Stepping into the E. L. Niño Bee Lab at UC Davis feels like you are stepping through a portal into the past and the future of honey bee research at the same time. Glass cases reverently display some of the first honey bee insemination tools ever made by scientists like Dr. Lloyd Watson, and UC Davis’ own Dr. Harry Laidlaw; a bottle of un-crystalized 150 year old honey, and beautiful natural combs drawn by honey bees decades ago. The history is undeniable and can leave you with a somber sense of awe as you imagine the earlier days of honey bee research. The days before Varroa, before 1.3 million acres of almonds, and before millions of honey bee colonies were trucked around the country each year to pollinate crops.
Photos: Early examples and prototypes of queen insemination tools. The oldest date back to the 1920’s, and gave scientists the ability to control honey bee breeding and bloodlines for the first time, changing the future of beekeeping. Modern queen insemination tools are based on these early inventions.
Today, with the advent of these changes in beekeeping, the E.L. Niño Bee Lab also emanates the future of innovation, collaboration, and understanding honey bee health and solutions. New, high-tech insemination tools are in the lab today, and Dr. Niño’s team of scientists are using video and digital technology as well as an understanding of past research, to help them solve and understand today’s problems. Located in the heart of almond country, and near the Northern California “capital” of queen production, Dr. Niño’s lab at UC Davis is central to two of the most pressing issues impacting honey bees and beekeepers.
The Niño lab is tackling big-picture technical problems and questions like “how does drone seminal fluid affect queen health and quality?” and “how exactly does having supplemental forage in almond orchards affect honey bees?” They are also taking action by addressing very practical and immediate issues like teaching master beekeeping classes.
Master Beekeeping Classes
Educating small-scale beekeepers has an effect on all of the bees in proximity: by educating people how to reduce Varroa mite levels, identify Foul Brood strains, and other good management practices that help reduce the spread of problems from one bee colony to the next. The Nino lab has also taken on a role of educating Veterinarians about how to work with bees, since antibiotics to treat diseases like Foul Brood must now legally be prescribed by a Vet.
“How does drone seminal fluid affect queen health and quality?”
Some of the PAm funded research happening currently at the E.L Niño Bee Lab is being conducted by Dr. Elina Niño and staff research associate Dr. Laura Brustcher, (Brutscher was the first PAm-Costco Scholar Fellowship award winner in 2013 when she was a graduate student in Dr. Michelle Flenniken’s lab at Montana State University). Together they have been looking at how the proteins in the seminal fluid of drones affect queen quality and colony health. Drones are often thought of as expendable members of a bee colony, but their health and contribution may be far more important than we tend to give them credit for, and queen quality may rely more on their health than we understand.
Dr. Brutscher explains: “Queens experience many physiological changes during and after mating. Some of these changes may be due to the role of drone seminal fluid proteins, which are present in drone semen. We know that seminal fluid proteins are really important in initiating important physiological changes (such as egg-laying) in other insects (like Drosophila flies and Mosquitoes) and we are really interested to see how this applies to honey bee queens.”
Based on some of [Dr. Laura Brutscher and Dr. Elina Niño’s] research so far, we know that seminal fluid proteins are the agents that stop phototactic/mating flight behavior in queens and alter the pheromone profile of queens, which makes them more attractive to workers (encouraging strong worker retinue behaviors).
The next step is understanding what are the specific individual proteins that trigger these specific changes and can we narrow them down? In a more applied sense: Can we look at drones and see if drones of varying fertility or if drones that are producing different levels of these proteins affect queen reproduction and colony health. Since Varroa mites preferentially parasitize drones, the E.L. Niño lab is also interested in examining how Varroa mite infestation affects drone production of seminal fluid proteins and, subsequently, if semen from parasitized drones differentially affects queen health and reproduction.
The idea is that later on in the future, there could potentially be some selective breeding for genetic lines of drones that produce more of the desired proteins. Or, once we better understand the proteins and their roles, it may be revealed that there are things like pollen supplementation, or other factors we can use to influence and improve the rearing environment of the drones so that they grow up healthier and produce more of the desired proteins. But this is farther down the line, and we are not there yet. We are still investigating the roles of individual drone seminal fluid proteins and their respective roles in queen reproduction, and we will need this basic information before we can proceed toward more applied routes.”
Photos: In late February, the queen rearing room at the UC Davis lab is quiet, waiting for a new season of research to begin. The top photo is a queen rearing box with a queen excluder to measure phototactic behavior in queens (queen bees are attracted to light in order to take mating flights, but after being mated lose this behavior), and discover what factors drive that behavior – such as seminal fluid proteins
Forage in almonds to support honey bee health
Dr. Niño is also conducting a study looking at the role of honey bee forage in almond orchards, and using PAm Mustard Mix seeds as a part of that research project (funded by the Almond Board of California). Preliminary results of this research show that colonies with access to this form of supplemental forage are 3 frames of bees (FOB) stronger, even months later, than colonies that do not have access to PAm Mustard cover crops before, during, and after the almond bloom. Research like this is very important as almond acreage grows, beekeepers are tasked with providing more and more healthy bees for pollination of this crop each year, and growers who adopt this practice create healthier hives. These preliminary research results scientifically support the practice of planting bee forage cover crops in almonds as a viable way to help ensure healthier colonies, and pollination security for the future.
Image: Evaluation of honey bee colonies with access to supplemental forage plantings. Research conducted by Elina Niño ANR/ UC Davis, Graphs provided by Elina L. Niño. These graphs illustrate how PAm Mustard Mix, and other forms of supplemental forage can support honey bee health when planted near almond orchards. (RipC means riparian control which was matching control for wildflower plantings. The wildflower mix was developed by Dr. Neal Williams lab group)
In 2015, PAm funded a project at the E.L. Niño Bee lab to test Varroa controls using new and confidential essential oils and biopesticides. This project yielded very promising results, and Dr. Niño is now doing further research on the best delivery methods. With higher than normal mite levels, high colony losses, Varroa’s ability to quickly develop resistance to treatments, and increasing anecdotal complaints about Amitraz becoming less effective in 2018, we must stay ahead of the game in developing new treatment options for Varroa. Forward-thinking research like this is key to beekeepers’ ability to maintain honey bees in an economically sustainable way.
These are just a few of the impactful projects that Dr. Niño is leading at her lab, balancing important research with practical, immediate measures to enhance honey bee health. Project Apis m. is proud to support the work of Dr. Niño and her team.
You can learn more about the E.L. Niño Bee Lab here, and tune in to an excellent interview with Dr. Niño on a recent PolliNation Podcast from Oregon State University with host Dr. Andony Melathopoulos.
Recently, Dr Niño also interviewed with Science Friday. You can listen to that interview here.
Project Apis m.