Honey Bees Causing Blogging Collapse Disorder

You may have noticed I've been blogging rather lightly in recent weeks. That's because I start teaching an introductory course on beekeeping next Monday. It'll be a great class, I hope. But the preparation has cut into blogging time something fierce and will continue to do so through August.

In any case, while making lecture slides yesterday I ran into trouble locating a figure depicting the native range of Apis mellifera. You'd think someone would have posted one, somewhere. The western honey bee is the world's most economically important insect, introduced nearly everywhere where humans live, yet I couldn't find a map on the internet showing where it came from. Odd, considering there are several textbooks with such range maps.

So I made one up. Here it is:

i-82fae54cb7b0484ea09587e89c850cbe-Honey_Bee_Native_Range.jpg

Two things to note. First, Apis mellifera is not native to the Americas. This is to say, fear-mongering about imminent ecological collapse owing to declines in the honey bee population are rather over-wrought. It's a serious agricultural problem, mind you, but our native ecosystems are not so dependent on the imported honey bee.

Second, the western honey bee is not native to east Asia either. Another species, the closely related Apis cerana, fills that particular niche. When beekeepers brought A. mellifera to the region the two species mingled, exchanging pests and diseases. What the world picked up from the exchange was the single most destructive pest of the bee industry- the Varroa mite. It's a case study in the unintended consequences of mixing up the world's biota.

Anyway. Back to the bees.

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Well... its a little bit more complicated than that. There are a number of subspecies (races) of honey bees. Apis mellifera mellifera, the European honey bee is widely used in commerical bee keeping in the United States, and originates from Western Europe. There is the Italian honey bee, Apis mellifera liguistica, which is thought to be native to Southern Europe. The Russian honey bee, Apis mellifera caucasica, is thought to be the best subspecies in terms of varroa mite resistance, and some of the USDA bee labs are looking into that right now. I know Charlie has done some work with the subspecies, http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/314/5799/642 when he presented here last fall he had a really good slide on the locations of all the known subspecies. You should ask him for it, it is much more informative than just a blue blob. :-p

By John Shorter (not verified) on 09 Jun 2010 #permalink

Well, in the United States there definitely is a mixture of the different races, a melting pot.

By John Shorter (not verified) on 09 Jun 2010 #permalink

That's a great paper- I've read it several times now.

Everything is more complicated once you look at it. But this slide is for the introductory lecture of an intro level class. The same one where we talk about the difference between queens and workers and make sure everyone knows what pollen and nectar are. It's an overview.

We'll get into the details of intraspecific genetic variation and the relevance to beekeeping later on. For now, I wanted to show the extent of the nominal species. In any case, most of the subspecies that comprise the big blue blob are used for apiculture, at least locally.

Perhaps you could use subspecies and genetic variation as a prelude to discussion of the the African honey bee (Apis mellifera scutellata) and all that followed.

How many students have signed up for your class?

Do people ever use A. cerana instead of mellifera?

Bob: No, I'm afraid not. Else my tutors would surely have used it on me already. I'm sure this one could be modified a little, although throwing dirt at students might not make any difference.

Even Albert Einstein once said:
"If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live".