The number and diversity of male partners a queen honeybee has could help to protect her children from disease.
According to studies by University of Leeds scientists, who are investigating possible causes of the widespread increase in bee deaths seen around the world.
The researchers are working on the theory that the reason some colonies are wiped out while others remain healthy could be down the genetic diversities of the hives.
Dr Bill Hughes, from the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds, says: "By making sure queens mate with enough genetically variable males, we may be able to boost resistance levels and so protect our honeybee populations from disease attacks like the ones we have seen hitting the US."
One possibility is that the loss of honeybees means that the number and variety of potential mates for a queen is becoming too low to maintain genetic diversity and therefore disease resistant populations.
Says Dr Hughes: "Given the choice, queen honeybees will typically mate with up to 12 different male partners in a matter of minutes and some with over 20. The record is the giant Asian honeybee whose queens normally mate with well over 40 males - and in one case was found to have mated with over a hundred."
The Leeds scientists will be examining the question of genetic resistance by studying honeybee reactions to a common fungus parasite called Chalkbrood, under carefully controlled laboratory conditions.
The fungus, already found in the majority of UK hives, infects and 'eats' larvae, giving them a chalky appearance. Individual larvae die but the parasite rarely kills the whole colony.
In 2008, US average losses of honeybee colonies were 35%, with some beekeepers losing 90% of their colonies. A contributing factor to these high levels of honeybee deaths may have been a virus. However the same virus has been found in other countries yet does not seem to cause the same problems.
Dr Hughes and his team think infections by hidden parasites in genetically susceptible bees may be combining with other factors to produce a lethal 'perfect storm' which overwhelms their defences.
Honeybee survival is vital to the protection of our food supplies because they pollinate up to a third of the food we grow in the UK.
The project, which has received just under £500,000 in funding from the Natural Environment Research Council, is due last for three years. Collaborators include the UK Government's National Bee Unit based near York and the University of Copenhagen.
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Notes for editors
- Dr Bill Hughes is a Lecturer at the Institute of Integrative and Comparative Biology in the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds. The key theme of his work is evolutionary biology, looking at models of social, symbiotic and sexual relationships in insect species. In 2008, he was awarded a Philip Leverhulme Prize in Zoology, for scholars under the age of 36 who are judged to be outstanding in their field, with both a record of achievement and strong promise for the future.
- The Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds is one of the largest in the UK, with over 150 academic staff and over 400 postdoctoral fellows and postgraduate students. The Faculty is ranked 4th in the UK (Nature Journal, 457 (2009) doi:10.1038/457013a) based on results of the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). The RAE feedback noted that "virtually all outputs were assessed as being recognized internationally, with many (60%) being internationally excellent or world-leading" in quality. The Faculty's research grant portfolio totals some £60M and funders include charities, research councils, the European Union and industry. http://www.fbs.leeds.ac.uk/
- The 2008 Research Assessment Exercise showed the University of Leeds to be the UK's eighth biggest research powerhouse. The University is one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. The University's vision is to secure a place among the world's top 50 by 2015. http://www.leeds.ac.uk/
- The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) funds world-class science, in universities and its own research centres, that increases knowledge and understanding of the natural world. It is tackling major environmental issues such as climate change, biodiversity and natural hazards. NERC receives around £400 million a year from the government's science budget, which is used to provide independent research and training in the environmental sciences. http://www.nerc.ac.uk/