Genetic Past, Present, and Future of the Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) in the United States of America

Thursday 18 March 2021

This week’s blog will continue and conclude the short series exploring the genetic past, present and future of the honey bee. Last week’s post covered the history of honey bee importation, distribution and management in the United States, and this week we will explore the connection of how these activities have worked to shape the genetics of honey bees. Keep reading to learn about how the honey bees we know today have come to be and maybe learn some new terminology for understanding honey bee genetics as well!

Speaking of learning, this is the last week of registration for ‘Course 1: The Very Beeginnings’ of our Fundamentals of Beekeeping certificate program. Make sure you get yourself registered ASAP if you are planning on joining us in our new COVID-friendly online beekeeper education program!

Genetic Past, Present, and Future of the Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) in the United States of America *

Importation of live honey bees and honey bee genetic material into North America has been continuous since 1622. As live honey bees, genetics from four of the five native lineages are integrated into American honey bee populations through queen breeding, natural swarming, and distribution of colonies across the USA. Honey bee genetics are also integrated into the American honey bee population through importation of germplasm from various honey bee subspecies and populations around the world. Germplasm is described as living tissue which contains essential information for the genetic makeup of a particular species or subspecies. The distinction between species and subspecies is explained from a reproductive standpoint, where individuals from different species are unable to successfully reproduce (e.g., a dog and a cat), and individuals from different subspecies – from within the same species – are able to successfully reproduce (e.g., a golden retriever and a poodle). If this distinction is made in honey bees, it means that subspecies of the Apis mellifera species are able to reproduce successfully and create new, genetically unique hybrid populations of honey bees. As honey bee management progresses, so does the genetic diversity and structure of honey bee populations in the United States.

A recent publication explored available genetic data to provide a better understanding of the genetic diversity, structure, and composition of honey bee populations across the USA. Unfortunately, genetic data collection for honey bees across the United States has been sporadic and inconsistent in terms of geographic areas and sample sizes. However, this data-limited exploration still suggests interesting results concerning the genetic diversity of honey bee populations across the USA today:

  • Seven honey bee subspecies – of the nine expected from of historic importation records – are present.
  • The two most common subspecies genetics are both from the C lineage (Italian honey bees and Carniolan honey bees).
  • Genetic diversity of honey bees in the USA is comparable to honey bee populations in their native range.
  • Genetic diversity of common commercial honey bee populations is comparable, if not greater, than European populations. However, considerations must be made for management intensity, sampling techniques, and genetic diversity declines in both locations due to Varroa mites.
  • There is genetic distinction between Western and Southeastern US honey bee populations, among populations from differing climates, and between mainland and island honey bee populations.
  • Feral honey bee populations are genetically distinct from other honey bee populations in some areas, however, are less genetically diverse.

The publication suggesting these results also suggests that more research is needed to provide a more complete and accurate genetic analysis of honey bee populations. Ongoing importation, distribution, and management of live honey bees and honey bee germplasm – along with natural swarming – are continuously altering the genetic diversity and population structure of honey bees. This highlights the need for ongoing examination of both honey bee history and genetics to better understand the genetic past, present and future of honey bees in the USA and beyond.

* Carpenter, M. H. & Harpur, B. A. (2021). Genetic past, present, and future of the honey bee (Apis mellifera) in the United States of America, Apidologie, full text available online.

Registration reminder for Course 1 of the Fundamentals of Beekeeping program – The Very Beeginnings

This week is the last chance to register for the first course of the new beekeeper training program provided by ATTTA in partnership with Dalhousie Extended Learning. This year’s program has been designed to follow current COVID-19 restrictions while also maximizing the interaction between ATTTA instructors and participants through virtual live lessons and discussion sessions. It has been a challenge to develop a fully online course to cover topics that are quite practical and hands-on in nature, but these challenges have been carefully considered and addressed to ensure participants receive only the highest standard of beekeeper education specific to the Maritime region. Do not miss your chance to be a part of this new and exciting beekeeper education program. Registration for Course 1: The Very Beeginnings closes this week! Program, course, and registration details are all on the Fundamentals of Beekeeping program website

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