Scientists solve genetic mystery about bee’s lone female reproduction

Scientists at the University of Sydney have carried out a genetic study of a particular condition of a cape bee living in Cape Town, South Africa, which has solved the mystery of a gene in which lone females reproduce. The findings not only answer historical questions that have plagued people for decades, but also have potential implications for controlling pests in other species. Apis mellifera capensis are known to live in a slightly different way than other subspecies of bees.

Scientists solve genetic mystery about bee's lone female reproduction

(From: University of Sydney)

On the one hand, worker bees have larger ovaries that produce the bee king pheromone to maintain its reproductive advantage. When invading and breeding other bees, the parasitic worker bee is forced to feed its larvae.

The study found that cape bees were able to selectively produce female bees by controlling spawning through a gene. Although unique at first glance, this can also be problematic.

Professor Benjamin Oldroyd, of the University of Sydney, said: “Because any worker bee can be genetically the new bee king, the Cape Bee population is vulnerable to conflict and division rather than maintaining a high degree of social co-operation as other bee colonies.”

So after losing the bee king in a swarm, the worker bee who wants to become the new bee king begins to compete fiercely. This asexual form of female offspring is known as “lone female reproduction”, which scientists learned a month ago.

But it wasn’t until the birth of advanced genomic tools that scientists were able to delve into why. The University of Sydney team, led by Benjamin Oldroyd, is understood to have pinpointed the GB45239 gene that controls the reproductive of lone females.

The research is heartening for the team, which has been searching for the gene for the past 30 years. Now that we know it’s on chromosome 11 of the Cape Hornet, we’ve solved a puzzle that has plagued the academic community for decades.

Looking ahead, it hopes to learn more about how the gene actually works, to find ways to turn it on or off for different purposes, and even to provide novel solutions for pest control such as fire ants.

Details of the study have been published in the recent lys in the journal Current Biology.

Originally published as “A Single Gene Causes Thelytokous Parthenogenesis, the Defining Feature scape of the Cape Honeybee Apis mellifera Capensis.”