The key to saving the honeybees might be in their genes.
And specifically, the genes that make them more hygienic.
That’s according to a new study published in the journal Genome Biology and Evolution, which found that honeybees have “a minimum of 73 genes associated with hygienic behavior.” Those that have the gene are prone to clean the colony by removing sick or dead bees that may carry diseases that lead to colony collapse disorder.
The Environmental Protection Agency describes colony collapse disorder as “when the majority of worker bees in a colony disappear and leave behind a queen, plenty of food and a few nurse bees to care for the remaining immature bees and the queen.”
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Professor Amro Zayed — a bee expert from York University, which helped conduct the study — said the research flips conventional wisdom on its head.
“Instead of spending a lot of time in the field measuring the hygienic behavior of colonies, we can now try breeding bees with these genetic mutations that predict hygienic behavior,” Zayed said, according to ScienceDaily.
Colony collapse disorder has been linked to the varroa mite and other diseases, which may spread if ill members of the colony remain near otherwise-healthy bees. About 60 percent of colony deaths in winter were attributed to colony collapse disorder in 2008, according to the EPA, but that number was almost cut in half by 2013.
While the rate of colony collapse disorder appears to be dwindling, the rate of colony losses still remains a problem, researchers wrote in The Conversation.
“It is clear that bees in the United States are still struggling,” they wrote. “Beekeepers can tolerate up to 15% losses of colonies over winter, but the US is massively above this threshold, having lost 28.1% of colonies over the 2015-16 winter.”
The researchers were able to determine the hygienic genes by studying three colonies — two that had higher levels of cleanliness, and another that had average cleanliness, the study says.
The goal is to help beekeepers across the globe promote cleanliness in their own honeybee populations by selectively breeding those with the hygienic genes, the study says.
“Now that we have identified these candidate genes, we can look for the mechanisms of hygienic behavior and begin to develop tools for beekeepers to breed healthier colonies,” Brock Harpur, from Purdue University, said, according to ScienceDaily.