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Mapping of genome brings swarm of interest in honeybees

A new era hailed on complex insect

LONDON -- Scientists have unraveled the genetic code of the honeybee, uncovering clues about its complex social behavior, heightened sense of smell, and African origins.

It is the third insect to have its genome mapped, joining the fruit fly and mosquito.

The honeybee, or Apis mellifera, evolved more slowly than the other insects but has more genes related to smell.

"In biology and biomedicine, honeybees are used to study many diverse areas, including allergic disease, development, gerontology, neuroscience, social behavior, and venom toxicology," said Gene Robinson, director of the University of Illinois Bee Research Facility and one of the leaders of the project.

"The honeybee genome project is ushering in a bright era of bee research for the benefit of agriculture, biological research, and human health," he added.

With its highly evolved social structure of tens of thousands of worker bees commanded by the queen bee, the honeybee genome could also improve the search for genes linked to social behavior.

But the consortium of scientists, who reported the findings in the journal Nature, said a comprehensive analysis of the honeybee and other species will be needed to understand its social life.

The queen has 10 times the lifespan of worker bees and lays up to 2,000 eggs a day. Honeybees display honed cognitive abilities and learn to associate a flower's color, shape, and scent with food, which increases their foraging ability.

The scientists who analyzed the genetic code have discovered the honeybee originated in Africa and spread to Europe in two ancient migrations. "The African bees' spread throughout the New World is a spectacular example of biological invasion," the scientists said in the Nature report.

The number of genes in honeybees related to smell outnumber those linked to taste. The insects also have fewer genes than the fruit fly or mosquito for immunity.

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