Study: All the World's Honeybees Come From Africa

You can be stung in Rome, Moscow or Phoenix. But the honeybee is originally from Africa, scientists reported Wednesday.

By looking at variations in genetic markers from 341 bees, researchers found that the common honey bee, Apis mellifera, originated in Africa and migrated to Europe at least twice.

"The migrations resulted in two European populations that are geographically close, but genetically quite different," said lead study author Charles Whitfield of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "In fact, the two European populations are more related to honeybees in Africa than to each other."

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The researchers used simple variations in the bee DNA, called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), to figure out where the bees came from and what their relationships to one another were.

The researchers compared 1,136 markers, many more than had been available for previous studies. The vast number of markers allowed the scientists to decipher the bees' genetic information more precisely than ever before.

In a third expansion in the Americas, the European honeybee, introduced around 1622, was replaced by the African killer bee in 1956, the researchers write in the Oct. 27 issue of the journal Science.

"By studying variation in the honeybee genome, we can not only monitor the movement of these bees, we can also identify the genes that cause the variations — and that will allow us to better understand the differences," Whitfield said.

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