Researchers find honey bee gene that causes virgin birth

Cape honey bees, a subspecies from South Africa, can asexually produce daughters. Photo by Discott/Wikimedia Commons
Cape honey bees, a subspecies from South Africa, can asexually produce daughters. Photo by Discott/Wikimedia Commons

May 7 (UPI) -- The Cape honey bee, a subspecies found along the southern coast of South Africa, reproduces without having sex. Now, scientists have identified the gene responsible for the bee's virgin births.

Scientists found the gene, named GB45239, on the bee's eleventh chromosome. The discovery, detailed this week in the journal Current Biology, ends a 30-year search for the virgin birth gene.


Analysis of the novel gene could help scientists gain new insights into the evolution of different reproductive strategies.

"Sex is a weird way to reproduce and yet it is the most common form of reproduction for animals and plants on the planet," study co-author Benjamin Oldroyd, professor of behavioral genetics at the University of Sydney in Australia, said in a news release. "It's a major biological mystery why there is so much sex going on and it doesn't make evolutionary sense. Asexuality is a much more efficient way to reproduce, and every now and then we see a species revert to it."

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The presence of GB45239 allows Cape honey bee workers to lay eggs that produce only females. In an bee society capable of asexual reproduction, males are mostly useless. But even without the drama of mating, Cape honey bee colonies are often full of strife.


"Cape workers can become genetically reincarnated as a female queen and that prospect changes everything," Oldroyd said. "Instead of being a cooperative society, Cape honey bee colonies are riven with conflict because any worker can be genetically reincarnated as the next queen. When a colony loses its queen the workers fight and compete to be the mother of the next queen."

The Cape bee, Apis mellifera capensis, is a subspecies of the western honey bee. The ability to asexually birth daughters -- known as "thelytokous parthenogenesis" -- isn't the only trait that sets them apart from their African relatives.

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Cape bee workers boast larger and more easily activated ovaries capable of producing queen pheromones. This attribute allows the subspecies to use what's called social parasitism to invade foreign colonies, reproduce and persuade the host bees to feed their larvae. Cape bees and their social parasitism are responsible for the loss of 10,000 commercial honey bee colonies in South Africa every year.

If scientists can find a way to manipulate GB45239, to turn on and off the thelytokous parthenogenesis gene, the method could be used to combat a variety of asexually reproducing pest species.

"If we could control a switch that allows animals to reproduce asexually, that would have important applications in agriculture, biotechnology and many other fields," Oldroyd said.

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