Workshop empowers beekeepers to breed more resilient honey bees

Participants received hands-on training in honey bee instrumental insemination, a technique designed to enhance genetic resistance to harmful parasites and pathogens.

two people use a microscope

Kate Anton instructs a participant during the recent honey bee instrumental insemination workshop at University Park. Anton is a research technologist in the Department of Entomology and Center for Pollinator Research in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences and Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences. Credit: Robyn Underwood. All Rights Reserved.

This article was originally published July 26, 2023 in Penn State Today

By Alexandra McLaughlin

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Honey bees are crucial for pollinating crops, but in Northeastern states, according to Penn State researchers, more than 40% of honey bee colonies die each winter partly due to susceptibility to parasites and pathogens. One way to improve honey bee survival and increase sustainable beekeeping, also known as apiculture, is to train beekeepers in controlled breeding for resilient traits, according to Robyn Underwood, apiculture educator with Penn State Extension.

Six invited participants attended a hands-on workshop to learn instrumental insemination of honey bees, also called artificial insemination, July 20-22 at Penn State’s University Park campus. The workshop was part of a long-term extension program funded by a $217,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program.

The education about production and insemination — or EPIQ — program launched in May 2022. It includes biweekly lunch-and-learn Zoom sessions and hands-on workshops, led by Underwood and Kate Anton, research technologist in the Department of Entomology and Center for Pollinator Research in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences and Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences. She also manages the lab of Christina Grozinger, Publius Vergilius Maro Professor of Entomology and director of both the Center for Pollinator Research and the Insect Biodiversity Center.

“It is rewarding to collaborate with Dr. Underwood and bring this training program to life,” Anton said. “I use these practices to support the Grozinger Lab research program, and it is easy to recognize the value it offers to the beekeeping industry.”

Selected through a competitive application process, a cohort of about 100 experienced beekeepers participate in the queen rearing education at no cost. A few of the highest performers were invited to learn instrumental insemination. The grant is aimed at improving honey bee husbandry by providing in-depth training for beekeepers in colony assessment, honey bee biology, and queen and drone production.

Underwood noted that honey bee queens mate in flight often with dozens of males called drones. By using instrumental insemination, breeders can control both the amount of sperm each queen receives and the genetic origin of the queen and the drones. The closed mating system produces well-mated queens capable of passing on desired traits to their offspring.

The process of instrumental insemination starts with collecting the semen. In comparison to other livestock, honey bee queens mate only during one or two days in the beginning of their lives and store millions of sperm that are used to fertilize eggs for the rest of their lives — which can last several years.

“To perform the insemination, we need to collect semen from many drones in a capillary tube,” Underwood said. “After semen is collected, it is injected into the oviducts of an anesthetized queen bee. This process is particularly challenging and requires specialized equipment.”

The equipment — which can cost around $5,000 — includes such items as a microscope, insemination instrument, capillary tubes and handmade glass needles. Participants acquired only basic skills during the training; to become proficient, they must practice extensively, Underwood explained. To support their practice, they were provided with free equipment, thanks to the funding from Northeast SARE.

“It’s expected to take at least two years and hundreds of hours of practice before these beekeepers become proficient enough to produce and sell inseminated queens,” Underwood said. “During semen collection, contamination is the number one risk.”

She emphasized the high level of diligence required.

“At one point I stepped out of the room and when I came back, there was pure silence,” she said. “Everybody was focused and working hard. I felt proud of their dedication and stamina to look in a microscope for eight hours.”

Helping to instruct the workshop was Cory Stevens, a beekeeper from Missouri skilled in breeding mite-resistant bees. The parasitic varroa mite is a significant threat to the beekeeping industry, attaching to honey bees and transmitting harmful viruses. Breeding programs can help bees by passing on favorable behavioral traits linked to varroa mite resistance.

Due to the significant financial cost, time investment and the complexity of the process, the skill of honey bee instrumental insemination is extremely rare, Underwood noted.

She expressed her hope to establish Penn State Extension as a national hub for this education. Although the participants currently are part of a grant-funded program, her vision is to transition to a model where beekeepers pay for queen rearing education, given the skill’s high demand, which can lead to increased profits by reducing chemical pesticide applications, increasing honey production, and selling bees and queens locally.

“Our goal is to have one person in each Northeast state proficient in instrumental insemination,” Underwood said.

The instructors plan to hold the workshop twice more next year and anticipate the grant will continue until at least 2025.

“As we increase the knowledge and skill sets of this network of beekeepers, we will gain the needed foundation for a regional breeding effort,” Anton said. “Educating farmers in the art and science of queen rearing and instrumental insemination in the short term will pave the way to improvement of honey bee stocks in the region in the long term.”