Western Honeybees May Have Originated in Asia, New Study Says

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The origin of the western honey beeApis mellifera) has been extensively discussed. Addressing this knowledge gap is essential to understanding the evolution and genetics of one of the world’s most important pollinators. By analyzing 251 genomes from 18 subspecies of western honey bees, York University professor Amr Zayed and colleagues found support for a West Asian origin of the western honey bee with at least three expansions leading to African and European lineages.

Western honey bee (Apis mellifera).  Image credit: PollyDot.

Western honey bee (Apis mellifera). Image credit: PollyDot.

“Sex Apis It consists of 12 extant species that form three distinct groups: giant honeybees, dwarf honeybees, and cavities-dwelling honeybees,” said Professor Zayed and co-authors.

“Everything is there except one Apis The species is endemic to Asia. the exception Apis melliferaIt is native to Europe, Africa and Western Asia.

“Due to the wide geographical spread of the species, Apis mellifera It has diversified into several subspecies, of which approximately 10 subspecies are in Africa, 9 in Asia, and possibly as many as 13 subspecies in Europe.”

“Each subspecies can be genetically and morphologically classified into at least five distinct evolutionary lineages: the M lineage for Eurasia, the C lineage for Europe, the O and Y lineage for West Asia, and the lineage for Africa.”

“Although it is reasonably accepted that the genus appeared in Asia, contemporary ancestral origin and adaptive radiation Apis mellifera The strains and subspecies remain unresolved. “

In the new study, the authors sequenced 251 genomes from 18 native subspecies of the western honey bee.

They then used the genetic data to reconstruct the origin and dispersal pattern of honeybees.

They found that Asian ancestry – likely Western Asia – was strongly supported by the new data.

“As one of the world’s most important pollinators, it is essential to know the origin of the Western honey bee to understand its evolution, genetics, and how it has adapted to its spread,” said Professor Zayed.

The researchers also found that the western honeybee genome contains many “hotspots” that have allowed the insects to adapt to new geographic areas.

While the genome of the Western honey bee contains more than 12,000 genes, only 145 of them have recurring signatures of adaptation associated with the genesis of all major honey bee subspecies in existence today.

“Our research indicates that a core set of genes has allowed honey bees to adapt to a variety of environmental conditions across their native range by regulating worker and colony behavior,” said Kathleen Dugantzis, PhD. Student at York University.

“This adaptation also allowed the development of about 27 different subspecies of honeybees.”

“It is important to understand how locally adapted subspecies and colony-level selection for worker bees, contribute to the fitness and diversity of managed colonies.”

“The sequencing of these bees also led to the discovery of two distinct lineages, one in Egypt and the other in Madagascar.”

The results were published today in the journal science progress.


Kathleen A Dogantzis and others. 2021. Triple Asiatic and the adaptive radiation of Western honey bees. science progress 7 (49); doi: 10.1126/sciadv.abj2151

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