No offense, American bees, but your sperm isn't cutting it
Story and Photographs by Ryan T. Bell
With an American honeybee queen for a mother and a European honeybee drone for a father, these worker bees have a level of genetic diversity unseen in the U.S. for decades. Researchers at Washington State University hope a deeper gene pool will give a new generation of honeybees much-needed genetic traits, like resistance to varroa mites. The parasite kills a third of American honeybees each year.
Editor's note: This story is for mature bees only.
Seducing a honeybee drone – one of the males in a colony whose only job is to mate with the queen – is not too difficult. They don't have stingers, so you just pick one up. Apply a little pressure to the abdomen and the drone gets randy, blood rushing to his endophallus, bringing him to climax.
"They're really accommodating," says Susan Cobey, a honeybee breeder on Whidbey Island, Wash. "One ejaculate is about 1 microliter, and it takes 10 microliters to artificially inseminate a queen."
Since 2008, Cobey has done her share of bee abdomen rubbing as part of a research team from Washington State University traveling through Europe and Asia. They've collected sperm from native honeybees in Italy, Slovenia, Germany, Kazakhstan and the Republic of Georgia – countries where honeybees have favorable genetic traits, like resistance to the varroa mite.
The deadly parasite has been cited as a major factor in bee deaths, along with genetics, poor nutrition and pesticide exposure, according to a major report from the USDA and EPA in 2013.
Varroa mites are an invasive parasite from Asia that sucks hemolymph (bee blood) from adult and larval honeybees, weakening their immune systems and transmitting deadly pathogens, like bent wing virus.
If left untreated, a varroa infestation can kill a colony in one year. First detected on U.S. soil in 1987, varroa has spread quickly, infesting upwards of 50 percent of American hives. Last year, 33 percent of U.S. honeybee hives died. That's troubling for the plight of honeybees and U.S. agriculture, which relies on pollinators to produce one-third of the food we eat.