Вадим Дудченко
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The origin of the western honeybee (Apis mellifera) has been intensely debated. Addressing this knowledge gap is essential for understanding the evolution and genetics of one of the world’s most important pollinators. By analyzing 251 genomes from 18 western honeybee subspecies, York University’s Professor Amro Zayed and colleagues found support for a western Asian origin of western honeybees with at least three expansions leading to African and European lineages.

Western honeybees (Apis mellifera). Image credit: PollyDot.

“The genus Apis is composed of 12 extant species that form three distinct groups: giant honeybees, dwarf honeybees, and cavity-nesting honeybees,” Professor Zayed and co-authors said.

“All but one of the extant Apis species are endemic to Asia. The exception, Apis mellifera, is native to Europe, Africa, and Western Asia.”

“Given the wide geographic spread of the species, Apis mellifera has diversified into several subspecies, of which there are approximately 10 subspecies in Africa, 9 in Asia, and potentially as many as 13 subspecies in Europe,” they added.

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

“Although it is reasonably accepted that the genus emerged in Asia, the ancestral origin and adaptive radiation of contemporary Apis mellifera lineages and subspecies remain unresolved.”

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

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

They found that an Asian origin — likely western Asia — was strongly supported by the new data.

“As one of the world’s most important pollinators, it’s essential to know the origin of the western honeybee to understand its evolution, genetics and how it adapted as it spread,” Professor Zayed said.

The researchers also found that the western honeybee genome has several ‘hot spots’ that allowed the insects to adapt to new geographic areas.

While the western honeybee genome has more than 12,000 genes, only 145 of them had repeated signatures of adaptation associated with the formation of all major honeybee lineages found today.

“Our research suggests that a core-set of genes allowed the honeybee to adapt to a diverse set of environmental conditions across its native range by regulating worker and colony behavior,” said Kathleen Dogantzis, a Ph.D. student at York University.

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

“It’s important to understand how locally adapted subspecies and colony-level selection on worker bees, contributes 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 another in Madagascar.”

The results were published today in the journal Science Advances.


Kathleen A. Dogantzis et al. 2021. Thrice out of Asia and the adaptive radiation of the western honey bee. Science Advances 7 (49); doi: 10.1126/sciadv.abj2151


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