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How genetics could help our honey bees

Scientists have been mapping the genetic make-up of bees and organisms living inside them to keep them safe from disease.

A close up image of some bees in a hive.

To celebrate World Bee Day on 20th May, we put together highlights of bee research conducted by scientists at The Roslin Institute.

Managed honey bees play a major role in food production through pollination, providing nearly half of the service to all insect-pollinated crops on Earth.

Decline of pollinators

It is estimated that 75% of all insect pollinators are in decline globally and their numbers have dropped by about one third in the past decade. This represents a major threat to food security.

Honey Bee decline in Europe and North America is not thought to have a single cause but is likely a combination of agricultural intensification, pesticide residue accumulation, new honey bee pests and diseases, suboptimal beekeeping practices and climate change.

The UK ‘black-bee’ subspecies

The genetic diversity of honey bee populations in the UK has undergone massive changes over the last century.

It had been assumed that the native UK ‘black-bee’ subspecies, A. m. mellifera, was extinct. This is now not thought to be the case and Roslin scientists, in collaboration with the group of Dr Alice Pinto from the Polytechnic Institute of Bragança in Portugal, have identified colonies of A. m. mellifera across Europe by using molecular techniques.

Keeping bees safe from disease

When DNA extracted from honey bees is sequenced, it isn’t just information on the genetic make-up of the bee that is obtained, but also of all the organisms living inside them. The composition of these beneficial bacteria, pests and pathogens is important to the wellbeing of bees and this approach can tell us a lot about the health status of the bees, and potentially identify new pests and diseases.

Roslin scientists, in a collaboration with Professor Mark Blaxter from Edinburgh University's School of Biological Sciences and Edinburgh, analysed the entire genetic make-up of honey bees in the UK. Their findings could help to safeguard native bee populations from the effects of infectious diseases through improved health monitoring.

We have created a platform that could revolutionise how we monitor threats to honey bees and maintain their health. The decreasing cost of DNA sequencing could potentially allow this type of analysis to become routine.

Dr Tim ReganThe Roslin Institute

With bees being so important, you can take the whole genome sequencing we’ve done, identify all the genetic variation in the population and start breeding bees to hold that variation. You can also start trying to link parts of DNA to various traits you want to breed into your bees. This is important to make sure we have strong bees that can adapt to diverse conditions.

Dr Mark BarnettThe Roslin Institute
Last summer the Easter Bush Campus Beekeepers collected a record of 144 lb (65 kg) of honey!
Last summer the Easter Bush Campus Beekeepers collected a record of 144 lb (65 kg) of honey!

The first paper was published in the journal Scientific Reports and the second in Nature Communications.

Easter Bush Campus Apiary

The Easter Bush Campus apiary was established in July 2015 and it is currently home to seven colonies of honey bees. Whilst its primary remit is to help support the research activities of Roslin scientists, it also contributes to enhancing pollination on the campus and surrounding area, and to the wellbeing of staff and students, allowing them to experience the peaceful practice of beekeeping. All new beekeepers attend a 3-day intensive beginners’ course held on campus each year. 

A number of the hives are fitted with electronic hive monitoring equipment so scientists and bee keepers can monitor the behaviour and performance of the hive remotely.

Participants at the citizen science beekeeping workshop.
Participants at the citizen science beekeeping workshop.

Engaging the public with bee science

Given the importance of raising awareness about this work, the team often speaks about bee science at public events and at Easter Bush Science Outreach Centre. They recently visited the maximum security Shotts prison as part of the “Cell Block Science” project.

They have also held a citizen science workshop with beekeepers, to train them in analysing the genetics of bees and to find out how beekeepers would like science to help honey bee health in Scotland.

** The Roslin Institute receives strategic investment funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and it is part of the University of Edinburgh’s Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies. **

Related Links

Scientific publications in Scientific Reports & Nature Communications

Gene study boosts bid to keep British bees safe from disease

Beekeeping citizen science

Dr Mark Barnett on the genetics of bees