The WSU professor’s work is unimaginable – The Daily Evergreen

Steve Sheppard saves bee genetics

Whether co-founding the world’s first germplasm bank or covering a provost in a bee beard, entomology professor Steve Sheppard is no stranger to bees.

“It is the most diverse group of organisms on Earth with at least a million named species. The biodiversity and how they fill so many niches is just endlessly fascinating,” he said.

Sheppard has been working with bees at WSU since 1996, but he has been interested in them since childhood. His great-grandfather was a beekeeper, which led to his passion for bees and entomology.

“He had bee books and bee equipment that I ‘played’ with and looked at and marveled at,” Sheppard said. “Then I took a beekeeping course as a student at the University of Georgia and got interested. From there I went to graduate school to work on honeybees.”

At WSU, Sheppard said he has worked with population genetics and bee evolution. Honeybees are not native to the US, so he got samples from Europe, Africa and Asia.

“We’re working on a lot of different aspects of colony health,” Sheppard said. “We have people working on indoor hibernation and better nutrition to really help pollination history.”

Since 1922, the US has banned new bees from entering the country. Sheppard and assistant research professor Brandon Hopkins also worked on bringing in new genetics that haven’t been in the US for 100 years, said research assistant professor Jennifer Han.

Hopkins and Sheppard created the world’s first germplasm bank, the USDA-ARS National Laboratory for Germ Plasma Sources in Beltsville, Maryland.

“Before we started working together, there was nowhere in the world where they kept honeybee genetics,” Hopkins said. “[Sheppard] was the first person to be successfully licensed to import honeybee germplasm.”

Hopkins first met Sheppard in 2010 as a PhD student and served as a postdoc in his lab. He and Sheppard teamed up to develop cryopreservation of honeybee semen as part of a permit Sheppard received, he said.

“He’s one of the most friendly, easy-going people I’ve ever met,” Hopkins said. “I don’t know anyone his age who works as hard as he does. He’s one of the hardest-working people I’ve ever worked with.”

Sheppard also co-designed a liquid nitrogen tank containing semen from many bee subspecies currently bred at WSU, he said.

“To my knowledge, we’re the only university in the United States that does that, and we’re licensed to do that. That is a big advantage for us in our breeding program. It was no small feat to be able to do that,” Sheppard said.

As for fun at work, Sheppard said one of his favorite memories was when he and the bee team put a bee beard on then-provost Dan Bernardo.

Bees swarm Provost Dan Bernardo on June 17, 2016, giving him an unusual beard. Alumni donated $1 million to the new honeybee and pollinator research facility.

“Dan Bernardo had a full bee beard on him, and that was quite a memorable experience,” Sheppard said. “I think we’re the only university where the provost wore a bee beard.”

In the field, Sheppard looks through the bee colonies with a smoker. In addition to physical labor, entomologists must also run the lab, said Nick Naeger, Sheppard’s assistant professor and colleague.

“Being a research professor is a lot like running your own business. You have to manage the finances, you have to arrange the hiring and the dismissal,” he said. “Ultimately, you are responsible for keeping the research lab running.”

The operation of the university’s honeybee team changes on a seasonal basis. The team is currently in its summer rotation, Sheppard said.

“It’s like asking a farmer what they do because our season varies throughout the year,” he said. “This season we go out and make sure all colonies have queens and check if they have larvae, which means they have a queen and prepare us for winter,” Sheppard said.

Sheppard said his job is not without its unfavorable duties. One is its annual trip to transport more than 100 hives to California in February for pollination, which is a long and tedious drive.

However, some of his favorite things are that every year prior to the pandemic, the bee team took an international trip to see the bees in their home countries, he said. He also likes to see the progress of the bees over time.

“I’d love to open a colony and see a beautiful queen doing really well. It’s a product of something that’s on a downward trend in things that you’ve bred and you feel you’re making progress,” Sheppard said.

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