All World's Honeybees Out of Africa

Bees can sense a flower's electrical charge, which tells them if the flower's worth visiting. (Image credit: stock.xchng)

You can be stung in Rome, Moscow or Phoenix. But the honey bee is originally from Africa, scientists reported today.

By looking at variations in genetic markers from 341 bees, researchers found that the common honey bee, Apis mellifera, originated in Africa and migrated to Europe at least twice.

"The migrations resulted in two European populations that are geographically close, but genetically quite different," said lead study author Charles Whitfield from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "In fact, the two European populations are more related to honey bees in Africa than to each other."

The researchers used simple variations in the bee DNA, called single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP), to figure out where the bees came from and their relationship to one another.

The researchers compared 1,136 markers, many more than was available for previous studies. The vast number of markers allowed the scientists to decipher the bees genetic information more precisely than ever before.

In a third expansion in the Americas, the European honey bee, introduced around 1622, was replaced by the African killer bee in 1956, the researchers write in the Oct. 27 issue of the journal Science.

"By studying variation in the honey bee genome, we can not only monitor the movement of these bees, we can also identify the genes that cause the variations—and that will allow us to better understand the differences," Whitfield said.

Sara Goudarzi
Sara Goudarzi is a Brooklyn writer and poet and covers all that piques her curiosity, from cosmology to climate change to the intersection of art and science. Sara holds an M.A. from New York University, Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, and an M.S. from Rutgers University. She teaches writing at NYU and is at work on a first novel in which literature is garnished with science.