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Nature: Western honeybees likely originated in ASI – and not Africa as previously thought

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Western honeybees likely originated in ASI — and not Africa as previously thought, study reveals

  • Researchers at the Canadian University of York sequenced 251 honey bee genomes
  • Analysis indicated that the pollinating insect likely originated in western Asia
  • From here it spread to Africa and Europe, forming seven different genera
  • The bees appear to have a core set of genes that allow them to adapt to new settings










The Western honey bee — Apis mellifera — likely originated in Asia, not Africa as previously thought, a study has concluded.

Researchers at the Canadian University of York solved this long-discussed little mystery by sequencing the genomes of 251 honeybees from across the insect’s range.

The western honey bee – used for crop pollination and honey production across most of the world – has a remarkable ability to survive in a variety of environments.

It can live in tropical rainforests, arid climates and even temperature zones with cold winters, and is native to Asia, Africa and Europe.

Originating in Western Asia, the team believed it had split into seven distinct lineages and expanded independently into both Africa and Europe.

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The Western honey bee — Apis mellifera — likely originated in Asia, not Africa as previously thought, a study has concluded. Pictured: A bee on a rudbeckia flower

The research was conducted by biologist Amro Zayed of York University in Toronto and his colleagues.

“As one of the world’s most important pollinators, knowing the origins of the western honeybee is essential,” said Professor Zayed.

Only then, he explained, can we “understand its evolution, its genetics and its adaptation during dispersal.”

In their study, the researchers analyzed and analyzed 251 western honey bee bees — a total of 18 of the 27 different subspecies.

They used this data to reconstruct the most likely distribution pattern for the various honeybee lines — and their collective point of origin.

The team found that an origin in Western Asia, rather than Africa, was most strongly supported by their genetic data.

After their origins in western Asia, the team believed that the western honey bee split into seven distinct genera (pictured) and expanded independently to both Africa and Europe.

After their origins in western Asia, the team believed that the western honey bee split into seven distinct genera (pictured) and expanded independently to both Africa and Europe.

In their study, the researchers analyzed and analyzed 251 western honey bee bees — a total of 18 of the 27 different subspecies.  They used this data to reconstruct the most likely distribution pattern for the different honeybee lines.  Shown: two different possible reconstructions of the biogeographic range, as calculated using so-called single nucleotide polymorphisms across the genome (left) and only in protein coding regions (right)

In their study, the researchers analyzed and analyzed 251 western honey bee bees — a total of 18 of the 27 different subspecies. They used this data to reconstruct the most likely distribution pattern for the different honeybee lines. Shown: two different possible reconstructions of the biogeographic range, as calculated using so-called single nucleotide polymorphisms across the genome (left) and only in protein coding regions (right)

The researchers also found that the honey bee genome has a number of “hot spots” that allowed the insects to adapt to new niches and geographic areas.

Of the more than 12,000 genes in the bee genome, only 145 had repeated signs of adaptation associated with the formation of the major honeybee lines we see today.

“Our research suggests that a core set of genes enabled the honeybee to adapt to a diverse set of environmental conditions in its natural range by regulating worker and colony behavior,” said study author and biologist Kathleen Dogantzis.

The sequencing efforts also led to the discovery of two new and different western honeybee lines — one from Egypt and the other from Madagascar — bringing the total to seven.

The researchers said they hope their study will finally end the debate about where the western honeybee originally came from — freeing up future research to further explore how the insects adapted to different climates.

The researchers said they hope their study will finally end the debate about where the western honeybee originally came from — freeing up future research to further explore how the insects adapted to different climates.

The researchers said they hope their study will finally end the debate about where the western honeybee originally came from — freeing up future research to further explore how the insects adapted to different climates.

‘It is important to understand how locally adapted subspecies and colony-level selection of worker bees contribute to the fitness and diversity of managed colonies,’ explains Ms Dogantzis.

The full findings of the study are published in the journal Science Advances.

DECREASING BEE POPULATIONS

Declines in recent months due to honeybee numbers and health have caused global concern over the insects’ critical role as important pollinators.

Bee health has been closely monitored in recent years as available food sources for honeybees have declined and pesticide contamination has increased.

In animal model studies, the researchers found that combined exposure to pesticides and poor diet reduced the health of bees.

Bees use sugar to make flights for fuel and work in the nest, but pesticides lower their hemolymph (‘bee’s blood’) sugar levels and thereby reduce their energy stores.

When pesticides are combined with a limited food supply, bees lack the energy to function, plummeting their chances of survival.

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