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Why promiscuous queens produce healthier honeybee colonies answered

Washington, Tue, 13 Mar 2012 ANI

Washington, March 13 (ANI): Revealing the makeup of the microscopic life found inside the guts, on the bodies, and in the food of honeybees, researchers have shed light on the link between genetic diversity and healthier colonies of these insects.


For the first time, scientists discovered that genetically diverse populations of worker bees, a result of the highly promiscuous mating behaviour of queens, benefited from diverse symbiotic microbial communities, reduced loads of bacteria from pathogenic groups, and more bacteria related to helpful probiotic species-famous for their use by humans to ferment food.


The novel study provides the first major insight into how honeybee colony health could be improved by diversity.


The dramatic disappearance of honey bee colonies in recent years has led to growing interest in studying unknown aspects of this important pollinator, in an effort to understand what might be done to help save them.


According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is responsible in part for the loss of 30 percent or more of the U.S. honey bee population in every year since 2007.


The continued loss of honey bees, which pollinate more than 400 crops worldwide, contribute to about a third of our diet, and add an estimated 15 billion dollars in value to the country's food supplies-could have devastating effects.


While the causes of the deadly disorder remain a mystery, researchers like Heather Mattila, a leading honey bee ecologist at Wellesley College, have long observed that a high level of genetic diversity within a colony-which occurs when a queen bee mates with multiple males-improves the colony's overall health and productivity, though how colony members produce this effect was largely unknown.


Led by Mattila and Irene L.G. Newton, a microbiologist at Indiana University, the research team compared two groups of honeybee colonies. The first group consisted of genetically diverse populations, produced by promiscuous queen bees that had been inseminated by different mixes of 15 male bees.


The second group of colonies was genetically uniform, comprised of offspring from queens mated with a single male each. Using 16S rRNA pyrosequencing, an advanced molecular technique that had never before been used to study active bacteria in honeybees, the scientists were able to identify and compare bacteria across the colonies. The results were astonishing.


The researchers found that diverse honeybee colonies showed a significantly greater variety of active bacterial species with 1,105 species, while only 781 species were found in uniform worker populations. Furthermore, active bacteria from genetically uniform colonies consisted of 127percent more potential pathogens, while diverse colonies had 40 percent more potentially beneficial bacteria.


The team made another surprising discovery: four bacteria known to aid in food processing in other animals dominated bacterial communities in colonies, many of which had never been reported in honey bee colonies. Researchers identified Succinivibrionaceae, a group of fermenters in animals like cows; Oenococcus, which are used by humans to ferment wine; Paralactobacillus, used to ferment food; and Bifidobacterium, which is found in yogurt.


"We've never known how healthier bees are generated by genetic diversity, but this study provides strong clues," said Mattila.


"Our findings suggest that genetically diverse honey bees have the advantage of broader microbial communities, which may be key to improving colony health and nutrition-and to understanding factors that can mitigate honey bee decline," she added.


Newton explained the role these microbes may play, "We found that genetically diverse colonies have a more diverse, healthful, active bacterial community. Conversely, genetically uniform colonies had a higher activity of potential plant and animal pathogens in their digestive tracts."


The discoveries are important because honeybees, like humans and other animals, depend on the helpful communities of bacteria that live within their guts.


In honey bees, active bacteria serve a critical function - they aid in the transformation of pollen collected by worker bees into "bee bread," a nutritious food that can be stored for long periods in colonies and provides honey bees with most of their essential nutrients. Most researchers believe that poor nutrition has hindered the ability of colonies to defend themselves against health problems, such as CCD.


Mattila, who has been investigating the benefits of genetic diversity in honeybees for seven years, was thrilled by these findings, which were made possible by incorporating Newton's microbial expertise into the study.


"It is our first insight into a means by which colony health could be improved by diversity."


She added, "It shows one of the many ways that the function of a honey bee colony is enhanced when a queen mates promiscuously, which is an unusual behaviour for social insects. Most bees, ants, and wasp queens mate singly and produce colonies of closely related, single family workers. Honey bee queens are different in this regard, and this behaviour has resulted in extremely productive colonies that dominate their landscape."


Mattila's earlier research had found that genetically diverse honey bee colonies are more productive, in part because their members forage at higher rates and more often use sophisticated communication methods, including waggle dancing, to direct nest mates to food. (ANI)


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