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Promiscuity Helps Survivial of Honey Bees: New Study Shows Genetic Diversity Important to Health of the Colony

By Zulai Serrano | Jun 18, 2013 11:02 AM EDT

Honey Bee
New study shows colony health dependent on genetic diversity. (Photo : Reuters)

A new study shows that genetic diversity is key for honey bees, as colonies are reportedly less likely to survive if the queen bee limits her number of mates.

North Carolina State University, the University of Maryland and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) led the research.

"We wanted to determine whether a colony's genetic diversity has an impact on its survival, and what that impact may be," Dr. David Tarpy, an associate professor of entomology at North Carolina State University and lead author of a paper describing the study, said in a press release. "We knew genetic diversity affected survival under controlled conditions, but wanted to see if it held true in the real world. And, if so, how much diversity is needed to significantly improve a colony's odds of surviving."

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According to the press release, Tarpy took genetic samples from 80 commercial colonies of honey bees in the eastern United States. The researchers also tracked the health of the colonies over the honey bees' "work season," which is a span of 10 months.

The study found the more mates a queen had, the higher the genetic diversity in the colony. Colonies where the queen reportedly mated at least seven times were 2.86 times more likely to survive the 10-month working season.

The press release stated that 48 percent of colonies with queens who had mated at least seven times were still alive at the end of the season. Only 17 percent of the less genetically diverse colonies survived.

"This study confirms that genetic diversity is enormously important in honey bee populations," Tarpy said. "And it also offers some guidance to beekeepers about breeding strategies that will help their colonies survive."

The research paper, "Genetic diversity affects colony survivorship in commercial honey bee colonies," was published online this month in the journal Naturwissenschaften

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