We tend to be partial to Apis mellifera, but let’s not forget about the other pollinating bee species. We’ve known for a while that bumble bees can pollinate some crops better than honey bees – tomatoes, blueberries, cranberries, to name a few – so there’s some demand for bumble bee nests for pollination. But despite this attention at the commercial scale, we still know relatively little about how these bees operate. Last year, a huge team of researchers published the sequences of two different bumble bee genomes (B. terrestris and B. impatiens, also known as the buff-tailed and Eastern bumble bee, respectively), which has been a big step towards understanding more about them.

Approximate native global distribution of B. impatiens and B. terrestris.

The genome itself is the ‘life code’ of an organism. It contains the instructions to build all the different parts – the neurons, muscles, eyes, etc. – all encoded as a chemical language. In many ways, it really is a language: think of French, English and Swahili. All three use the same letters, just arranged in different combinations to form words. French and English are closely related, with some of the words being identical and many more sounding similar, whereas almost everything in Swahili sounds completely different. The genome only has 4 letters (they are really chemicals, but we abbreviate them as “A, T, G and C”) rather than 26, but the basic idea is the same – the letters are arranged differently in different species, but the more similar the patterns are, the more closely related the species.

There are a lot of similarities between the bumble bees’ genomes and the honey bee. For example, they both have very few genes to help with detoxification after exposure to chemicals – perhaps one general disadvantage bees have when dealing with pesticides compared to other insects. But I think one of the most useful lessons from comparing these species is that since so many of the genes are similar between Bombus and Apis, a lot of what we’ve learned about keeping honey bees healthy can also be extended to bumble bees and maybe even other native pollinators. There are, of course, some areas where the species differ quite a lot (for example, the paper shows that bumble bees have a more sophisticated sense of taste whereas honey bees have a more advanced sense of smell) but in general, the honey bee is turning out to be a pretty good model system for studying bees as a whole – just one more reason why we should continue to support research on them.

This article appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of Bee Scene.