Honeybee Genome Sheds Light on "Killer" History, Bee Secrets

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There is typically one queen per colony, but she can live for up to two years (ten times as long as workers), can lay 2,000 eggs a day, and can store sperm for years without it losing viability.

Skilled, sterile workers number tens of thousands per colony. They can learn to associate a flower's color, shape, scent, or location with a food reward, then communicate new food discoveries to the hive using "dance language."

A Different Kind of Bug

The researchers also found a number of differences between honeybee genes and those of the other insects.

The honeybee genome, for instance, has evolved more slowly over time. And honeybees have fewer genes for taste than for smell, which may explain their exceptional ability to find pollen-rich flowers.

Honeybees also have fewer genes providing resistance to disease than the other insects. That's counterintuitive, Worley says, because honeybees live communally and are probably exposed to quite a few pathogens.

Worley suggests that the bees' highly evolved sociality—including their quickness to cast out sick members of the hive, their social grooming behaviors, and their use of separate chambers to raise young—may have developed as an alternate defense.

"Their immune systems may have evolved [to counter specific threats], and so they're highly tuned to deal with co-evolved pathogens," she said. "The other hypothesis is that we just don't know."

The size of the major gene families responsible for detoxification also appears smaller in the honeybee, making the species unusually sensitive to certain pesticides.

In addition, the bee genome is more similar to vertebrate genomes in regions that influence circadian (24-hour) rhythms.

"It's intriguing ... to wonder about what those genes are doing and how that affects the honeybee," Worley said.

Going, Going, Gone?

The honeybee genome research comes on the heels of a report, "Status of Pollinators in North America," commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences and released last week.

The paper sent out dire warnings about declines and even extinctions of pollinator species worldwide. (Related: "Buzz Kill: Wild Bees and Flowers Disappearing, Study Says" [July 21, 2006].)

According to Stephen Buchmann, an associate professor of entomology at the University of Arizona in Tucson and one of 15 members of the report committee, "our best defense against crop failures, yield shortfalls, and so-called pollinator crises is to have wild bees and managed non-Apis pollinators as part of a balanced pollinator portfolio for the world's wild and cultivated plants."

Baylor's Worley says further work with the honeybee genome will occur on several fronts.

The public may be most interested in the spread of Africanized bees, she says, but beekeepers are likely to also be concerned about the decline of pollinators.

"I think there's a lot of fodder for all of those research efforts," she said. "Any genome moves things ahead rapidly."

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