The mystery surrounding the origins of the western honeybee appear to have been solved finally, after decades of debate.
Scientists have argued various points, until new research presented by York University, Canada, undisputedly concluded that the popular honey-producing bees we all know and love most likely originated in Asia.
From Asia, the western honeybee migrated independently into Europe and Africa. The western honeybee is one of the world’s most important pollinators, so knowing its origin to understand the genetics, evolution, and how it adapted to new environments as it spread, is essential.
The western honeybee is one of the most adaptable and versatile survivors in the natural world, whether it lives in the tropical rainforest, desert conditions, cold winters, or temperate regions.
This 1:50-minute video by York University with Katie Dogantzis discusses how the research project worked:
For humanity, this insect is best known for crop pollination and honey production. In addition to these vital food services that the western honeybee provides for humanity, it also beautifies the world with colorful flowers, trees, and shrubs.
In the process of their research, the scientific team sequenced 251 genomes from 18 subspecies from the honeybee’s native range. This data was used to reconstruct honeybee origin and their pattern of dispersal. The team found that genetic data strongly supported an Asian origin – likely western Asia.
This 2:00-minute video by York University with Professor Amro Zayed discusses how the mystery was solved:
The study also highlights that the bee genome has several “hot spots” and these allowed honeybees to adapt to new geographic areas. The bee genome has over 12,000 genes, but only 145 had repeated signatures of adaptation associated with the formation of all major honeybee lineages found today.
York University PhD student Kathleen Dogantzis of the Faculty of Science, who led the research, said that their research suggests that by regulating worker and colony behavior, a core-set of genes allowed the honeybee to adapt to a diverse set of environmental conditions across its native range.
As a result, this adaptation also allowed for some 27 different subspecies of honeybees to develop.
Dogantzis said that it is important to understand how locally adapted subspecies and colony-level selection on worker bees contributes to diversity and fitness in managed colonies.
Two distinct lineages of these bees were discovered during sequencing, one in Egypt and another in Madagascar.
Their paper, Thrice out of Asia and the adaptive radiation of the western honey bee, was published in the journal Science Advances. You can check the York University website for more on their project.