Walter (Steve) Sheppard is one busy man, flying his own plane around the Pacific Northwest to meet with beekeepers and deliver queen-breeding stock produced in his honey bee breeding program to beekeeper collaborators. He also travels to countries such as Kazakhstan to study populations of honey bees from wild apple forests that have the potential to be added to Washington State University breeding stock. Over the years, he and his students have bred bees to resist parasites and diseases, produce more honey, and survive harsh winters better than their ancestors. He’s even bred friendlier bees that are easier for beekeepers to work with.

Among the problems Sheppard is working on now is colony collapse disorder, in which honey bees leave their hives and simply don’t return. There are reports that the disorder has devastated commercial bee operations in many parts of the country, although it is still a rare occurrence in the Pacific Northwest.

Honey bee health is crucial to the nation’s farmers and fruit growers, who rely on bees to pollinate crops such as apples, cranberries, and watermelons. Together, honey-bee-pollinated crops are worth more than $9 billion a year to the American economy.

Earlier this year we caught up with Prof. Sheppard while he and his crew were bringing honey bees out of their winter hives and distributing them into small mating hives where the new queens will be produced over the summer. Sheppard talked with us about honey bee health, his breeding program, and the research he’s doing to try to pinpoint the cause of colony collapse disorder.

Sheppard directs the Apis Molecular Systematics Laboratory at WSU. He was a member of the Honey Bee Genome Project, an international consortium of scientists that earlier this year published the complete DNA sequence of the honey bee, Apis mellifera.

In this video produced by Adam Ratliff and Cherie Winner for Washington State Magazine Online, Steve Sheppard talks about honey bee health and colony collapse disorder.