Washington State University researchers hope to discover whether honeybees they've bred will better pollinate Washington's diverse crops.
A $249,000 federal grant is helping pay for a field study in which researchers will work with commercial beekeepers to test the pollinating performance of three subspecies of honeybees they've bred using sperm from European bees.
Bees are critical to Washington agriculture, as they help pollinate 10 of Washington's top 40 crops. Mid-Columbia crops that depend on bees for pollination include apples, cherries and blueberries.
Poor pollination leads to poor crop volumes.
Honeybees aren't native to the United States, said Walter Sheppard, WSU professor and chairman of entomology. Europeans imported the first honeybees in 1620, with about seven other subspecies brought in after 1859.
But no one could import new bees after 1922, when the U.S. banned bringing in new bees after the discovery of the honeybee tracheal mite in Europe.
Now, commercial beekeepers most often use yellow Italian honeybees, Sheppard said.
Beekeepers can prompt their colonies to rapidly expand earlier in the year by feeding them sugar, but those bees might not pollinate as well during cold weather.
And sometimes, springtime cold can make it problematic for cherry growers to have enough pollination occur during bloom, Sheppard said.
Some beekeepers also use Carniolans, dark honeybees adapted to cold climates, he said. Caucasians are another dark, cold-climate bee that beekeepers have used in the past.
WSU researchers have been bringing in semen of the original European subspecies of bees for breeding purposes, Sheppard said. A strict set of permits is required to bring in the semen.
"This has not really been possible in the past," he said.
For example, WSU researchers have imported the semen of European Carniolan bees and used it to breed virgin U.S. Carniolan queen bees since about 2008, Sheppard said. Gradually, the crosses have grown so that bees in the breeding program match 98 percent or more of the European strain.
Researchers will replace the queens in colonies of commercial beekeepers and then follow those colonies on different crops, Sheppard said. One beekeeper is allowing WSU to experiment with about 600 colonies.
Mature bees only live four to six weeks as an adult during the summer. So rather quickly, the colonies will become the offspring of the queen bees bred by WSU.
The colonies will start by pollinating almonds in California, since most beekeepers do that. Then, they will move on to Washington crops.
Researchers want to identify how the strains of bees perform in different climate conditions with the different crops, Sheppard said. They will look at foraging behavior and the ability of the bees to bring back pollen from the crops they are supposed to pollinate.
If researchers can show agriculturally relevant genetic differences in specific strains of bees, that could help spur an improvement in bee breeding, Sheppard said.
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