Honey Bee Appearance and Behavior

UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences

UF/IFAS Communications

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Bee appearance and behavior may be related, genetic study reveals

By: Tory Moore, 352-273-3566, torymoore@ufl.edu


·       A new UF/IFAS study analyzed the genetics of two honey bee subspecies considered potentially harmful to U.S. honey bee colonies.

·       The findings reveal which genetic traits contribute to the appearance of these bees and their unwanted behavior.

·       The study will be used to help researchers understand how traits, characteristics and color impact behavior.


Recently discovered genetic knowledge of two nuisance western honey bee subspecies will help commercial and hobby beekeepers.

A new UF/IFAS study identified genetic characteristics relevant to the production and behavioral attributes of these two key bee subspecies. For example, researchers found Cape bees to be significantly darker than Africanized bees. This dark coloring could be genetically correlated to their undesired behavior.

Both subspecies are undesired in the United States. The first, the “killer bee” or “Africanized honey bee,” known scientifically as A.m. scutellata, is a light-colored bee known for its territorial and defensive nature. This subspecies was taken from its native habitat in South Africa to Brazil in the 1950’s. There, it hybridized with the European bee subspecies kept by Brazilian beekeepers, and then moved into the U.S. A.m. scutellata are considered invasive bees and can take over colonies of managed honey bees, which can lower profits for beekeepers. They also are known for their heightened defensive behavior.

The second subspecies studied, the “cape honey bee,” known scientifically as A.m. capensis, presents a slew of problems to beekeepers. These bees are more docile but are more likely than African honey bees to take over hives. Cape bees are considered social parasites. Unlike other honey bee subspecies, cape worker bees can clone themselves, producing female eggs without first mating. These clones can take over a hive. These workers cannot reproduce at the same rate as a traditional queen and the colony will eventually dwindle and collapse, a phenomenon coined “capensis calamity.”

“More amazing than the cape bee worker’s ability to clone itself is the rate at which it can take over other colonies,” said Jamie Ellis, UF/IFAS professor. “We are working to ensure these bees do not make their way to the United States because in most cases, when these bees take over a colony, the colony is doomed.”

Genetic studies can be used to understand “why the way things are” for an organism. In this case, researchers sought to understand what genetic traits contribute to the appearance of these bees and their behavior. Using data collected from South African bees from a previous USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service funded study in 2013 and 2014, scientists sought to understand what genes are responsible for the physical characteristics of these subspecies.

“We found really interesting variations in the genes of these bees that can help explain why they look and behave differently,” said Laura Patterson Rosa, UF/IFAS graduate student and co-lead author of the study.

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