Noted bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey of the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at the University of California, Davis, has collaborated for several years with scientists at Washington State University; now she is dividing her time between the two honey bee research facilities.
Cobey recently accepted a dual appointment — 50 percent as a WSU honey bee research Extension associate and 50 percent as a UC Davis staff research associate — to continue her work on enhancing domestic honey bee breeding stock and improving colony health. Her WSU appointment is based in western Washington at the Mount Vernon Research Station.
"The overall goal is to improve colony health to supply the critical and demanding need for pollination of the nation's agricultural crops," she said.
Cobey, who joined UC Davis in May 2007, will continue teaching her spring classes at UC Davis on queen bee rearing and instrument insemination. (See http://entomology.ucdavis.edu/courses/beeclasses/index.html) Her classes draw students from throughout the world.
European colonists brought the honey bee (Apis mellifera) to what is now the United States in the 1600s. "Importation was banned in 1922 to avoid the tracheal mite," Cobey related. "To avoid the introduction of tracheal mites, a small founder bee population was established before the importation ban in 1922. This small subset of a few subspecies from limited importations represents a genetic bottleneck. This is an increasing concern with the continuing high losses of colonies due to parasitic mites, the plague of new pathogens and the phenomena of colony collapse disorder."
Cobey has collaborated since 2007 with apiculturist Steve Sheppard, professor and chair of the WSU Department of Entomology, in an ongoing honey bee stock improvement project between the two universities.
WSU holds the APHIS-USDA (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) quarantine in an ecological reserve isolated by a sea of wheat. "This is where we are introducing, observing and testing the colonies resulting from the semen importations," Cobey said. "We have brought in Apis mellifera carnica stock from Germany, Apis mellifera ligustica from Italy, and most recently Apis mellifera caucasica from the Republic of Georgia." Carniolans and Caucasians are dark races of bees. The Italian bee (Apis mellifera liguistica) is the most prevalent bee in the United States.
This effort also includes research into developing protocols for the safe importation of germplasm and the development of cryopreservation techniques for long term storage.
Dividing her time between the two universities, Cobey said, will provide several advantages. "I can enjoy the early spring season in California and then head north to follow the season in Washington state. Queen rearing in California usually can be started in late February. By June, the summer heat and dearth make this more difficult, especially in maintaining a large pool of drones for mating. Spring in Washington kicks in by May, so this is prime queen-rearing season in the Pacific Northwest."
Working in both California and the Pacific Northwest will allow the evaluation and selection of stocks in different climates. "This will also provide reservoirs of stock in different places to spread the risk of losing valuable lines." The wet, cold winter in Washington, she said, is a more rigorous place to select for wintering ability, especially for the dark races of bees, Carniolans and Caucasians "We hope to reestablish Apis mellifera caucasica in the Pacific Northwest as the climate is similar to its native home. Only traces of this race currently can be found in the United States."
California is home to the major queen producers responsible for re-stocking colonies nationwide. "Therefore, I will continue to work with this critical segment of the industry," Cobey said. "I'm also looking forward to working with the Pacific Northwest beekeepers, many of whom supply colonies for California almond pollination, which usually begins early February."
In addition to teaching spring classes on queen rearing and instrumental insemination at the Laidlaw honey bee lab, Cobey anticipates offering these classes in Washington in the near future. "There is a lot of interest, especially in queen rearing in the north, despite the short season," she said.
Cobey will be working closely with beekeepers in both areas:
In Washington and other states in the Pacific Northwest, she will provide information and conduct training sessions to assist beekeepers in maintaining healthy colonies for pollination.
In California, she will develop programs to enhance the ability of the California bee breeders to select and maintain breeding stock to supply industry demand. Her duties also include developing information and outreach programs to assist beekeepers in honey bee-breeding methods. Her husband, Tim Lawrence, formerly of UC Davis, was selected the new director of WSU's Island County Extension in May. Earlier, he worked seven months as a research associate in WSU's Honey Bee Health Program. The couple lives in Island County.