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Working for a better honeybee

With a syringe, an antibiotic and a shot of anesthetic gas, Anita Collins is ready to create the perfect bee.

But the tools of Collins' experiments with artificial insemination of honeybees represent more than an attempt to produce a single offspring.

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The researcher at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center wants to come up with genetic strains resistant to the diseases and mites that are killing off a large percentage of the world's honeybees.

"We're breeding bees the same way we breed for better dairy and beef cattle. We want a healthier animal," she said.

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The western honeybee, apis mellifera, first imported from Europe in the 1600s, produces $260 million worth of honey each year. More importantly, it uses its legs to distribute pollen, which improves the quality of $10 billion worth of apples, peaches, watermelons, blueberries and just about anything that grows on a vine.

Farmers across Maryland are using bees to pollinate cucumbers, squash, watermelon and cantaloupe. In the Midwest and California, large-scale breeders haul bees in tractor-trailers to pollinate thousands of acres of fruit orchards and vegetable farms.

Many beekeepers come to admire the insects for their utilitarian lifestyle.

"It's just like anything else; it gets in your system. You have to love it to stay in it," said Ora Hays, who has been raising bees in Frederick County since 1967.

Honeybees work until their wings wear out - they live about six weeks in the summer and up to six months in the winter, when they're less active. Extremely social, they perform intricate dances to signal where nectar can be found. And they survive as a group year-round because during the spring and summer, they store enough food to enable unborn generations to survive the winter.

Unfortunately, these industrious insects have been troubled for decades by imported mites and a particularly nasty bacterial infection.

Collins, a geneticist who has been working with bees for 30 years, is one of a handful of researchers trying to change that. She does it by knocking out bees with carbon dioxide and impregnating them with bees from colonies evaluated in field studies for disease-resistant qualities.

"Science has reached a point where we can manipulate these insects in a lot of ways," she said.

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Collins certainly has no shortage of bees to work with. There are 200 hives in the woods near her lab at the U.S. Department of Agriculture facilities in Beltsville, each about the size of a birdhouse. The bees are raised on a diet of sugar and syrups.

"You do get stung a bit, but that goes with the territory," Collins said last week as she stood near a swarm that buzzed around the entrance to their hives.

Making a better bee is not for the squeamish. During a training session for researchers last week, Collins took one of the bees caught with the help of screens that day and crushed its thorax in her fingers.

She applied pressure on its abdomen until the semen popped out and drew it into a pencil-sized syringe with a hydraulic pump. She also applied a drop of antibiotic to the syringe to keep the insect infection-free.

Collins then took a week-old queen, placed it in a tiny glass chamber under her microscope and knocked it out by pumping a puff of carbon dioxide into the chamber.

Peering into a microscope for a close look last week, she injected the semen into the queen's oviduct. The progeny of queens used in the research are raised in incubators and exposed to diseases to test their resistance. Researchers also perform genetic tests on the bees to determine which genes trigger resistance.

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Collins then repeated the extraction process five times, nearly filling the syringe with bee semen. Extracting semen kills bees, but she notes that they meet the same fate when they mate naturally.

The work is intended to help the estimated 200,000 beekeepers in the United States who worry about the health of their insects. About 2,000 of them have commercial operations, producing honey for sale or sending bees in trucks to farms to pollinate crops.

Farmers across the United States pay beekeepers $10 to $50 for the service of each hive. In California, where almond farmers pay up to $100,000 for pollination, thefts of hives have prompted breeders to plant microchips in them to prevent disputes over the ownership of bees left in farm fields.

"People will do almost anything these days," said Troy Fore, a former beekeeper who is executive director of the Georgia-based American Beekeeping Federation.

Beekeepers also have natural enemies to worry about. The tracheal mite arrived from Mexico in 1984, while the varroa mite was discovered in Wisconsin and Florida in 1987.

American foulbrood disease, the most disastrous of bee diseases, has been killing off the honey producers in large numbers.

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The bacteria have developed resistance to antibiotics and produce spores that can remain viable for several years. So beekeepers usually destroy the hives and any equipment where the disease is found - often about $200 worth of boxes, screens and other supplies per hive.

Although kits are available to test for and treat mites, American foulbrood attacks bee larvae and is difficult to detect until it has ravaged a colony.

"It's nasty stuff," said Hays, who has lost bees to American foulbrood.

Experts say the pestilence and disease are driving beekeepers out of business - cutting their numbers in half since the early 1980s.

"People just didn't think it was worth it," Fischer said.

In Maryland, the number of beekeepers registered with state inspectors fell from 2,120 in 1994 to 993 last year, according to Jerry Fisher of Rosedale, a former beekeeper and chief bee inspector for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

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Where are the killer bees?

In the 1980s, experts warned that swarms of nasty-tempered, Africanized bees were headed our way after an accidental release in Brazil.

Called killers because they repeatedly sting anyone who comes near their nests, the bees entered the United States through Texas in 1990 and spread throughout the Southwest in the early 1990s, reaching California by 1994.

But it turns out that they are not coming here after all, and researchers say they're unlikely to threaten any state east of Louisiana.

Credit the climate. The bees originated in Africa and don't like cold weather or areas where rainfall is distributed throughout the year.

"Temperature is limiting their northward spread, and rainfall is limiting their eastward spread," said Jose Villa of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Honey Bee Breeding, Genetics, and Physiology Research Unit in Baton Rouge, La.

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- Dennis O'Brien


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