Honey Bee Genetics: Research Papers Examining A Range Of Behaviours and Characteristics

Scientists have been studying honey bee genetics intensively for many years - in fact, I have read that the honey bee is the most studied living creature after humans.

Here are a selection of links to scientific research papers examing the genes of honey bees, and how they relate to the behaviours and characteristics of the Apis mellifera.

Honey bee genetics - research papers

Please note:

  • Only a part of the abstract is quoted for each paper.
  • Also, to link to the research, copy and paste the URL address into the browser of a new page.

Molecular and phylogenetic analyses reveal mammalian-like clockwork in the honey bee (Apis mellifera) and shed new light on the molecular evolution of the circadian clock.

Rubin, E., Shemesh, Y., Cohen, M., Elgavish, S., Robertson, H.M., and Bloch, G. 2006.  Genome Res. 16: 1352-1365

Main points:

  • Paper looks at honey bee genetics in relation to dance and rhythm.

  • In honey bees, the circadian clock is involved in several complex behaviors, including time sensing, navigation, labor division, and their famous dance language.

  • Using the honey bee genome sequence, a team of researchers led by Dr. Guy Bloch has identified and characterized the core set of genes responsible for circadian rhythms in honey bees.
  • Bloch’s group found that the composition and expression patterns of clock genes in the honey bee genome were more similar to the mammalian model (mouse) than to the insect model (fruit fly)!


The circadian clock of the honey bee is implicated in ecologically relevant complex behaviors.

These include time sensing, time-compensated sun-compass navigation, and social behaviors such as coordination of activity, dance language communication, and division of labor. The molecular underpinnings of the bee circadian clock are largely unknown.

We show that clock gene structure and expression pattern in the honey bee are more similar to the mouse than to Drosophila. The honey bee genome does not encode an ortholog of Drosophila Timeless (Tim1), has only the mammalian type Cryptochrome (Cry-m), and has a single ortholog for each of the other canonical “clock genes.”

In foragers that typically have strong circadian rhythms, brain mRNA levels of amCry, but not amTim as in Drosophila, consistently oscillate with strong amplitude and a phase similar to amPeriod (amPer) under both light-dark and constant darkness illumination regimes.

In contrast to Drosophila, the honey bee amCYC protein contains a transactivation domain and its brain transcript levels oscillate at virtually an anti-phase to amPer, as it does in the mouse.


Link: http://genome.cshlp.org/content/16/11/1352


Beye, M., et al. 2006. Exceptionally high levels of recombination across the honey bee genome. Genome Res. 16: 1339-1344.

Main points:

  • The honey bee genetically split from the bumble bee 60 million years ago.

  • The honey bee has evolved the highest rate of recombination of any known animal (recombination is the process by which genetic material is physically mixed during sexual reproduction).

  • The honey bee has a small breeding population because the queen is the only reproductive female in the colony.

  • The increased recombination rate boosts the genetic diversity in the honey bee population gene pool, which in turn speeds the evolution of more selectively advantageous traits.

    This could help slow the spread of parasites in colonies, for example, or provide a basis for task specialization, leading to an increase in social complexity, colony performance, and fitness.


The first draft of the honey bee genome sequence and improved genetic maps are utilized to analyze a genome displaying 10 times higher levels of recombination (19 cM/Mb) than previously analyzed genomes of higher eukaryotes. The exceptionally high recombination rate is distributed genome-wide, but varies by two orders of magnitude.

Analysis of chromosome, sequence, and gene parameters with respect to recombination showed that local recombination rate is associated with distance to the telomere, GC content, and the number of simple repeats as described for low-recombining genomes. Recombination rate does not decrease with chromosome size.



Robertson, H.M. and Wanner, K.W. 2006. The chemoreceptor superfamily in the honey bee, Apis mellifera: Expansion of the odorant, but not gustatory, receptor family. Genome Res.

  • Honey bee survival depends on their ability to detect floral scents and communicate via pheromones with other bees in the hive.

  • Discrimination among various chemical cues involves specific nerve cell receptors for smell (olfaction) and taste (gustation).

  • Drs. Hugh Robertson and Kevin Wanner  identify the complete repertoire of honey bee genetic receptors responsible for capturing these cues.


The honey bee genome sequence reveals a remarkable expansion of the insect odorant receptor (Or) family relative to the repertoires of the flies Drosophila melanogaster and Anopheles gambiae, which have 62 and 79 Ors respectively. A total of 170 Or genes were annotated in the bee, of which seven are pseudogenes.

These constitute five bee-specific subfamilies in an insect Or family tree, one of which has expanded to a total of 157 genes encoding proteins with 15%–99% amino acid identity. Most of the Or genes are in tandem arrays, including one with 60 genes.

This bee-specific expansion of the Or repertoire presumably underlies their remarkable olfactory abilities, including perception of several pheromone blends, kin recognition signals, and diverse floral odors.


Link: http://genome.cshlp.org/content/16/11/1395

Drapeau, M.D., Albert, S., Kucharski, R., Prusko, C., and Maleszka, R. 2006. Evolution of the Yellow/Major Royal Jelly Protein family and the emergence of social behavior in honeybees. Genome Res.

Main points:

  • Looks at honey bee genetics in relation to queens and royal jelly.

  • In honey bees, the queens are not of royal blood, but royal jelly: i.e. they are chosen by workers from the previous generation to perpetually receive royal jelly (which is a fed to the selected developing bees, and is a substance rich in proteins, lipids, vitamins, and other nutrients).
  • Approximately 90% of proteins in royal jelly are from the Major Royal Jelly Protein (MRJP) gene family.

  • Dr. Ryszard Maleszka used the honey bee genome sequence to perform a comprehensive analysis of the evolution, genomic organization, and presumed function of the MRJPs.
  • Maleszka’s team demonstrated that MRJP genes, found only in honey bees and closely related hymenopteran insects, were derived from an ancient family of genes in bacteria that produce Yellow proteins.

    The different proteins ultimately effect the physiology of the bee.


The genomic architecture underlying the evolution of insect social behavior is largely a mystery. Eusociality, defined by overlapping generations, parental brood care, and reproductive division of labor, has most commonly evolved in the Hymenopteran insects, including the honey bee Apis mellifera.

In this species, the Major Royal Jelly Protein (MRJP) family is required for all major aspects of eusocial behavior. Here, using data obtained from the A. mellifera genome sequencing project, we demonstrate that the MRJP family is encoded by nine genes arranged in an 60-kb tandem array.

Furthermore, the MRJP protein family appears to have evolved from a single progenitor gene that encodes a member of the ancient Yellow protein family.


Cho, S., et al. 2006. Evolution of the complementary sex-determination gene of honey bees: balancing selection and trans-species polymorphisms. Genome Res. 16: 1366-1375

Main points:

  • A honey bee’s sex is determined by the genotype of a single gene called csd (complementary sex determination).

  • Many csd gene variants are shared among different Asian and Western honey bee species, indicating a selective advantage for maintaining the different gene variants in the population—the phenomenon that geneticists call “balancing selection.”


The mechanism of sex determination varies substantively among evolutionary lineages. One important mode of genetic sex determination is haplodiploidy, which is used by ∼20% of all animal species, including >200,000 species of the entire insect order Hymenoptera.

In the honey bee Apis mellifera, a hymenopteran model organism, females are heterozygous at the csd (complementary sex determination) locus, whereas males are hemizygous (from unfertilized eggs).

Fertilized homozygotes develop into sterile males that are eaten before maturity. Because homozygotes have zero fitness and because common alleles are more likely than rare ones to form homozygotes, csd should be subject to strong over dominant selection and negative frequency-dependent selection.

Under these selective forces, together known as balancing selection, csd is expected to exhibit a high degree of intraspecific polymorphism, with long-lived alleles that may be even older than the species.


Link: http://genome.cshlp.org/content/16/11/1366


Other Research Papers On Honey Bee Genetics ....

Patterns of conservation and change in honey bee developmental genes.

Dearden, P.K., Wilson, M.J., Sablan, L., Osborne, P.W., Havler, M., McNaughton, E., Kimura, K., Milshina, N.V., Hasselmann, M., Gempe, T., Schioett, M., Brown, S.J., Elsik, C.G., Holland, P.W.H., Kadowaki, T., and Beye, M. 2006.  Genome Res. 16: 1376-1384.


The current insect genome sequencing projects provide an opportunity to extend studies of the evolution of developmental genes and pathways in insects.

In this paper we examine the conservation and divergence of genes and developmental processes between Drosophila and the honey bee; two holometabolous insects whose lineages separated ∼300 million years ago, by comparing the presence or absence of 308 Drosophila developmental genes in the honey bee.

Through examination of the presence or absence of genes involved in conserved pathways (cell signaling, axis formation, segmentation and homeobox transcription factors), we find that the vast majority of genes are conserved. Some genes involved in these processes are, however, missing in the honey bee.


Link: http://genome.cshlp.org/content/16/11/1376


Function and evolution of a gene family encoding odorant binding-like proteins in a social insect, the honey bee (Apis mellifera).

Forêt, S., and Maleszka, R. 2006.  Genome Res. 16: 1404-1413.


The remarkable olfactory power of insect species is thought to be generated by a combinatorial action of two large protein families, G protein-coupled olfactory receptors (ORs) and odorant binding proteins (OBPs).

In olfactory sensilla, OBPs deliver hydrophobic airborne molecules to ORs, but their expression in nonolfactory tissues suggests that they also may function as general carriers in other developmental and physiological processes.

Here we used bioinformatic and experimental approaches to characterize the OBP-like gene family in a highly social insect, the Western honey bee. Comparison with other insects shows that the honey bee has the smallest set of these genes, consisting of only 21 OBPs.

Link: http://genome.cshlp.org/content/16/11/1404

A highly divergent gene cluster in honey bees encodes a novel silk family.

Sutherland, T.D., Campbell, P.M., Weisman, S., Trueman, H.E., Sriskantha, A., Wanjura, W.J., and Haritos, V.S. 2006.  Genome Res. 16: 1414-1421


The pupal cocoon of the domesticated silk moth Bombyx mori is the best known and most extensively studied insect silk. It is not widely known that Apis mellifera larvae also produce silk. We have used a combination of genomic and proteomic techniques to identify four honey bee fiber genes (AmelFibroin1–4) and two silk-associated genes (AmelSA1 and 2).

The four fiber genes are small, comprise a single exon each, and are clustered on a short genomic region where the open reading frames are GC-rich amid low GC intergenic regions. The genes encode similar proteins that are highly helical and predicted to form unusually tight coiled coils.

Despite the similarity in size, structure, and composition of the encoded proteins, the genes have low primary sequence identity. We propose that the four fiber genes have arisen from gene duplication events but have subsequently diverged significantly.

Link: http://genome.cshlp.org/content/16/11/1414

Behaviour genetics of nest cleaning in honey bees. I. Responses of four inbred lines to disease-killed brood

By Walter C Rothenbuhler


Eleven colonies of honey bees representing four inbred lines were tested to learn their behaviour toward American foulbrood-killed larvae and pupae in their brood nests.

To set up the experiments, about 2,900 larvae were exposed to Bacillus larvae spores suspended in water, and 2,600 control larvae were treated with water alone.

All brood cells were observed, daily in most cases, for about two weeks, to learn whether or not the adult bees had removed the brood contained therein.

Link: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/


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