Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Sex with Strangers


Credit: Antagain/iStockphoto

By Emily Remnant & Ben Oldroyd

An invasive honey bee species is mating with local honey bees in Far North Queensland. What are the consequences for the Australian honey bee industry?

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We often define a species as a group of animals or plants that can mate and produce fertile offspring. But when a species becomes divided by a physical barrier, such as an emerging desert, the populations on either side of the barrier can diverge by natural selection and inbreeding until there are two new species.

What happens when two such related species are reunited? Will the males and females recognise each other and mate, and if they do, what happens to the offspring? An example of this kind of reunification of species has just occurred in Cairns, and the answers to these questions are instructive.

The western honey bee, Apis mellifera, is native to Africa and Europe. It has been domesticated for more than 6000 years and is now used throughout the world for honey production and crop pollination.

Its closest evolutionary relative is the eastern hive bee Apis cerana. It has also been domesticated for millennia, but until recently has been confined to its native range in Asia.

DNA evidence suggests that the last common ancestor of A. cerana and A. mellifera lived six million years ago – at about the same time as the last common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans was running around in Africa. A. cerana and A. mellifera probably became separated by an ancient period of desertification in the Middle East, confining what became A. cerana to...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.