For decades, scientists have hotly debated the origin of the western honeybee. Now, new research led by York University discovered these popular honey-producing bees most likely originated in Asia.
From there, the western honeybee expanded independently into Africa and Europe.
The western honeybee is used for crop pollination and honey production throughout most of the world and has a remarkable capacity for surviving in vastly different environments – from tropical rainforest to arid environments, to temperate regions with cold winters.
The research team sequenced 251 genomes from 18 subspecies from the honeybee’s native range and used this data to reconstruct the origin and pattern of dispersal of honeybees. The team found that an Asian origin – likely western Asia – was strongly supported by the genetic data.
As one of the world’s most important pollinators, it’s essential to know the origin of the western honeybee to understand its evolution, genetics and how it adapted as it spread.
The study also highlights that the bee genome has several “hot spots” that allowed honeybees to adapt to new geographic areas.
While the bee genome has more than 12,000 genes, only 145 of them had repeated signatures of adaptation associated with the formation of all major honeybee lineages found today.
“Our research suggests that a core-set of genes allowed the honeybee to adapt to a diverse set of environmental conditions across its native range by regulating worker and colony behavior,” says York University PhD student Kathleen Dogantzis of the Faculty of Science, who led the research.
This adaptation also allowed for the development of some 27 different subspecies of honeybees.
“It’s important to understand how locally adapted subspecies and colony-level selection on worker bees, contributes to the fitness and diversity of managed colonies,” says Dogantzis.
The sequencing of these bees also led to the discovery of two distinct lineages, one in Egypt and another in Madagascar.