As It Happens

Bee squeezer scientist collects drone sperm. Lots of it

Brandon Hopkins has developed a way to help protect the honeybee population by freezing and preserving their sperm. And now, the entomologist is collecting it for a gene bank run by the U.S. government.
Washington State University researcher Brandon Hopkins has developed a way to help protect honeybee populations by freezing and preserving their sperm. (Washington State University/Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

You can't just hand it a tiny cup and send it to a tiny room with a stack of tiny magazines.

Finding a reliable method for collecting and preserving bee sperm has long baffled scientists. Which is why the entomology world is all a buzz with Brandon Hopkins' breakthrough technique.

Honeybees walk on a comb hive. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

"You really just catch the male honeybees, squeeze them, and the stuff just kind of pops out the other end!" Hopkins tells As It Happens host Carol Off.

Hopkins is an entomologist at Washington State University. His simply-stated technique for extracting the bee mojo is actually more technical than it sounds. More importantly, it's a proven method that extends the sperm life when it's frozen.
Brandon Hopkins lifts frozen honey bee semen out of the larger tank of liquid nitrogen for long term storage. (Washington State University)

"Under a microscope, we use a finely pulled glass pipette — you could think of it like a straw — and that's attached with some tubing to a syringe," Hopkins elaborates. "Then we draw up these small volumes, one micro litre usually, for each male."
The small liquid nitrogen tank where the bee semen is submerged and frozen. (Washington State University)

Hopkins and his team have pulled samples from thousands of drones. They are collecting the first-ever honeybee samples for a gene bank run out of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The researchers have also been issued a permit to import honeybee semen.

"What it allows us to do is tap into the original source population because honeybees aren't native to North or South American. They're an old world species," Hopkins explains.

"Unique to our lab here at Washington State University, we've begun to cryopreserve or freeze the honeybee semen so that we can transport it and preserve it for breeding purposes."
(Brandon Hopkins)

Hopkins believes the growing sperm bank could be crucial to the future of the species. He says billions of dollars have been invested into cryopreservation for other animals such as cattle, pigs and sheep. By applying the same science to bees, Hopkins hopes his new technique will improve breeding and conservation efforts against threats like colony collapse.
Bee keepers and scientists continue to try to figure out what is causing bees to succumb to the colony collapse disorder which has devastated apiaries around the world. ( Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

"People are more aware than ever that bees are essential for feeding us. They provide all the fruits and vegetables that we've become accustomed to having," Hopkins explains. "[Let's] bring the bee industry into the modern era of breeding."

For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Brandon Hopkins.

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