Bee's Sex Drive Preserves Diversity: York University Study

Findings show declining bee populations not caused by loss of genetic diversity

TORONTO, May 8, 2012 – A new study by York University researchers debunks the myth that domestication has reduced genetic diversity in commercial honey bees and led to a decline in their numbers.

Previous studies of commercial honey bees have suggested that, as with other livestock, their populations are characterized by low genetic diversity due to domestication. This apparent loss of diversity has been fingered as a cause for declining numbers of bees in North America and Europe, in what scientists have dubbed “Colony Collapse Disorder.”

“This decline in population is of major concern because bees pollinate up to two-thirds of everything we eat, generating roughly $1 billion in Canada annually,” says principal investigator Amro Zayed, assistant professor in York’s Department of Biology, Faculty of Science & Engineering.

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The process of domestication often brings about profound changes in levels of genetic variation in animals and plants. The honey bee,Apis mellifera, has been managed by humans for centuries for both honey and wax production and crop pollination. Human management and selective breeding are believed to have caused reductions in genetic diversity in honey bee populations, thereby contributing to the global declines threatening this ecologically and economically important insect. However, previous studies supporting this claim mostly relied on population genetic comparisons of European and African (or Africanized) honey bee races; such conclusions require reassessment given recent evidence demonstrating that the honey bee originated in Africa and colonized Europe via two independent expansions. We sampled honey bee workers from two managed populations in North America and Europe as well as several old-world progenitor populations in Africa, East and West Europe. Managed bees had highly introgressed genomes representing admixture between East and West European progenitor populations. We found that managed honey bees actually have higher levels of genetic diversity compared with their progenitors in East and West Europe, providing an unusual example whereby human management increases genetic diversity by promoting admixture. The relationship between genetic diversity and honey bee declines is tenuous given that managed bees have more genetic diversity than their progenitors and many viable domesticated animals.