Instrumental Queen Insemination with Dr. Osman Kaftanoglu

I am so blessed to have been able to hang out at Dr. Osman Kaftanoglu’s apiary and learn about Instrumental (also known as artificial) queen insemination. Dr. Osman learned from Dr. Harry Laidlaw, the scientist who developed instrumental insemination at UC Davis. I also want to recognize the other scientist who greatly contributed to instrumental insemination, Dr. Otto Mackensen. I mention this so you can understand how big of an honor this is for me.

It was one of the windiest days I’ve ever experienced in Arizona, but the bees were still as mellow as if there wasn’t even a breeze. Bees can get testy when you open their hives on a windy day so that is saying something.

It was one of the windiest days I’ve ever experienced in Arizona, but the bees were still as mellow as if there wasn’t even a breeze. Bees can get testy when you open their hives on a windy day so that is saying something.

First off, Dr. Osman almost exclusively breeds Cordovans because of their distinct color, behavior, and productivity. This makes identifying a non-Africanized hive as simple as observing their appearance. Dang they are cute! And I do have to mention that, yes, Dr. Osman does pet them. I would recommend his bees to even the most hesitant wanna-bee beekeeper.

All of that made the first step in the artificial insemination process—collecting drones—super easy. All we had to do was open a box and start plucking out the drones and putting them into the collection container. We collected about 25-30 each time I think. Unfortunately It was impossible to tell right off if the drones were mature enough, meaning they were producing sperm.  One hive I collected from was almost entirely made up of immature drones, so that was frustrating when trying to “seduce” them (LOL).

Drone Parts

The next step in the process is to collect the semen. That is where I utterly failed! There really is some seductive step in how you hold and press the drone to get it to release its drone parts, which look like a forked apparatus and is completely fascinating. Then you have to squeeze its abdomen to get it to release the other drone part that has the semen (this probably has a name that I don’t want to type here). Dr. Osman makes it look easy, but it is NOT! I think it is one of those things that you have to get a feel for, and once you do, it’s easy. I am going to be practicing on my drones. Yes this does kill the drone, but drones die naturally when mating anyway.

Once you’ve gotten this far, you simply (ha ha) move on over to the microscope to very carefully extract the minuscule amount of semen. The hardest part here, is to not suck up the mucus that is much more abundant than the sperm. This is also where I failed. We did manage to get semen from 7 drones to use to inseminate one queen. (I say “we” but I mean Dr. Osman).

Inseminating the queen

Finally we go out to get a virgin queen that Dr. Osman was saving to be inseminated. She is in a queen cage that he sets in a container with carbon dioxide to sedate her a bit. After about 5 minutes he puts her in a tube with a small opening in the end where the tip of her abdomen sticks out. Moving over to the microscope again, the tube is placed in a special holder that positions the queen upside down so the tiny hooks can open her queen parts (this also has a name that I don’t want to type—I’m very scientific.) From this position, the semen that we collected is deposited into the queen and the hooks are released. The queen is unharmed and is now inseminated. She is then marked and placed back into the queen cage and given back to the attendants who will feed and care for her.

inseminated queen recovering from CO2 treatment

The final step before placing the queen into her own hive is to treat her with another dose of carbon dioxide the next day. Dr. Osman said that this will make the queen start to lay eggs in half the time it would take her to lay without the treatment. This is because when queens mate they fly, and the spiracles, which are the openings in their abdomens that breathe, are closed causing an increase in carbon dioxide. When queens are artificially inseminated they do not fly and therefore don’t experience that brain stimulation. I found that fascinating and asked how the heck they figured that out, like what dots were they connecting there? So the story is that some scientists were working on using different amounts of semen for the insemination, and inseminated two sets of queens with the same amount of semen one day, and then one of those sets was inseminated again the next day. They found that the queens that were inseminated both days started laying much sooner than the queens who were mated only one day. Then after hypothesizing on why that was, they determined that it was the two doses of carbon dioxide that the second set of queens received to sedate them. And once they determined that, they reasoned that it was the closed spiracles during flight that created that phenomenon naturally. Science is so cool!!

So there you have my experience with artificial insemination of queen bees. I do hope to be able to become adept at the process so that we have another way of getting high quality queens when we need them most. I am so thankful that Dr. Osman took so much time to teach me and show me the impressive characteristics of the bees he is raising. They are remarkable.