Study reveals honeybees originated in northern Europe 780,000 years ago

New analysis upends the traditional understanding of bees' origins.
Abdul-Rahman Oladimeji Bello
Honey Bee

A study has unveiled that honey bees might have originated in northern Europe, challenging the long-held belief that they evolved from Africa or Asia. The findings, published in the journal Scientific Reports, have turned the traditional understanding of the bees' origins on its head, leaving researchers buzzing with excitement.

Professor Steve Carr from the Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada, who led the study, commented, "The accepted wisdom is that European honey bees evolved from Africa or Asia. It turns the standard picture on its head." The research indicates that western honey bees (Apis mellifera) emerged in northern Europe approximately 780,000 years ago.

From there, they gradually spread through southeast Europe into East Africa and Arabia around 660,000 years ago, eventually making their way south into sub-Saharan Africa roughly 192,000 years ago.

To trace the bees' journey across the globe, Carr delved into the DNA of 78 bees, encompassing 22 subspecies of the western honey bee. By comparing genetic sequences from different subspecies, he identified the bees' most closely related populations, unveiling their migration patterns over time.

Analogous to a family tree, the DNA sequences evolved as the bees ventured into distinct regions, allowing Carr to retrace their path. His analysis demonstrated that the honey bees' origin lay in northern Europe, with subsequent changes occurring as they migrated southward.

One notable strength of Carr's research lies in the extensive inclusion of subspecies and bee genomes, surpassing previous studies attempting to unravel the origins of western honey bees.

Kathleen Dogantzis, a honey bee genetics expert at York University in Canada, remarked, "More subspecies is definitely always better as it helps uncover different patterns we haven't seen before." While Dogantzis disagreed with Carr's conclusions, she acknowledged that his results were ultimately in line with studies suggesting West Asia or North Africa as the bee's birthplace. She attributed the differing interpretations to minor discrepancies in analyzing the same key data patterns.

Interpreting the new evidence

Dogantzis emphasized that the study does not discredit the decades of previous research but rather offers an alternative hypothesis and opinion on interpreting the data. In the quest to settle the debate, she advocated for seeking the most consistent answer by accumulating more data from a broader range of western honey bee subspecies, some of which remain undefined.

Carr highlights the significance of understanding their evolution regardless of the ultimate truth about the bees' origin. "Bees are very important. They make honey; they make wax; they are also pollinators," he explained. "Different subspecies make better honey than others or don't sting you as badly, so if we can understand how they relate to each other, that can help us pick the right ones for different tasks."