The Bee Box

Christi Heintz & Tara McCall

Originally Published in the May/June Almond Facts

Advances in almond breeding have been nothing short of astonishing when you consider the accomplishments of variety and rootstock development projects. Crop yields increasing from 500 to over 3,000 pounds per acre, fine-tuning rootstocks to best fit varieties and soil types, improved pest and disease resistance – and now there are even varieties that do not necessarily require pollination by honey bees. Many years ago these advancements would have been breakthroughs seen only in a crystal ball and not in actual almond orchards. Advances in almond production owe a debt of gratitude to wise industry leaders who recognized the value of funding top-notch scientists and farm advisors in traditional methods of genetically improving almond trees.

Bees and Genetic Improvements

Have we seen the same progress in stock improvement in the honey bee industry – an industry so vital not only to almond production, but also roughly 90 other agricultural crops? The answer here is unfortunately no. Reasons for this include, but are not limited to, a 1922 federal law prohibiting import of honey bees to the United States, lack of unification toward common industry goals, beekeeping businesses being distributed geographically from coast to coast across the U.S., and loss of over 30 percent annually for this particular “herd” of bugs.

But Wait – Help is on the Way

Recent work under the diligence of Dr. Steve Sheppard, Dr. Brandon Hopkins, Sue Cobey and several graduate students at Washington State University (WSU), Pullman, is changing the tide in honey bee stock improvement and bringing significant advances to the previously limited arena of building a better bee. Honey bee genetics is the key.

The WSU Germplasm Repository is the world’s first facility to provide long-term storage of viable honey bee genetic material. The program has provided the first sources of new honey bee genetics in the U.S. in the last 90 years. Further, WSU works with the beekeeping industry to incorporate germplasm from Old World regions into bee breeding programs through importation, cryopreservation, and distribution of genetic material to the bee breeding industry. The repository preserves the most important honey bee subspecies to beekeepers, as well as existing populations from US queen producers, USDA and WSU breeding programs. Samples of bees are selected from the geographical regions where they originated, and traits relevant to honey production, crop pollination and better bee health are identified. Almond Facts readers will be pleased to note the WSU program includes evaluation of pollination in almonds. With Project Apis m.’s purchase of the cryopreservation unit for WSU’s Germplasm Repository, a significant step has been taken toward developing both the WSU’s research program and their ability to practically assist queen breeders. The cryopreservation has a capacity to hold over 46,000 straws or semen samples. In addition to housing storage capacity, WSU has developed improved cryopreservation techniques, methods to allow delayed cryopreservation, and also improved airline transport of germplasm.

WSU has been tracking gains made in genetic diversity among commercial queen producers and university breeding programs as a result of their efforts. Results, based upon surveys for the number of different alleles, show an 18 percent increase in genetic material compared to 20 years ago. For those commercial operations working directly with WSU, a 60 percent increase in genetic diversity among stocks has been found.

Currently, the Germplasm Repository is preserving the main honey bee subspecies used by commercial beekeepers in the U.S – Italian, Carniolan and Caucasian bees. WSU reintroduced the Caucasian strain of bees, a cold-weather adapted honey bee. Another subspecies obtained from germplasm collections in Old World areas where bees and pollination originally evolved will be released in the near future. WSU’s advances toward building a better bee are greatly improving breeding potential of US honey bee stocks and have even been acknowledged as a national treasure by the USDA National Animal Germplasm Program.

And Now – VSH

Varroa sensitive hygiene (VSH) is a highly desirable behavioral trait of honey bees in which they are able to detect and remove Varroa-infested immature bees. This trait is genetically inherited and can be increased through selection. Having a strain of honey bees which can overcome Varroa challenges without treatment will increase sustainability and productivity for beekeepers. Breeding commercially-acceptable, Varroa-sensitive bees is the next step in long-term stock improvement for the bee industry – it’s imperative we stop the losses associated with this mite.

In 2008, the USDA began to develop a new population of honey bees with the VSH trait and desirable pollination characteristics, named “Pol(linator)-line,” and then began selecting the best-performing colonies. The USDA will continue these breeding techniques in the year-round breeding climate of Hawaii where isolated mating can occur. Hawaii provides an optimal environment for accelerated VSH trait development. Under the direction of Dr. Robert Danka, USDA-ARS Honey Bee Breeding, Genetics and Physiology Laboratory, Baton Rouge, LA, and with close collaboration between bee breeders, beekeepers and scientists, commercially-acceptable, Varroa-resistant bees will become more widely available.

Bee breeders and geneticists will continue their commitment to building a better bee making advances at a far more rapid pace than we have seen in the past. While stock improvement in honey bees may be in its infancy compared to the great strides made in almond variety development, the next few years will see considerable progress. Between such as those resources available at WSU and pest-resistant bees developed by the USDA, we hope to soon see a superb pollinating, high honey-producing, Varroa-resistant honey bee working your almond orchards.

See the original article HERE