Exciting new developments come to us on a regular basis about bees these days. This allows us to know more about our favorite insects and pollinators, bees of all sorts. Today’s blog post concerns bumblebees.

There are over 260 bee species with about 400 color patterns. This makes the old stereotype of the yellow and black bee seem old-fashioned, but they are still around as well as many exotic looking bees sporting reds, yellows, and whites.

The reason we have these preconceived notions of what bumble bees look like is due to evolution influencing multiple bee species to share similar color patterns in specific geographical areas. This is known to scientists as mimicry.

This is reinforced by the fact that it alerts potential predators in that same area that those colors lead to painful stings. New research is revealing more to scientists about these evolutionary genetics.

This unrelated 5:03-minute video about bumblebees by Bumblebee Trust helps us view different bees:



In previous research, researchers reported that a Hox gene, which is a major developmental gene, regulates the identity of structures on the segments of the bee, and turns on a complex set of downstream genes that ultimately drive segmental changes in the bee’s pigmentation. Their previous paper failed to explain how a change in the Hox gene called Abdominal-B leads to a change in the pigments that color the bees.

The researchers discovered that genomic targeting of a major developmental gene allows several melanin genes instead of only one specific enzyme, to be altered to reinforce these color traits. The study also helped understand the genes of the pigment called pheomelanin better, which is involved in the red coloring in vertebrates and insects.

Much more lies ahead, as this discovery is only just the first step and there are so many bee species. Researchers will examine how genes and gene pathways evolved across a wide spectrum of species.

Sarthok Rahman, former doctoral student and ICDS student affiliate, Penn State and postdoctoral researcher in biological sciences, University of Alabama, is the first author of the study. He believes using high-performance computation power has made this research more reproducible and manageable. The researchers relied on the Institute for Computational and Data Sciences’ Roar supercomputer to provide computational power for the gene expression studies on the bees.

According to Rahman, these analyses can be quite computationally expensive and take a lot of time if done on an everyday laptop or desktop, so they used the ICDS supercomputing facility for this paper and the paper before it.

Other team members were Tatiana Terranova, an honors undergraduate research student at Penn State and Li Tian, a former postdoctoral researcher in the Hines Lab at Penn State.

Their research is available for you to peruse here: Genome Biology and Evolution

The National Science Foundation supported the work.