Wild Honey Bee Mating Keeps Genetic Diversity Alive In The Colony
June 17, 2013

Wild Honey Bee Mating Keeps Genetic Diversity Alive In The Colony

Michael Harper for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online

Honey bees have a knack of being quite promiscuous. Queens have been observed with anywhere between seven and 20 different males in the colony during the frantic mating season; all this fooling around serves a beneficial purpose, however.

Many previous studies have shown that queen bee promiscuity creates a genetic diversity amongst the colony, preventing inbreeding and creating healthy, strong groups of bees. Though this is a commonly understood behavior among those who study bees, new research from North Carolina State University, the University of Maryland and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) decided to take their study to the wild rather than observe bees in the lab.

It´s important to understand this behavior. Honey bees are increasingly in danger of Colony Collapse Disorder, a condition where entire colonies can disappear. These bees play a major role in agriculture, so understanding what makes them stronger may lead to healthier crops and abundant food for the rest of us.

The paper, entitled “Genetic diversity affects colony survivorship in commercial honey bee colonies,” is published in the journal Naturwissenschaften.

Dr. David Tarpy, an associate professor of entomology at North Carolina State University is the lead author of this new study and explained in a press statement what made their research different from all the others.

“We knew genetic diversity affected survival under controlled conditions, but wanted to see if it held true in the real world,” said Dr. Tarpy. “And, if so, how much diversity is needed to significantly improve a colony´s odds of surviving.”

Dr. Tarpy and his crew of researchers studied 80 commercial colonies in the eastern US, looking for evidence of genetic diversity. The more males a queen mates with, the greater the genetic diversity of the colony. The researchers then continued to monitor the health of the colonies for a period of 10 months, or what is also known as the working season.

Just as it had been seen in the closed studies, genetically diverse colonies are stronger, healthier, and more likely to survive through the working season. In colonies where the queen had mated seven or more times, honey bees were 48 percent more likely to survive the working season than those colonies which were less diverse genetically. Only 17 percent of the colonies where the queen mated less than seven times were able to survive through the 10-month period.

“This study confirms that genetic diversity is enormously important in honey bee populations,” Dr. Tarpy says. “And it also offers some guidance to beekeepers about breeding strategies that will help their colonies survive.”

While these researchers are discovering what makes honey bees more resilient to colony collapse disorder and other pathogens, honey bee watchers in Britain are becoming increasingly worried about the local bees in their area.

Last week the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) released a report which found one-third of all colonies in the area had been lost as a result of last year's harsh winter. This loss is more than double seen last year and could likely be even worse at the end of the summer. The British bees are said to have been lost as a result of various diseases, stressors, and condition called “isolation starvation” where malnourished bees are too cold and weak to find their way to what little food they stored during the working months.