Evidence of stressors can be found by analyzing fluid from the Queen Bee’s specialized sperm sacs.
When the virgin queen bee goes on her only mating flight soon after she emerges from her birth cell, she mates with several drones from other hives. This is the only time she will ever mate, and the sperm she collects that day is stored in a sac inside her body to be used during the rest of her life.
Something known as “queen failure” happens when she fails to keep the sperm viable and this could lead to her colony collapsing. This phenomenon is behind the drop in many bee numbers in the USA.
It is hard to pinpoint reasons for queen failure, because there are no symptoms that can be identified when it happens. If the queen does not maintain viable sperm, she cannot lay eggs, and she is the only female in her colony capable of reproducing. This would cause her hive’s population to plummet.
This 8:40-minute video by Inside the Hive TV addresses the question of temperature stress and the overheated queen bee:
In a recent study, ways were found to zoom in on causes and this could lead to developing a valuable diagnostic tool for beekeepers.
Considering that honey bees pollinate such popular crops as apples, almonds and blueberries, and are responsible for an economic contribution of $16-$20 billion to the food chain, such a tool would be in high demand.
Alison McAfee, who is a bee researcher at North Carolina State University and who also works for University of British Columbia, is the first author of the study.
McAfee and her colleagues examined queen failure by performing a “molecular autopsy” whereby the fluid inside sperm-storing sacs was analyzed after the queens were exposed to pesticides, intense heat or intense cold.
Researchers found that elevated levels of different proteins in the fluid was associated with each stressor. They identified the two most elevated proteins as indicators for each stressor.
British Columbia beekeepers donated some failed queens, and when these were examined, they found proteins indicating exposure to extreme heat and pesticides but not to extreme cold. The study results were published in BMC Genomics.
Climate change adversely affects honeybee survival as well, and previous research shows that high temperatures are associated with colony loss.
The tool that McAfee and her colleagues are creating is in its early phase of development, and they are using these results to develop a diagnostic test that will distinguish between different causes of queen failure.
Bee researcher Susan Cobey from Washington State University was not involved in the study but sees the potential in this research. She runs a bee-insemination business and is excited at being able to find out what is going on with queens so preventative control can be taken and losses in the field can be avoided.