Image: Honeybee
Zachary Huang
A honeybee alights on an aster flower. Scientists say the number of bee genes related to smell outnumber those linked to taste.
updated 10/25/2006 8:51:03 PM ET 2006-10-26T00:51:03

Scientists have unraveled the genetic code of the honey bee, uncovering clues about its complex social behavior, heightened sense of smell and African origins.

It is the third insect to have its genome mapped, and joins the fruit fly and mosquito in the exclusive club.

The honeybee, or Apis mellifera, evolved more slowly than the other insects but has more genes related to smell.

"In biology and biomedicine, honeybees are used to study many diverse areas, including allergic disease, development, gerontology, neuroscience, social behavior and venom toxicology," said Gene Robinson, director of the University of Illinois Bee Research Facility and one of the leaders of the project.

"The honeybee genome project is ushering in a bright era of bee research for the benefit of agriculture, biological research and human health," he added.

With its highly evolved social structure of tens of thousands of worker bees commanded by the queen, the honeybee genome could also improve the search for genes linked to social behavior.

But the consortium of scientists, who reported the findings in the journal Nature, said a comprehensive analysis of the honeybee and other species will be needed to understand its social life.

The queen has 10 times the lifespan of workers and lays up to 2,000 eggs a day. Despite having tiny brains, honeybees display honed cognitive abilities and learn to associate a flower's color, shape and scent with food, which increases its foraging ability.

The scientists who analyzed the genetic code have discovered the honey bee originated in Africa and spread to Europe in two ancient migrations. "The African bees' spread throughout the New World is a spectacular example of biological invasion," the scientists said in the Nature report.

The number of genes in honeybees related to smell outnumber those linked to taste. The insects also have fewer genes than the fruitfly or mosquito for immunity.

Honeybees use pheromones, substances secreted by glands, to distinguish the gender, caste and age of other bees, according to the scientists.

"This DNA sequence is a major step towards answering a basic question of social evolution: At the genomic level, what does it take to engineer an advanced colonial insect?" Harvard University's Edward O. Wilson said in a commentary on the research.

Copyright 2012 Thomson Reuters. Click for restrictions.

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