Home Animals Wild Life Researchers Discover a Gene in Honey Bees That Causes Virgin Birth

Researchers Discover a Gene in Honey Bees That Causes Virgin Birth

Reversions to asexual reproduction are rare in nature. Asexual birth, in the Cape honey bee, may be the first time that the genetic basis of such a phenomenon has been discovered. In a study published in Current Biology, researchers from the University of Sydney have identified the single gene that determines how Cape honey bees reproduce without ever having sex. One gene, GB45239 on chromosome 11, is responsible for virgin births.

Cape honey bee workers laying parasitic eggs on a queen cell. (Image: Benjamin Oldroyd)
Cape honey bee workers laying parasitic eggs on a queen cell. (Image: Benjamin Oldroyd)

Professor Benjamin Oldroyd, in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences, said in a statement:

Behavioral geneticist Professor Oldroyd said:

Masses of parasitic eggs laid by parasites in a dying colony. (Image: Benjamin Oldroyd)

In the Cape honey bee, found in South Africa, the gene has allowed worker bees to lay eggs that only produce females instead of the normal males that other honey bees do.  Professor Oldroyd added:

But it also causes problems, according to Professor Oldroyd:

The ability to produce daughters asexually, known as “thelytokous parthenogenesis,” is restricted to a single subspecies inhabiting the Cape region of South Africa, the Cape honey bee, or Apis mellifera capensis. Several other traits distinguish the Cape honey bee from other honey bee subspecies. In particular, the ovaries of worker bees are larger and more readily activated, and they are able to produce queen pheromones, allowing them to assert reproductive dominance in a colony.

the sexual Capensis queen surrounded by her asexual workers The sexual Cape honey bee queen surrounded by her asexual workers. (Image: Benjamin Oldroyd)
The sexual Cape honey bee queen surrounded by her asexual workers. (Image: Benjamin Oldroyd)

These traits also lead to a propensity for social parasitism, a behavior where Cape bee workers invade foreign colonies, reproduce, and persuade the host colony workers to feed their larvae. Every year in South Africa, 10,000 colonies of commercial beehives die because of the social parasitic behavior of Cape honey bees. Professor Oldroyd said:

The existence of Cape bees with these characters has been known for over a hundred years, but it is only recently, using modern genomic tools, that we have been able to understand the actual gene that gives rise to these virgin births, according to Professor Oldroyd:

Perhaps the most exciting prospect arising from this study is the possibility of understanding how the gene actually works functionally. Professor Oldroyd concluded by saying:

Provided by: University of Sydney [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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Troy Oakes
Troy was born and raised in Australia and has always wanted to know why and how things work, which led him to his love for science. He is a professional photographer and enjoys taking pictures of Australia's beautiful landscapes. He is also a professional storm chaser where he currently lives in Hervey Bay, Australia.

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