Origins, spread of honeybees determined

Irvine, Calif., Oct. 25, 2006 -- The honeybee, a species that contributes billions of dollars to the world's agricultural economy each year through pollination, originated in Africa and is evolving in surprising ways in the Americas today, according to a UC Irvine researcher. The findings could have significant implications for honeybee breeding and the crucial role these creatures play in farming worldwide.

According to Neil Tsutsui, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, a worldwide analysis of the honeybee, or Apis mellifera, has yielded new information about the origins and spread of honeybees throughout Europe, Asia, and North and South America. For example, researchers have found that the bees did not arise in Asia, as previously expected, but came out of Africa. They then spread twice into Europe and Asia, creating two distinct genetic lineages, one of which includes the widely cultivated Italian bee, a subspecies used extensively for agricultural pollination. These European subspecies are now breeding with Africanized bees in North and South America, and resulting in genome-level changes that are surprising and unexpected.

The research, reported in the current issue of Science, was based on genetic markers identified in the sequencing of the full honeybee genome, which is being reported in this week's issue of Nature.

"The sequencing of the honeybee genome, as well as our findings about the species' origin and spread, could have considerable applied applications," said Tsutsui, senior author of the Science study, and one of the authors of the Nature paper. "We need to understand the bees, where they came from, and what is happening to them today to ensure they continue their vital work of pollination, which is so crucial to the world's economy."

Among the researchers' findings was the discovery that the introduction of Africanized ("killer") bees into South America in the 1950s affected the genomes

Contact: Farnaz Khadem
University of California - Irvine

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