62 and counting...counting because No. 63 eclosed Dec. 29 and has not yet been released, and No. 64 is still a chrysalis.
"Monarch Moms" and "Monarch Dads" and "Monarch Kids" differ in their rearing activities, but the concept is the same: protect them from predators and parasites. Otherwise about 97 percent of the eggs never complete the cycle of egg, caterpillar, and chrysalis to adult. We rear our caterpillars indoors in a zippered, meshed butterfly habitat (purchased from the Bohart Museum of Entomology, UC Davis), but some laundry bags will suffice. We fill a heavy, flat-bottomed, narrow-necked tequila bottle with water and just add milkweed and 'cats. There they munch on milkweed, pupate, and eclose. The best part of rearing monarchs? Releasing them. The lift-off, the flutter of wings, and it's time to be a butterfly.
A look back at the WSU traveler and a view of the monarch life cycle that unfolded in our pollinator garden:
What amazing journeys!
For the last two months, migratory monarch butterflies have regularly stopped for flight fuel in our 600-square-foot pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif. to nectar on Mexican sunflower (Tithonia), butterfly bush (Buddleia) and Lantana.
At any given time--morning and afternoon throughout September and October--we'd see four and five in the garden. A veritable migratory corridor! A veritable visual feast!
Now it's November, and we haven't seen any for a week. They've probably already reached their destination--overwintering sites in the area, including Santa Cruz and Pacific Grove.
On Labor Day, we photographed a tagged one, part of the research project of David James, entomologist at Washington State University. (See Bug Squad blog; WSU News story by Linda Seiford; and a Daily Evergreen piece by reporter Haley Donwerth on the Vacaville find. ABC, Channel 10, Sacramento, also covered "Why does this butterfly have a sticker on it?", interviewing butterfly expert Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology.
It's exciting to read the reports on the Monarchs in the Pacific Northwest Facebook page, as the tagged monarchs are photographed and recorded. Several recent entries:
- Nov. 7: "Two new tag recoveries from California! Both are currently in the Lighthouse Field, Santa Cruz overwintering colony (currently numbering about 7000) and both were found by John Dayton. The tagged Monarch (shown on the page) has flown at least 750 miles from Redmond, WA where it was reared and released on September 20 by Connie Grandberg. This is the first recovery of a Seattle-area Monarch in our program! There are now 4 PNW-tagged Monarchs residing at Lighthouse Field! We will provide information on the second new recovery once we get all the associated details."
- Nov. 7: Our second new tag recovery from Santa Cruz! This one is remarkable in that it is almost obscured from view among the other butterflies. As luck would have it, the only bit of the tag showing for John Dayton's camera is the bit with the serial number! A6935, is a female, and she was reared in Brookings in southern Oregon by Andrea Christensen and released by her at nearby Redwood Bar along the Chetco River on August 25. Santa Cruz will be Ms A6935's winter home and who knows where she will go next spring? Many thanks to Andrea and John for making this recovery possible!"
- Nov. 2: "Today we proudly announce the 9th long distance tagged Monarch recovery of this season so far! A female Monarch tag B2174 was found on November 1 at Morro Bay State Beach by Regena Orr a biologist with CA State Parks. B2174 was among about 350 clustering Monarchs and has travelled an estimated 792 miles since September 8 when it was released in Yakima, Washington! This Monarch was reared by Cindy Dunbar as part of a rearing program between PNW Monarchs and Cowiche Canyon Conservancy. 152 monarchs were reared by the 14 members of this group in 2016 and this is the first recovery for the group Congratulations! This Monarch now holds the record of the longest distance traveled by a Yakima-released Monarch. The photo shows a silhouetted group of Monarchs at Morro Bay in 2015."
Stay tuned. And stay focused with your camera! You might see a tagged one at an overwintering site.
In the Pacific Northwest, they're heading for coastal California, including Santa Cruz and Pacific Grove, for their overwintering spots.
A few are tagged. Washington State University entomologist David James and his citizen scientists have tagged some with "firstname.lastname@example.org" with a serial number. Look for them! Better yet, photograph them. And then contact him.
We've seen one WSU-tagged monarch in Vacaville so far (he was tagged and released by citizen scientist Steve Johnson on Aug. 28 in Ashland, Ore. and fluttered into our pollinator garden on Sept. 5), but many more butterflies are migrating through.
One of the monarchs in James' program was photographed on a San Francisco rooftop on Sept. 18 and seen again Oct. 11 in an overwintering colony in Santa Cruz. It was tagged and released by Molly Monroe and her 5-year-old daughter, Amelia, on Aug. 30 in Corvallis, Ore. Oregon Live did a piece on this.
James says this may give hope that the Steve Johnson progeny/Vacaville surprise "may well be found in one of the overwintering colonies this winter!" The entomologist and his family will be searching for tags in overwintering colonies from Santa Barbara to Bolinas from Nov 19-26.
Check out the "Monarch Butterflies in the Pacific Northwest" Facebook page for more amazing stories.
Meanwhile, migrating monarchs continue to make pit stops for flight fuel in our yard. Some look weathered and torn, no thanks to the inclement weather and cunning predators. Some look as if they're on their last legs...er...wings. They all look hungry. Nectar! Nectar! We need nectar!
We spotted a male nectaring on a Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) and minutes later, a female touched down on the same flower. The scene reminded us of an exquisite painting. Autumn's reigning colors gracing a one-of-a-kind canvas.
Then came the wonder of wonders: a monarch headed for the clothesline and snuggled up to a clothespin.
Let's hope that wasn't the bottom line...
Monarch butterflies are migrating now, but we're still finding a few caterpillars in our pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif.
We recently plucked off five caterpillars from our milkweed plants (our game plan is protect them from California scrub jays and other birds, tachinid flies, wasps and the protozoan parasite, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha or OE, for short).
These are the last 'cats of the season.
Ours is a small-scale conservation project. Our goal is to reach 50 by the end of the season. We're on track to do our small part for the declining monarch population. Plant milkweed (the host plant of monarchs), plant nectar-rich flowers such as Mexican sunflower (Tithonia), butterfly bush (Buddleia) and Lantana, and Danaus plexippus will come.
Weiford works inside the French Administration Building, named for former president C. Clement French. When I joined the Daily Evergreen news staff--way back when!--I used to interview Dr. French.
And it became even smaller when the WSU-tagged monarch (email@example.com), part of WSU entomologist David James' research program, stopped by for a visit. It was reared by citizen scientist Steve Johnson of Ashland, and tagged and released on Sunday, Aug. 28. "So, assuming it didn't travel much on the day you saw it, it flew 285 miles in 7 days or about 40.7 miles per day," James said. "Pretty amazing."
Yes, pretty amazing, indeed.
Now, with any luck--well, lots of luck--Steve Johnson's progeny has made its way to an overwintering colony in Santa Cruz or Pacific Grove.
And with any more luck, we'll be adding five more to the overwintering site.