Research led by York University has shown that a species of honey-producing bee called the western honey bee (Apis mellifera) most likely originated in Asia, settling the hotly debated topic for decades. Until recently, it was believed that these bees had originated in Africa.
The study (Science Advances) found that the western honey bees expanded independently from Asia into Africa and Europe creating seven separate geographically and genetically distinct evolutionary lineages traceable back to Western Asia, a York University release says.
The research team sequenced 251 genomes from 18 subspecies from the honey bee’s native range and reconstructed the origin and pattern of dispersal of honey bees. The team found that an Asian origin – likely Western Asia – was strongly supported by genetics.
The study highlights several “hot spots” in the bee genome that allowed honey bees to adapt to new geographic areas. While the bee genome has more than 12,000 genes, only 145 of them had repeated signatures of adaptation associated with the formation of all major honey bee lineages found today, the release says.
The sequencing of these bees also led to the discovery of two distinct lineages, one in Egypt and another in Madagascar.
The researchers hope their study finally lays to the rest the question of where the western honey bee came from so future research can further explore how they adapted to different climates and geographic areas.
The western honey bee is used for crop pollination and honey production throughout most of the world, and has a remarkable capacity for surviving in vastly different environments – from tropical rainforest, to arid environments, to temperate regions with cold winters. It is native to Africa, Europe and Asia.