KATE FOX - Wildlife Photographer

  • Genetics and Breeding of the Honeybee

    Culturally, the Brits regard the honeybee with great affection and its complex social structure is an endless source of fascination and conjecture. Dr Tony Herbert's lecture to the Salisbury Cafe Scientific about the genetics and breeding of the honeybee provided a lucid insight into this enigmatic world.

    Bee colonies consist of 3 casts or type of bee. The Queen Bee who controls the actions of the hive through pheremones and can lay more than her own body weight in eggs on a daily basis. Try not to think too hard about this as it makes no sense. Secondly, there are female worker bees that are genetically the same as the queen. The difference in their phenotype is due to diet. Queens are fed solely on Royal Jelly and workers predominantly on pollen.

    The third cast are the male drones. Their mother is the queen and they hatch from unfertilised eggs in an asexual reproduction method called parthenogenesis. This means instead of the standard 32 chromosomes, with half from each parent, they only have 16 maternal chromosomes. They are called haploid drones.

    The Queen Bee mates with up to 20 drones from other hives in drone congregation areas. The offspring are either female workers or male drones and both have 32 chromosomes. These diploid drones occur when the Queen has a sex allele in common with the mated drone. This is where it gets slightly complicated. An allele is an alternative version of a gene that is found in the same locus on a chromosome and is responsible for the same character. As there are up to 20 alleles that determine the sex gene in a honeybee it is not uncommon to have a sex allele in common. For some unknown reason these diploid drones are destroyed at the larval stage. The result is that valuable time and energy are wasted growing the egg and there are less female worker bees to sustain the hive.

    A bigger problem that threatens the reputation and survival of our much loved UK honeybee are the non-native bees introduced in commercial hives. They are more aggressive and introduce parasites and diseases that our honeybees have not evolved to combat. Ironically, these commercial bees face a similar problem as they have not evolved to survive our hardy British winters. I'm sure there's a message in there if anyone is listening!!


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