Honey Bee Genetics

A honey bee lineage consists of a queen, the sperm of several drones, and the worker and drone offspring of the queen’s mating efforts. A queen will mate with several drones during a mating flight and will store their sperm within her spermatheca. All sperm produced by a single drone are genetically identical. Within each honey bee lineage exist seven to 10 subgroups, identified as a group of bees fathered by the same drone’s sperm. Due to the identical nature of the drone’s sperm, female workers within a subgroup are three-quarters genetically identical.

Unlike most other animals, honey bee eggs hatch even if they have not been fertilized. Fertilized honey bee eggs with 32 chromosomes develop into female worker bees, while unfertilized honey bee eggs with 16 chromosomes develop into male drones through a process known as parthenogenesis. Chromosomes contain genes, and the position of each gene on a chromosome can dictate aspects of the honey bee, such as sex and pheromone production.

Diversity within honey bee populations allows for strength and provides humans with various types of honey, but the mechanics of bee reproduction were not understood by humans until the mid-1800s. At this time a beekeeper, L.L. Langstroth, developed a moveable frame within which to house, control and study honey bees. However, even these frames did not allow for easily controlled breeding. Humans were not able to effectively breed honey bees until instrumental insemination was introduced in the 1900s.