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FARGO, N.D. (AP)

Federal researchers are working to perfect the process of freezing the cells of honeybee embryos in hopes of protecting the insect species amid the pests, disease and pesticides that have been killing off its populations.

U.S. Department of Agriculture officials hope to build a gene bank to store sperm and embryos from bees, preserving bee genetics for future generations, in way that's commonly done for humans and most domesticated animals.

'As near as we can tell the honeybee is the only domesticated species that does not have a sperm bank or a germplasm repository,' said cryobiologist Joe Rinehart.

Research on the preservation process is being done in Fargo, where USDA biologist Arun Rajamohan has developed techniques to preserve several insect species, working with very small embryos, Minnesota Public Radio News reported. The embryos are rapidly cooled and can be stored in liquid nitrogen at a USDA facility in Fort Collins, Colorado.

The embryos can be stored until the 'end of western civilization,' according to Rinehart.

'As long as you have a society than can provide liquid nitrogen, they should be fine,' he said.

But the researchers have discovered that developing the right process to preserve honeybee embryos until the end of western civilization isn't easy compared to the same process for humans, in which the eggs and sperm are frozen.

Rajamohan said it will take him at least three years to learn the specific timing of the procedure. He has found that working with bee embryos are particularly challenging.

'Compared to many other insects I've worked with, it's a pretty delicate and tender embryo,' Rajamohan said.

Rajamohan has built a robot to remove human error because every step in the preservation process must be precisely timed. His techniques and robots are being used in a government lab in Panama and at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.

A committee of beekeepers, university researchers and government scientists will decide which genetic lines of bees will be preserved.

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