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UC Davis Rebuilding Honey Bee Program: Bee Breeder and Geneticist Susan Cobey Joins UC Davis Team

May 10, 2007

Intent on meeting the needs of California's multibillion dollar agriculture industry, the University of California, Davis, is revitalizing its honey-bee research program, the oldest such program in the nation.

Once a powerhouse in bee biology research, the UC Davis program declined during the 1990s as faculty retirements and budget shortages collided. With California's honey-bee industry now facing challenges ranging from mites to small hive beetles to colony collapse disorder, rebuilding the 65-year-old program has become critical.

California agriculture produces almonds, alfalfa, sunflowers, tree fruit and many other crops that rely on bees for pollination each spring.

"The honey-bee industry plays a key role in the success of California agriculture, and it is imperative that UC Davis provide the research necessary to help solve some of the pressing problems related to bee health, breeding and pollination," said Neal Van Alfen, dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. "During the coming years we will be adding new staff and faculty to our bee biology program and renovating the Harry Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility here on campus."

One of the first steps toward rebuilding the research program is the hiring of accomplished bee breeder and geneticist Susan Cobey, who has been at The Ohio State University. Cobey arrives this week as full-time manager of the Laidlaw bee biology facility and plans to begin offering specialized classes to bee breeders in May and June.

"It is a huge honor to help revive UC Davis' bee biology laboratory," said Cobey, who worked in the Laidlaw lab during the late 1970s and early 1980s. She was mentored by its namesake, the late Professor Harry Laidlaw, who inspired her career choice. She has gone on to become a leading expert in instrumental insemination of bees and practical bee breeding.

"California is the center for the bee industry and home to some of the nation's best beekeepers," Cobey said. "I look forward to working with them, with an emphasis on stock improvement."

In addition to hiring Cobey, the bee biology program will be further bolstered by:

  • The addition of a new professor in UC Davis' entomology department who will specialize in the biology of bee pollination. That position is expected to be filled by late fall, according to Walter Leal, who chairs the entomology department.
  • A $500,000 renovation of the 8,200 square foot Laidlaw bee biology facility, which is home to laboratories, offices, an apiarium with glass-walled observation hives, a honey-bee food processing room and shop. The building is being remodeled to include a larger multipurpose room, a walk-in freezer and other facility improvements.
  • The establishment of a $1 million endowment fund that will directly support research efforts in the areas of honey-bee genetics and pollination biology. Through the generous support of the estate of Harry and Ruth Laidlaw and contributions from the beekeeping industry, the endowment has already surpassed the $400,000 mark. All of the earnings from this endowment will support graduate students and research projects directly related to honey bees.

For her part, Cobey will focus on strengthening ties between the university research community and the honey-bee industry. She maintains a breeding line of bees known as New World Carniolans, which she developed during the early 1980s, when she was a professional bee breeder and co-owner of Vaca Valley Apiaries in Northern California.

She will collaborate with Cooperative Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen, who has anchored the bee biology program's research and industry education efforts during the lean years. His bee industry leadership and research in the areas of colony management, pollination, mite control and insecticide damage, were recently recognized by the American Association of Professional Apiculturists, which awarded Mussen its Apicultural Excellence Award. Mussen was also the first noncommercial bee producer to receive the prestigious Beekeeper of the Year Award at the 2006 California State Beekeepers Association Conference.

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