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South African Worker Honeybee Can Clone Itself a Million Times and Take Over Hive as Queens

bo1982 / IStock.com.

bo1982 / IStock.com.

Since Cape worker honeybees perfectly clone themselves, each new offspring remains as genetically healthy as her mother.

With over 9 lakh different species of living insects known to humans, the world of anthropods is full of amazement. While cloning of human beings seems to be an idea right out of a Sci-Fi flick, one would be left thrilled to know that it is quite functional in the insect realm. A South African subspecies of honeybees can clone themselves. Besides this, they practice it more than millions of times over a period of 30 years.

The female workers of the Cape honeybees, which are native to South Africa, have this unique ability to clone themselves. The worker bees continue on their genome without the need for copulation by following asexual reproduction – parthenogenesis. They reproduce offsprings genetically identical to them while avoiding recombination (the reproduction process during which genetic material gets mixed up).

As per New Scientist, asexual reproduction can be lethal in honeybees as one-third of the genes become inbred, and the larvae don’t survive. Since Cape worker honeybees perfectly clone themselves, each new offspring remains as genetically healthy as her mother. Benjamin Oldroyd, one of the lead authors of the study at the University of Sydney, elaborated that one line of bees has been re-cloning since 1990, with the same individual cloning hundreds of millions of times.

He added that the clones can prove problematic for the health of a colony. Since the queen bee is the only one in the colony that reproduces, the worker bees perform all the other functions to sustain the hive. But if worker bees start to produce their clones, the balance of the hive will get disrupted, making it dysfunctional. In this case, the worker clones maintain strong genetic integrity without breeding.

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Oldroyd and his team even compared the genomes of Cape worker bees and Cape virgin queens and their offspring to find if they also produce the perfect clones. The study suggested that asexually produced offspring of the queen showed 100 times greater levels of recombination than the cloned offspring of the worker bees. Over time, workers have evolved a mutation to effectively prevent genetic recombination and produce perfect copies of their mothers.

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first published:June 10, 2021, 16:12 IST