College of LAS « Illinois

Entomology and Chemistry

The Secret Life of Bees

Researchers use genome to solve honey bee mysteries.


The secret life of bees may not be so secret anymore, now that researchers have sequenced the honey bee genome. This makes the honey bee the fifth insect to have its complete set of genetic information sequenced. What's more, University of Illinois researchers in LAS already have been using the genome to solve a host of honey bee mysteries.

For example, LAS entomologist Charles Whitfield has discovered that "every honey bee alive today had a common ancestor in Africa." By studying bee DNA, researchers traced the movement of bee populations, discovering that the honey bee originated in Africa and then spread to Europe through two ancient migrations. The western and northern European subspecies were introduced to North America in 1622.

Meanwhile, another LAS entomologist, Hugh Robertson, used the honey bee genome to discover that honey bees have many more genes related to smell, compared to fruit flies or mosquitoes, but far fewer genes related to taste. Odor recognition is critical for honey bees, which use their sense of smell to find food, communicate, and identify kin.

In yet another study, Jonathan Sweedler, a chemistry professor in LAS, used the genome to detect and analyze neuropeptides that control activity in a bee's brain, which is not much larger than the period at the end of this sentence. Discovering how peptides operate in a bee's brain can help understand how they also work in human brains.

So why all of the attention on bees?

As the "premier pollinators on Earth," they play a vital role in our nation's economy and food supply, explains LAS entomologist Gene Robinson. They are also valuable as model research organisms.

"In biology and biomedicine," Robinson says, "honey bees are used to study many diverse areas, including allergic disease, development, gerontology, neuroscience, social behavior, and venom toxicology."

Fall/Winter 2006–07