The Buzz on Bees

Scientists map the genes of the honeybee, a key agricultural pollinator whose numbers are plummeting

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We don't give bees much thought unless they're terrorizing us at a picnic, but they're exquisitely complex creatures. Nature and Science reported last week that the genome of the honeybee has been mapped, making it only the fourth bug to be so sequenced. Researchers have already begun studying that genetic blueprint, providing new insights into our most valuable insect--and new strategies to save it from extinction.

Why bees are in danger

Over the past 50 years, the honeybee population in the U.S. has been cut in half. Here are some reasons:

1 THE VARROA MITE A tiny killer first detected in the U.S. in 1987, the mite attacks honeybee adults and larvae, wiping out a generation of young bees before they hatch

2 TRACHEAL MITES First spotted in the U.S. in 1984, tracheal mites attack the respiratory system of adult bees and can kill an entire hive in a matter of hours

3 PESTICIDES The wax in beehives is a natural sink for airborne toxins, and the relatively weak bee immune system is no match for such concentrations of man-made poisons

What we stand to lose

Honeybees are responsible for up to 30%* of food in the U.S. diet that relies on pollination--and that includes alfalfa-fed beef •ORANGES 17.8 billion lbs. •GRAPES 15.7 billion lbs. •APPLES 9.9 billion lbs. •WATERMELONS 3.8 billion lbs. •CUCUMBERS 2.2 billion lbs. •ALMONDS 915 million lbs. •SQUASH 815 million lbs. •CHERRIES (sweet)  502 million lbs. •HONEY 175 million lbs. *2005 production

Inside the honeybee

It's not easy to build a bee, as new insights into its genes and anatomy are revealing

Brain Smaller than the period at the end of a sentence, the bee brain owes its versatility to perhaps 200 polypeptides that drive behavior. At least 36 genes produce those chemicals

Pathogen resistance The bee's genes do not give it a very powerful immune system, surprising in so communal a species. The bee has yet undiscovered ways of staying healthy

Royal jelly Adult bees secrete this protein mix, and all young bees are fed a portion of it. But an exclusive diet of royal jelly can transform an ordinary bee into an egg-laying queen

Outer body The exterior of the bee is not particularly thick, a genetic adaptation that probably arose as a result of hive living, which keeps bees safer than other, more solitary insects

Dull taste Bees are poorly equipped with taste genes, another likely result of the hive, since anything one bee eats has probably been proved safe by another

Stinger When deployed, it is left in the victim; the bee dies soon after, but the sac pumps poison for up to 20 min.

Sharp smell The new genome studies have located the genes that give the bee its acute sense of smell. Smell is vital in an insect that uses pheromones both to communicate locations and to indicate rank

Pollen As bees collect pollen for food, they also act as sex workers, scattering stray grains among male and female flower parts, allowing the plants to reproduce Compound eyes (2) Simple eyes (3) Antennae THORAX HEAD ABDOMEN Wax secretion Nerve center Poison sac Hindgut Pollen basket Honey stomach Midgut Heart

The social bug

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