WASHINGTON STATE apple growers have a problem. The honey bees that pollinate their trees can be a little wimpy when it comes to temperature.
Apple growers prefer to have the king, or primary, blooms pollinated, because they produce the biggest apples. But all too often, the trees bloom during cool weather. And the resident honey bees, being mostly of Italian descent and therefore partial to Mediterranean weather, hole up when the temperature dips below 55 degrees F.
Other bees do better in cool weather but often have quirks of their own that limit their usefulness as pollinators.
So Steve Sheppard—associate professor of entomology at Washington State University and holder of the Thurber Chair—went looking for a hardier bee. In Kazakhstan, no less. After all, says Sheppard, it was in the mountains of Kazakhstan that apples evolved. And it’s cold there.
Besides, Sheppard also has a scholarly interest in Kazakh bees. It was about a million years ago, according to the conventional wisdom, that two species of honey bee—Apis mellifera, familiar in the Western hemisphere, and Apis cerana— diverged from a common ancestor. Sheppard thinks the divergence took place eight million years before that. He believes A. mellifera evolved from an as yet unknown species. And he thinks this missing link might be in—you guessed it—Kazakhstan.
Sheppard did find a subspecies of bee in Kazakhstan that might just work as a cool-weather pollinator, if not a missing link. This coming April he’ll return to Kazakhstan and attempt to retrieve some queen bees to bring into the United States.