To the Rescue: A Sperm Bank for Dying Honeybees

Honeybee collecting nectar from sunflower
Nuzulu | Flickr | Getty Images
Honeybee collecting nectar from sunflower

No one can say for certain what keeps killing billions of American honeybees—and threatening dozens of agricultural products—but researchers are going to great lengths to keep them from dying off. The latest effort: using a sperm bank.

Washington State University professor Steve Sheppard announced last Friday that his entomology department is setting up a frozen sperm bank to create more resilient bees in the U.S.

"It's been tried with other animals like pigs, cows and turkeys but this is the first time we've been able to freeze sperm for bees," Sheppard said. "The idea is to create smarter and stronger bees."

To find the right genetic stock, Sheppard and his colleagues—with special permission from the U.S. government—have been collecting semen from bees in the Italian Alps, Turkey and the mountains of the republic of Georgia. These are regions that experts say breed genetically superior bees at this time due to limitations on the U.S. bee gene pool from import restrictions.

(Read More: Mass Honeybee Deaths: Getting Worse, Not Better)

The semen itself is fairly easy to collect, according to Sheppard, by applying a tiny amount of pressure to a mature bee drone's abdomen, it will ejaculate the semen, which can be collected in a syringe equipped with a capillary tube.

Live semen will survive at room temperature for about 10-14 days, enough time to collect it and transport it to a laboratory.

The semen is first tested for viruses, and the best stock will be frozen in liquid nitrogen for implantation into American queen bees who will then be released to produce worker bees. Queen bees lay up to 2,000 eggs a day and it takes three days for the eggs to hatch.

There is only one queen bee in a hive of up to 70,000 so they have a "lot of work to do," Sheppard said. But the frozen sperm should last for decades.

"We have done insemination on a limited basis before, but we always had to do it quickly because the shelf life is not long," Sheppard said. "But with the ability to freeze it, we can take more time."

"It's easy to make jokes about this but there is a scientific need for it," said Kim Kaplan, a spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture research department.

"We've had a very narrow genetic base for U.S. bees up until now. The sperm bank will help improve that," Kaplan added.

Funding for Sheppard's project comes from donations from bee-keeping organizations and commercial bee firms, who take the sperm to inseminate queen bees.

"We've already had some bees use the sperm, but the real affect and benefit might take some time to see," Sheppard said.

Cause of Honeybee Deaths Is Elusive

American honeybees have been dying in droves since 2006 from what's called colony collapse disorder. Factors for the disease include viruses, mites, stress from overcrowding of bees in hives and environmental issues, like lack of water, according to the USDA.

The USDA has not listed pesticides as a cause, but some bee experts do.

According to the USDA, honeybee losses from the disease this past winter were 31.1 percent of all bee colonies. That's up from 22 percent the previous winter and slightly higher than the previous six-year loss average of 30.5 percent.

It's estimated that 10 million beehives have been lost in the last six years at a cost of $2 billion, according to the USDA.

Besides making honey, honey bees pollinate more than 100 crops including apples, zucchini, berries, broccoli, nuts, asparagus, celery, squash, peaches, soybeans and all citrus fruits. A lack of bees to pollinate them has the government worried.

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In a report issued last October, the USDA said the "survivorship of honeybee colonies is too low for us to be confident in our ability to meet the pollination demands of U.S. agriculture crops."

Until a cause is found, honeybee keepers are being urged to try and keep their bees healthy through good nutrition.

Scientists also say the work of pollination may be picked up by other insects and birds, but that would hardly make a remedy. The U.S. is currently importing some honeybees on a limited basis, but experts say it's not enough to help make up the loss at this time.

Kaplan said a sperm bank is welcome news.

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"I don't think honeybees are going to disappear completely," said Kaplan, "But we've got to figure this out before it gets worse. The sperm bank should help."

_By CNBC's Mark Koba.