Researchers at a Sydney university have discovered how some female bees have managed to reproduce despite never doing the deed with another.
The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Sydney and published in Current Biology, found a single gene had allowed the South African Cape honey bee to reproduce asexually — something researchers have been trying to understand for decades.
The culprit is gene GB45239, found on chromosome 11. It allowed these so-called ‘virgin’ bees to give birth to little baby bees without needing a male in a process called “thelytokous parthenogenesis” — a discovery that could shatter our countless ‘birds and the bees’ jokes.
As the study outlines, male bees are essentially useless so the gene allows workers bees to produce female offspring who get the work done.
According to one of the paper’s authors, Professor Benjamin Oldroyd, weeding out those useless male bees does lead to a few problems.
“Instead of being a cooperative society, Cape honey bee colonies are riven with conflict because any worker can be genetically reincarnated as the next queen,” Professor Oldroyd said in the study’s announcement.
“When a colony loses its queen the workers fight and compete to be the mother of the next queen.”
But the asexuality of this particular bee — the only one known to have the gene — isn’t the strangest process here. According to Professor Oldroyd, it’s actually the whole idea of sex.
“Sex is a weird way to reproduce and yet it is the most common form of reproduction for animals and plants on the planet,” Professor Oldroyd said in the media release.
“It’s a major biological mystery why there is so much sex going on and it doesn’t make evolutionary sense. Asexuality is a much more efficient way to reproduce, and every now and then we see a species revert to it.”
While learning that female bee colonies can eliminate male bees from the reproduction process is a pretty fascinating insight, the discovery will lend itself to much larger theories of evolution.
The hope is that this discovery will help contribute to ideas on the origin of sex and animal societies.
“If we could control a switch that allows animals to reproduce asexually, that would have important applications in agriculture, biotechnology and many other fields,” Professor Oldroyd said in the media release.
“For instance, many pest ant species like fire ants are thelytokous, though unfortunately it seems to be a different gene to the one found in Capensis.”
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