Washington State University researchers plan to use liquid nitrogen to create a frozen sperm bank from select honey bee subspecies.
Bee colonies face invasive mites, and are vulnerable to pesticide buildup due to treatment. On top of that, bees have undergone a loss of nutritional variety through the use of corn syrup as feed as their honey is harvested.
Any of these threats alone may weaken or kill a single hive, but scientists believe a combination of these leads to colony collapse disorder, in which worker bees abruptly disappear, affecting the entire local population.
Honey bee safety is so vital that the U.S. restricted live honey bee importation in 1922 after tracheal mites were discovered to be the cause of bee kills on England’s Isle of Wight.
"The ban was fairly effective,” said Susan Cobey, a WSU research associate. "It prevented tracheal mites from reaching our shores until 1984."
The downside is that import restrictions prevented bee breeders from accessing the wider gene pool to strengthen and diversify U.S. bee colonies.
"Honey bees, Apis mellifera, have 28 recognized subspecies -- in Europe, Africa, and Asia, the general vicinity of where honey bees are thought to have originated,” said Steve Sheppard, professor of entomology at WSU.
After collecting bee semen from all over the world, three subspecies have been identified as having suitable genes for New World climate zones.
The semen will be collected from the strongest and best stock in Europe, then injected into the strongest and best queen bee stock from the United States.
Live semen will survive at room temperature for about 10-14 days, allowing for collection and transport back to the lab, where it can be frozen or injected into a queen bee's oviduct to fertilize it.
Sheppard’s graduate student Brandon Hopkins discovered that liquid nitrogen can maintain semen viability for decades in the WSU Honey Bee Genome Repository.