Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The origins of bees

Scientists have long believed that the honeybees you see flitting about your gardens and back yards originated in Asia. That’s not true says “Thrice out of Africa,” a major genetics study that UC Irvine evolutionary biologist Neil Tsutsui has published in the journal Science.

Tsutsui and colleagues say the honeybees we see here originated in Africa and twice migrated to Asia and Europe over millions of years. Then in the 1600s, Europeans brought various subspecies of honeybees to North and South America, where they have thrived, producing honey and playing a pivotal role in agricultural pollination.

Then something unfortunate happened in the 1950s, says Tsutsui.

Twenty-six queen bees – African killer bees, to be precise – escaped from a research site in Brazil and began to breed with more benign European bees, literally changing the genetic makeup of those animals. The African killer bees also began to migrate, and some have made it to parts of North America, including the American southwest and Orange County.

The killer bees aren’t widespread in number, Tsutsui says. But these bees are more aggressive than the species of honeybees we usually find in our back yards.

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Tsutsui says the intrusion of the African killer bees coming in “creates difficulties for all kinds of commercial beekeeping, including both pollination and honey production.

“When beekeepers have to contend with the Africanized honeybees they have to don more protective gear and are more likely to have colonies pack up and fly away.

“Now that we know a lot about their genetics, we can apply this knowledge to more accurately map out the distribution of killer bees in California.”

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