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Complicated critters

(article, Caroline Cummins)

Beekeepers, farmers, and scientists have known for years that honey bees are more than just stripey little things that buzz and sting. On a heavily agricultural planet, honey bees are responsible for pollinating a third of the world’s crops. In North America, they get trucked around from south to north, following the bloom of orange trees, almond groves, pear orchards, and more. No honey bees means not much at the grocery store.

And those whose lives revolve around honey bees have also known, for more than two decades, that Apis mellifera is having a tough time. Pesticides, parasites, disease (including the latest, called Colony Collapse Disorder), and turf wars with Africanized honey bees have wiped out many of the continent’s honey bees, resulting in lower crop yields and higher prices at the supermarket. Beleaguered beekeepers are earning record-high rental rates for their hives, but they have far fewer bees to do the work — and they never know how many hives will survive each winter.

But scientists have been raising the honey bee’s profile with an ambitious project: mapping its genome. Not only does the honey bee provide us with food, but now it’s the potential source of information on such human health issues as “immunity, allergic reaction, antibiotic resistance, development, mental health, longevity and diseases of the X chromosome.” Busy bees, indeed. 

The results of the mapping were announced in late October, “finding that (the honey-bee) genome is more similar to humans than any insect sequenced thus far.” The honey bee is the third insect, after the mosquito and the fruit fly, to have its DNA sequenced and analyzed. Maybe, since we’re practically kissing cousins, we’ll figure out ways to keep the honey bee hanging around.