WASHINGTON, June 26, 2013 - May Berenbaum of the University of Illinois’ Department of Entomology spoke to Hill staffers recently on the benefits that mapping the bee genome are offering in the investigation of reduced bee populations.
The presentation and discussion ‑ part of National Pollinator Week and hosted by the National Coalition for Food and Agricultural Research’s (C-FAR) Hill Seminars Series last week ‑ addressed the importance of the honey bee species in U.S. agriculture and likely causes of recent widespread declines in its population.
Berenbaum said honey bees contribute to 35 percent of the world’s agriculture and an estimated $20 billion worth of crop production in the United States each year. More than 90 crops are dependent on pollination from the honey bee and “that’s a lot to put on the little tiny backs of this one species,” she said.
The complete sequence of the honey bee genome was published in 2006. The timing coincided with the first reports of unprecedented bee losses associated with the phenomenon now known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).
Although the mystery of CCD remains unsolved, the availability of the bee genome has transformed research on stresses experienced by honey bees, providing new insights and tools for investigating bee health, Berenbaum said.
CCD, characterized by bees abandoning their hive and queen, is “a very disturbing phenomenon,” Berenbaum said. She noted that the nation’s almond crop alone needs half of the U.S. honey bee population for pollination during two weeks in February each year.
“CCD is essentially a collection of symptoms,” Berenbaum said. “So to find any kind of genetic predictor is a powerful tool in itself.”
The bee genome helped provide the identification of many bee pathogens and the identification of predictive markers and potential molecular diagnostics for CCD, Berenbaum said.
Notably, the genome facilitated the identification of genes that provide the ability for bees to metabolize pesticides used by beekeepers to control the parasitic varroa mite.
Berenbaum supports reintroducing other native bee species especially suited to live in greenhouse growing environments or pollinate certain crops.
“We never should have been depending on one species - it’s not a good strategy,” she said.
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