Breeding a better honeybee is the goal of U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists who are using recently created genomic data to speed their search for disease resistance and other traits.

Scientists with USDA's Agricultural Research Service are exploiting an initial draft of the honeybee genome announced earlier this month by the Baylor College of Medicine and U.S. National Institutes of Health, which co-funded the mapping project with ARS.

The scientists' aim is to secure the honeybee's role as the chief insect pollinator of more than 90 different crops, including almonds, blueberries, melons and alfalfa. Determining the position and order of genes residing on the insect's DNA — about one tenth the size of the human genome — provides bee researchers with a shortcut to traits that can otherwise be difficult to identify.

“This research puts the honeybee center stage as the first agricultural animal that's been fully sequenced,” said Joseph Jen, USDA undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics. “As an organism whose social order rivals our own in many ways, the honeybee will serve as a natural system for further agricultural studies.”

ARS researchers Katherine Aronstein at Weslaco, Texas, and Jay Evans at Beltsville, Md., two co-authors of the proposal to sequence honeybees, are especially interested in defining the responses of bees to a range of diseases. Their long-term goal is to characterize genes that are key in the honeybee immune response, then use data from these genes to improve both bee breeding and management.

Tucson center

ARS also conducts bee research at its Carl Hayden Bee Research Center at Tucson, Ariz., and its Honeybee Breeding, Genetics and Physiology

Research Unit at Baton Rouge, La., which also is involved in studies of the germplasm and genetics of honeybees. Enhanced knowledge of the honeybee genome will be of value to all aspects of the agency's bee research.

“Currently, we know of a handful of honeybee genes that are activated in response to disease,” said Kevin Hackett, who leads the ARS National Program for Bees and Pollination. “We're also now discovering how the products of these genes are involved with keeping bees healthy.”