Bee research aims for diverse bee genetic pool

University of California Davis bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey and Steve Sheppard, a professor and apiculturist at Washington State University, Pullman, Wash., are investigating several races of the Western or European honey bee (Apis mellifera), which European settlers brought to America in 1622.

The Cobey-Sheppard research team has received semen from the Italian bee, shipped from Italy; the Carniolan bee, from Germany; and the Caucasian bee, from the Caucasus region of Eurasia. The Italian bee is a honey-colored bee that's the most common honey bee in the United States. The Carniolan and the Caucasian bees are darker in color.

The semen from the three races will be used to inseminate queens that will be kept in an APHIS-approved quarantine until determined safe to release, Cobey said. APHIS, the Animal and Plant Protection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is charged with protecting and promoting U.S. agricultural health.

"As well as enhancing genetic diversity, known to increase fitness in honey bees, we're hoping this will result in an increased level of resistance to the exotic and introduced pests and diseases of our honey bees," Cobey said.

America's beekeepers reported losing 36.1 percent of their bees over the last year, up from 32 percent the previous year. The survey, commissioned by the Apiary Inspectors of America, showed that the beekeepers attributed 29 percent of the recent loss to colony collapse disorder, in which bees mysteriously abandon their hives.

The declining bee population crisis is particularly troubling, Cobey said, because bees pollinate about one-third of the food we eat, including fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.

The bee research is funded by the California State Beekeepers' Association and the Turkish Foundation for Combating Soil Erosion for Reforestation and the Protection of Natural Habitats (TEMA), founded in 1992.

Cobey will be in Turkey Aug. 1 to 14 to participate in the TEMA Bee Project. "One aspect of this is the preservation of Turkey's native Caucasian honey bee," she said.

The UC Davis geneticist will teach a honey bee instrumental insemination class, Aug. 16 to 19 at the Middle East Technical University, Department of Biology, Ankara, Turkey.

Cobey is internationally known for her expertise in honey bee breeding and instrumental insemination. She teaches classes that draw students from throughout the world. A bee breeder and geneticist for more than 30 years, she developed and maintains the world-renowned New World Carniolan stock.

At their request, Cobey will confer with officials on native bee races at the Bee Selection and Artificial Insemination Center at Camili of Artvin Province. The Camili region of six villages is where apiculturists discovered pure Caucasian bees thought to be extinct. They then began queen bee breeding, selection work and artificial insemination. The center officials seek Cobey's impressions and advice in connection with their work.

A "bee safari" is also planned to look at the five native races of honey bees in Turkey.

Prior to heading for Turkey, Cobey will guest-lecture at the Federation of Irish Beekeepers' Association summer course, July 21-26 in Gormanston, Ireland.

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