Washington State U Researchers Mull Setting Up Sperm Bank for Honey Bees (VIDEOS)

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By Vittorio Hernandez | June 12, 2013 1:17 PM EST

When teaching children about sex, people use the birds and the bees as example to illustrate how reproduction takes place.

However, bees may soon be no longer a good example because honey bee populations are under threat, prompting researchers at the Washington State University (WSU) to consider setting up a bee sperm bank as one solution.

The dwindling bee population is due to several factors such as the use of pesticides that weaken the body of the honey-producing insect, bacterial infections and parasitic mites that impede the development of young bees.

The American Beekeeping Federation estimated that in the past season, 31 per cent of managed bee colonies in the U.S. were lost, which is a 40 per cent increase from a year ago. In northern Illinois, the cause of the decline was the drought that led to less nectar and pollen available for the bees, followed by a long winter and cold spring that resulted in late blooming of flowers.

The impact of the colony collapse disorder is not just on the bee population, but also human agriculture.

To solve the problem, the researchers plan to collect bees from the U.S. and Europe and to freeze their sperm cells using liquid nitrogen. In scientific terms, the sperm bank is called bee genome repository.

"We're trying to diversify the US honey bee gene pool ... There are 28 recognized subspecies of honey bee, spread across Europe, Africa and Asia. And the best chance bees have to fight the threats they're facing is to interbreed, producing offspring that might stand a better chance of fighting parasite and infections," The Atlantic quoted Susan Cobey of WSU.

However, because of a 1992 U.S. ban on importation of live bees to stop the spread of a diseases that killed bees elsewhere, the WSU team is using genetic cross-breeding methods in the lab to produce more honey bee species that are more diverse and resilient.

Since bees don't masturbate like human males do, to collect bee sperm, Ms Cobey said they would apply a small amount of pressure on the abdomen of a mature drone to push out the semen and then they collect it in a syringe equipped with a capillary tube.

The semen, which could survive at room temperature from 10 to 14 days are brought back to the lab where it is either frozen or injected into a queen bee for fertilization. 

The bee sperm donors would be from Europe and the recipients would be from the U.S.

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