- Author: Kathy Keatley Garvey
Bee breeder and geneticist Susan Cobey, who leads the bee breeding program at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Biology Research Facility at the UC Davis, scours a hive for the queen bee.
Her trained eye quickly spots the elongated queen. Dozens of worker bees circle the queen. Their job is to protect and nurture the matriarch of the 50,000- to 80,000-member colony. The queen's sole job is to reproduce; typically she lays about 2,000 eggs a day during her two-year life span.
And it's Cobey's job to ensure that queen bee breeding programs thrive, that bees literally be all they can be.
“The queen, mother of all individuals in a hive, determines the inherited characteristics of the colony,” she wrote in a published paper. “Her success, productivity and lifespan are dependent upon the number and genetic diversity of drones with whom she mates.”
“The challenge with honey bee genetics is that queens always mate in flight,” Cobey said. “They'll mate with multiple drones, as many as 60, although average about 10, within a couple of days. The drones die after mating and the impregnated queen settles down to begin her lifelong egg-laying.”
“With instrumental insemination, we can control mating, enabling selection to enhance commercial stocks and maintain desired traits, including temper and resistance to disease and parasites.”
Cobey, a 30-year veteran of bee fertility research programs, is considered the world's most renowned bee insemination authority and instructor. Hired by UC Davis in May, she teaches courses on “The Art of Queen Rearing,” “Instrumental Insemination and Bee Breeding” and “Advanced Instruction Instrumental Insemination.”
Over the last 25 years, she's taught researchers and beekeepers from Mexico, Canada, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, France, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, China, India, United Kingdom, England, New Zealand. Korea, Israel, Egypt, Kuwait, and Nigeria.
By invitation, she's also taught in Canada, Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Egypt and South Africa.
Cobey's job is basically to build a better bee by maximizing the good traits and minimizing the bad traits. “Controlled mating,” she said, “is the basic foundation of all stock improvement programs.”
The issue is timely, especially since CCD — “colony collapse disorder” or “massive honeybee die-off” — killed a quarter of the nation's 2.4 million commercial bee hives last winter, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“Colony collapse disorder appears to be a complex issue,” Cobey said. “Similar situations have been experienced in the past. CCD may involve a variety of factors; parasitic mites, bee pathogens, chemicals (both miticides used in the colony and pesticides in the environment), changing climates, loss of forage, poor nutrition and loss of genetic diversity. Overall, I think it is stress, caused by the combination of these factors.”
However, by controlling the genetics of honey bees, researchers can breed stronger, more survivable bees, bees able to withstand such pests as varroa mites, she said.
Honey bees, crucial to the nation's multi-billion agricultural industry, pollinate one-third of the food crops, including fruits, legumes and vegetables, according to the USDA. They account for 80 percent of all insect crop pollination. They produce around 200 million pounds of honey a year in the United States, or about 84 pounds of honey per colony. California's honey production averages $25.2 million a year, just behind national leader North Dakota's $27.2 million.
Bees are especially critical to almond growers.
“Without honey bee pollination, crop yields would not be economically viable,” Cobey said. California, accounting for half of the world production of almonds, requires between 900,000 and 1 million colonies of honey bees to pollinate the state's 420,000 acres of almonds, figures the National Honey Board.
Insects first sparked Cobey's interest during her childhood in Lancaster County, Pa. She remembers bringing insects into her elementary school classroom for show and tell, until she was told to choose something different.
“Insects are like jewelry,” she said. “They come in all shapes, sizes and colors.”
And bees? The social insects fascinate her. “The beehive is so efficient. The queen is the soul of the colony. She sets the tone and the production rate. Every bee has a task.”
After enrolling in a student exchange program in entomology in 1975 at Oregon State University, Corvallis, Cobey 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).
Known as the “father of honeybee genetics,” 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 (a black race of bees) Breeding Program. In 1990 she 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 research associate position at the UC Davis facility in May. She joins Eric Mussen, a longtime UC Cooperative Extension apiculturist.
Cobey is part of the overall plan to launch the UC Davis bee biology research program back to international prominence, said Walter Leal, professor and chair of the Department of Entomology. Over the past decade, budget cuts, resignations and retirements took their toll. The department is now recruiting a professor specializing in bee pollination.
Cobey's expertise includes establishing and managing a closed population breeding program for more than 30 years, researching and writing scientific publications, and teaching bee breeders how to inseminate queen bees. She developed techniques and equipment for instrumental insemination, including a ruby-tipped hook, but has no plans for patent rights.
“The world of bee breeding is so small,” she said.
At Ohio State University, she developed an independent research program on post-insemination survival of honey bee queens and the selection of behavioral traits. Selection for hygienic behavior, the ability to detect and remove varroa mites and bee diseases from brood, is one trait of natural resistance. The varroa mite, a native of Asia, dines on bee larvae and occasionally an adult bee.
In her instrumental insemination classes, Cobey teaches students how to extract semen from a drone, and inseminate an anesthetized virgin queen. Magnified images on a computer screen help illustrate the procedure.
Students highly praise her skills and teaching ability. In a thank-you note to Leal, bee breeder Dave Welter of Welter Apiaries of Stuart, Fla., wrote: “Thank you for hosting the Honeybee Instrumental Insemination short course. It was first rate. I am from South Florida where we are trying to develop strategies to deal with the arrival of the African Honey Bee. The skills that I developed in Sue's class will provide me with a valuable resource as I move forward in this endeavor. Sue really did an incredible job teaching this class. Her patience, professionalism and vast experience created an environment highly conducive to learning. I am very pleased with what I learned and the skills I developed.”
Cobey's New World Carniolan bees also draw international acclaim. Wrote Honey Run Apiaries of Delphos, Ohio: “Our breeder queens are obtained directly from Sue Cobey's New World Carniolan Breeding Program. These queens have been selected for productivity, rapid spring buildup, overwintering ability, tracheal mite resistance, hygienic behavior, pollen collection, gentle temperament and high brood viability. We have been impressed with their performance and with their calm, gentle nature they are a pleasure to work.”
“I love my work,” said Cobey, who is partial to blue jeans and t-shirts. “I get to work outside and enjoy the change of seasons, the smells and sounds, and be close to nature. And my bees.”
She admits to having a soft spot for drones. Once the honey-gathering season is over, the worker bees kick the drones out of the hive, as their only function is to mate.
“They're cold and hungry, sitting there on the doorstep and wanting to go back in. They're attacked and they die. Well, it's a matriarchal society.”
Husband Timothy Lawrence, an analyst with UC Davis Extension, shares her interest in bees. A wedding portrait shows them bearded with bees.
Cobey also enjoys working with bee breeders. Beekeeping is a hard life, but it's a lifestyle for many.
“They just fall in love with their bees.”
As does she. “Breeding them so they're strong and healthy and resilient, so they will bounce right back, it's a passion and an increasing challenge.”