Old World Honey Bee Populations: A Genetic Resource for U.S. Honey Bee Breeding

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2014: $20,865.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2016
Grant Recipient: Washington State University
Region: Western
State: Washington
Graduate Student:
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Walter Sheppard
Department of Entomology, Washington State University

Annual Reports


  • Fruits: apples
  • Nuts: almonds
  • Animals: bees


  • Animal Production: livestock breeding
  • Education and Training: demonstration, on-farm/ranch research, workshop
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity
  • Production Systems: holistic management

    Proposal abstract:

    With over 7 billion people on the planet, agriculture faces immense pressure to meet global demand for food. One-third of consumed food relies on insect pollination with the predominate pollinator being the honey bee. Although future challenges facing agriculture will come from multiple domains, one of the immediate challenges facing agriculture is honey bee decline. Contributing an estimated $14.6 billion in pollination services annually, honey bees are at the center of modern agriculture and are essential in sustaining production. For example, the U.S. produces 85% of the world’s almonds, and production nearly doubled in the last decade from 400,000 to >700,000 acres (nass.gov/ca). To pollinate this single crop, it is required that more than 50% of all managed colonies in the U.S. be moved into almond production areas each spring. The transport of approximately 1.4 million beehives onto a single cop in California necessitates co-mingling of thousands of colonies and increases the opportunity to distribute diseases and parasites among honey bees. Stress associated with transportation, nutritional consequences, various diseases and pests have all been recognized as potential factors in honey bee decline (vanEngelsdorp et al., 2009). Recent research has shown that honey bee health is correlated to genetic diversity. Genetic diversity serves as the raw material for selective breeding in agriculturally important plants and animals, including the honey bee. More genetically diverse colonies have lower disease intensity, increased disease resistance and greater forager productivity. Honey bees are native to Europe and Africa, and only a small fraction of this original genetic was ever introduced to the U.S. via importation. Importation and founder events associated with the establishment of honey bees in North America represent a series of genetic bottlenecks that have limited the diversity of introduced honey bee populations. These bottlenecks include: the limited size of founding populations, parasitic mite reduction of U.S. honey bee populations (managed and feral), and ongoing production of queens from a small number of queen mothers. With the recognition that agro-ecosystems are highly interconnected and multifaceted, one of the greatest challenges facing agriculture is preserving and improving honey bee health. The goal here is to perform a comprehensive analysis of genetic diversity of Old and New World honey bee populations, and educate beekeepers, queen producers and growers about the benefits of genetic diversity in honey bee populations. Although U.S. populations have sustained numerous genetic bottleneck events, Old World populations may represent a source of additional diversity for future U.S. honey bee breeding efforts. Strong U.S. honey bee populations not only benefit beekeepers and the agricultural community, but society as a whole given that food security relies so heavily on honey bee pollination.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    To perform a comprehensive analysis of the genetic diversity of Old and New World honey bee populations, I propose to address four main objectives over the course of this project:

    1. Determine the genetic diversity from a representative sampling of Old World honey bee populations (fall, 2013).

    The genetic diversity of three Old World subspecies (A. m. ligustica, A. m. carnica, and A. m. caucasica) originating from Italy, Slovenia and Georgia, respectively, will be assessed using microsatellite analysis. These subspecies are a realistic representation of what was originally brought to and established here in the U.S. Samples from these populations have been collected and are stored in the Sheppard lab, although a trip to Italy to collect additional samples of the subspecies A. m. ligustica is scheduled for June 2013. The cost of collecting these Italian samples is supported by other sources.

    2. Determine the genetic diversity of U.S. commercial honey bee populations, the first since Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) (winter, 2014).

    I will analyze honey bee samples from approximately 25% of the commercial queen production operations in California. Samples have been collected (winter 2013) and are currently in the Sheppard lab. Previous estimates of diversity in commercial stock by Delaney et al. (2009) used samples collected from 1993-1994 and 2004-2005. Analysis of 2013 samples will represent the first evaluation of genetic diversity in U.S. honey bees since the widespread reports of CCD.

    3. Evaluate the genetic diversity of germplasm releases in CA commercial queen breeding operations (spring, 2014).

    As permitted by APHIS, several CA commercial queen producers have incorporated imported Old World germplasm into their breeding programs since 2008. I will evaluate the genetic diversity of these honey bee populations. This will be compared to U.S. populations sampled prior to 2008 and from current beekeepers who have not used imported germplasm. This objective will evaluate the impact of germplasm importation on genetic diversity and sustainable bee breeding.

    4. Bring awareness to the genetic diversity of honey bees and its importance in sustainable agriculture and beekeeping practices.

    We will distribute our findings through our extension program, local and national meetings, WSU workshops and short courses, and publication via peer-reviewed journals and fact sheets.

    Selective breeding of honey bees better suited for local environments is vital to sustainable beekeeping and agriculture. Different locations have different pressures from disease and parasite load to forage availability. Throughout the course of this research, I intend to encourage discussion through educational outreach among beekeepers, stakeholders and the queen producing industry regarding the opinions and attitudes about breeding honey bees for genetic diversity and on a more regional scale.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.