Researchers have published the genome sequence and analysis of the western honeybee, Apis mellifera [Honeybee Sequencing Consortium (2006) Nature 443, 931-949]. This is the third insect genome to be sequenced, after the fruit fly and the mosquito. Its genome is more similar to the human genome than to the other insects, although it is only 9% of the size. But it has over 10,000 genes, nearly half of those in the human. Not surprisingly, the honeybee has more genes for olfactory receptors than the other insects and has novel genes for nectar and pollen utilisation.

Sequencing the honeybee is seen as important as it is, according to the authors, a key model for social behaviour and essential to global ecology through pollination. In agricultural terms honeybees are vital, pollinating 90 major commercial crops in North America alone. [Check E (2006) Nature 443, 893]. However, pollinating species are in danger; the honeybee population has declined 30% over the past 20 years. Having the genome sequence should enable scientists to breed new strains of honeybee, for example, that are resistant to the varroa mite, a parasite that can destroy an entire bee colony.

From the human health and societal perspectives, the honeybee will serve as a model organism for the study of issues such as immunity, allergic reaction, antibiotic resistance, mental health, longevity, social instincts and behavioural traits [see NIH press release]. The honeybees social behaviour is especially intriguing, as it has parallels in everyday human activities. Honeybees are an ideal model organism in which to study social biology, say scientists [see Check]. Investigators will be interested in finding out whether the mechanisms that control bee behaviour can tell us more about human behaviour.

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