A Bee Cloned Itself Millions of Times Over the Last 30 Years

The dysfunctional bee just goes on cloning and cloning until the hive is destroyed.
Brad Bergan
A close-up of a different kind of Honey Bee.Heather Broccard-Bell / iStock

Sexual reproduction is the closest thing most living beings have to immortality. But there's a creature on this Earth who takes it one step closer to the ideal.

Worker honeybees of the South African variety can clone themselves, one of whom did so, many millions of times, for 30 years, according to a recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

This isn't, strictly speaking, eternal life. But it's the next best thing. And it's also deadly to the perfect order of a healthy beehive.

For some bees, conventional sex is also inherently inbreeding behavior

While asexual reproduction, also called parthenogenesis, is fairly common among insects, creating offspring that with identical genes to the parent isn't so common. The difference lies in how genetic material is typically mixed up during reproduction, in a biological process called recombination. This means that even in asexual reproduction, where only one parent is needed, the spawn's DNA is usually not the same. But female workers of the South African Cape honeybee (Apis mellifera capensis) have become capable of effectively cloning themselves without experiencing the changes typically seen in reproduction. "It's quite remarkable," said the University of Sydney's Benjamin Oldroyd, in a New Scientist report.

And there are benefits to cloning oneself to create offspring. In ordinary asexual reproduction, the process can lead to death for honeybees, since roughly one-third of their genes end up inbred, causing the larvae to die before maturing, explained Oldroyd in the report. But the Cape area's honeybee workers have found a way to procreate without sacrificing their genetic health. In fact, one of them has re-cloned itself hundreds of millions of times since 1990.

However, this doesn't bode well for the well-being of the larger bee colony, warned Oldroyd. The queen bee is usually the only one that reproduces, commanding other bees to do the work of constantly building on and restoring the health of the colony. In this scenario, once worker bees start cloning themselves, which typically goes down after a significant disruption or disturbance of the hive, the rigidity of the bee hierarchy is put into question. At times, clones have developed into a queen of their own, leading to increased levels of dysfunction. "Eventually the workers just sort of hang around laying eggs not doing any work," explained Oldroyd. "The colony dies, and [the cloning workers] spread to the next colony."

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Female worker bees can create perfect copies of themselves

However, once these workers have slid their way into the next colony, they go on laying eggs! And this not only disrupts the new colony. It can also seize control, laying waste to the pristine order one expects from a clockwork beehive. Chaos truly reigns. "They kill about 10 percent of South African colonies every year," lamented Oldroyd in the New Scientist report. "It's like a transmissible social cancer." Intrigued by the strong genetic integrity of worker clones who avoid the pitfalls of inbreeding, Oldroyd and his team did a compare and contrast analysis of Cape worker bees between virgin queens and their offspring. 

The team found that Cape queens typically reproduce sexually (with a partner), which means forcing them to make the magic happen asexually required fitting the insects with a strip of surgical tape glued via nail varnish, to enact a kind of insect contraception. The female worker bees still met up with male ones amid mating flights, so they laid their eggs anyway. The research team then genotyped one queen and 25 of her larvae, in addition to four worker bees and 63 of their asexually produced larvae. The results showed that queen offspring produced asexually exhibited levels of genetic recombination 100 times greater than levels seen in cloned worker-bee offspring. The latter's offspring were basically perfect reproductions of their mothers, said Oldroyd.

A lot of people want to live forever, and many of those who don't would prefer not to give up their life until they've had their fill of it. Sadly, there's no clear way to adapt these worker bee skills for human purposes, but it still shows the incredible ingenuity of evolution, and how, even when its own mechanism of continuing a species through time is threatened by inbred genetics, life finds a way. Even if it's the same way. Hundreds of millions of times. And it endangers all of your friends.

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