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Varroa mite on a honey bee. Link to photo information
The varroa mite (visible on the bee, above) is a major threat to our honeybees. In Nature magazine ARS scientists discuss the bee's genomic sequence and how to to better combat bee mites and bee diseases. Click the image for more information about it.

Finding Out How Genes Govern Bees' Lives

By Alfredo Flores
October 25, 2006

Efforts by Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists and cooperators to sequence the honeybee genome are paying off, as researchers are learning more about how the honeybee's genes protect it against disease and control its behavior, among other traits.

Spearheaded by ARS scientists since 2003, the sequencing project is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health, in cooperation with the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. The latest findings in the sequencing effort are reported in today's edition of Nature.

Sequencing the honeybee genome gives researchers an invaluable tool for better understanding this essential pollinator of many of the world's important crops.

Jay Evans, an entomologist at the ARS Bee Laboratory in Beltsville, Md., has been working on the project along with a number of Beltsville colleagues, including entomologist Judy Chen, geneticist Anita Collins, research associate Laura Decanini and technician Dawn Lopez. Other ARS cooperators are molecular biologist Kate Aronstein from the ARS Honey Bee Research Unit in Weslaco, Texas, and Kevin Hackett, the ARS national program leader for research on bees and pollination.

With the genomic sequence of the honeybee, Apis mellifera, in hand, the team will be looking at how better bee-breeding and management practices might help bees fend off diseases such as American foulbrood, chalkbrood and mites, as well as produce bees with high honey production, pollination efficiency and winter hardiness.

The researchers think that by crossing bees from different genetic lines across the United States, they will be able to determine which genes help certain crossbred offspring survive longer than others when exposed to disease agents. They will test the disease resistance of offspring from their experimental crosses in a controlled environment, then use the results to guide breeding programs at the ARS Honey Bee Breeding, Genetics and Physiology Research Lab in Baton Rouge, La.

The ARS bee research team also has been using the genome to investigate bee management practices, honeybee nutrition and the production of healthy worker bees.

ARS is the USDA's chief scientific research agency.